Interview: 'Voltron: Legendary Defender' Showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos And Lauren Montgomery On Updating A Classic

Voltron is back. Dreamworks Animation has produced the series Voltron: Legendary Defender for Netflix. In the brand new high definition series, five pilots once again obtain individual lion robots that can combine to form Voltron.

We got to speak with Voltron: Legendary Defender producers Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Mongomery at the Dreamworks Offices. Both self-professed Voltron fans, this series was a dream project for them. 

The mouths move more like dialogue but the animation is still not too smooth. I'm sure it's much more sophisticated than the animation of the '80s, but was it important to keep some of that look while improving things like the mouths?

Dos Santos: Yeah, we've sort of been saying this all along but the shows that were made in Japan that we watched growing up, they're just part of our artistic DNA now. It's not a decision: hey, we're going to set out to make something that is not as animated as we could make it. It's just part of the way we do things. It was developed through the '70s and '80s as cost-cutting efforts, but as our generation watched those programs, staging for that sort of stuff and the way those things are animated just became the way we see things.

Is there going to be a Japanese version of Voltron: Legendary Defender?

Montgomery: I have no idea.

Dos Santos: I don't know that it'll be localized for Japan at this point. I think that all goes through Netflix.

Is the humor and banter between the guys more sophisticated now?

Dos Santos: For sure.

Montgomery: One of the greatest things I think about our writing team is that they have a very natural way of doing humor. There's a lot of humor in a lot of action-adventure shows that Joaquim and I will kind of cringe at. There'll be a lot of punny things but not necessarily good puns. One of the awesome things that I feel was very present in Avatar: The Last Airbender and Korra which benefited from also having Tim [Hedrick] and Josh [Hamilton]'s presence was that there was just a really kind of fun natural sense of humor. It would go over the top at times but it could get very serious and intense when it needed to.

Dos Santos: Subtle and fun.

Montgomery: But the humor comes from the characters and it's not necessarily jokes that are forced into situations.

Dos Santos: We've got sort of a blanket line that we use to describe what we see as sort of generic humor in an everyday kind of cartoon. We say if the guy's fighting a big skeleton guy and says, "I've got a bone to pick with you." It's like, hmm, really? If you made fun of the fact that you just said that, then you've got something.

Montgomery: Yeah, we just try to make the comedy feel natural. I think it's just where comedy has evolved to over time. Even live-action comedies now, you'll see the comedies that are really succeeding are the ones that just have people kind of improv-ing versus people just saying jokes that were written for them.

Do you get to further their personalities a little more? Like Lance is a smartass, Hunk gets sick a lot.

Montgomery: For sure. We wanted to give very deep personality to the characters, make them stand on their own. We didn't want to just stick any one person in a corner like this is your job, you make this joke and that's really all you do. Even though you may have seen one side of them in the first three episodes, they will evolve and they will become different. The things they do will have an effect on them. Ultimately, we still want to just start them in a much more deep figured out place.

Dos Santos: And the actors bring a ton to it too. So the actors can read a line as it reads straight off the page, or they can bring their own thing to it. They do that a lot of the time which I think lends an authenticity to what they're saying.

Did you have to decide on the scale? Like how much bigger is a lion to the pilot, and then how much bigger is Voltron?

Dos Santos: Mm-hmm. That was all part of our initial development pitches when we were meeting with the execs and stuff. We had a pilot compared to the paw of one of the lions, one of the paws of the lions compared to Voltron. We put in where Optimus Prime stands up to Voltron. He could step on Optimus Prime if he wanted to. All that good stuff to try to sell how big and awesome and massive Voltron is.

Are you going to reuse the animation of the formation, or do a new formation each time?

Dos Santos: Yeah, right now we were so stoked with the way that turned out that that's pretty much our standardized formation sequence. We've got different edits of it and stuff, but to ask for renders of that repeatedly becomes a bit of a nightmare, production-wise.

Did the lions have distinct attributes in the original? Like the Red is more volatile.

Montgomery: Maybe on a lesser level but they definitely had certain qualities. I remember even in the original GoLion intro, it kind of explained each lion was the spirit animal of a certain thing. They maybe didn't really have personalities as much because they were really much more like cars. You got the key and you could drive it. What we've tried to do with our lions is give them a very small amount of sentience where they can bond and choose their pilot. That requires that they have some sort of personality, which just differentiates them and makes them unique, allows kids to pick a favorite lion when it's more than just the favorite color that's gone into it.

Dos Santos: And it makes it special when our characters are able to interact with it. It's sort of like the lion chose them as well.

Voltron

Are you dealing with a little more individual lion action than the original series, where it seemed like they formed Voltron all the time?

Dos Santos: Every episode. For sure, that was one of our goals, to make sure that the paladins did awesome stuff on their own, the lions do incredible action sequences on their own and when Voltron rolls out, you know stuff just got really serious. So Voltron only comes out for really, really big stuff. He's not prominent in every episode so that was something that we went into knowingly saying we want when Voltron shows up for it to resonate that kids know serious stuff is going on.

Does Voltron have any new powers in this incarnation?

Dos Santos: He does. He gets cool new weapons and upgrades as the series goes on.

Montgomery: We introduce some new things. Watch the show to see what those are.

Dos Santos: It's all the stuff that you'd want to see from a show like this. He's awesome. He's an awesome warrior.

We saw Zarkon. Could we see any other classic Voltron villains like Lotor?

Dos Santos: We got Haggar standing right next to Zarkon.

Montgomery: We definitely bring back some of the classics from the original. We don't want to give away any spoilers as of now, but we're fans of the original so we chose what we could from there to bring back.

Did you get to develop your own new aliens for this?

Dos Santos: 100%.

Montgomery: Absolutely. That was one of the funnest parts of it was just in the original, a lot of the aliens that we would see would oftentimes be very humanoid and they would just wear maybe a funny outfit. Everyone on Arus was just kind of humans but they had little kind of space outfits.

Dos Santos: Right, or they'd be Roman themed.

Montgomery: So we just really wanted to push our alien and our creature designs because we could go everywhere. You could go cute. You could go menacing and dangerous.

Dos Santos: You could go menacing and dangerous with a really placid personality. You get to play all those themes so can't judge a book by its cover. That's something that comes up a lot.

Since it's streaming continuously on Netflix, will individual episodes have an intro theme song?

Dos Santos: I think they all have a unified intro that will play across, but I think we have a serialized story arc that goes over the entire first season. Within that, each one of those episodes works as standalone as well. You'll be able to follow the story. Some of the episodes pick up right where the other one left off and some of them you assume that days or a couple weeks went by in between.

Is it a version of the classic theme song?

Dos Santos: It is not right now. We decided to go in a new direction with the theme song which I know will potentially get the ire of some hardcore old school fans, but I think they won't be disappointed on the whole. We've paid homage so much to that era of animation that we all grew up with.

Montgomery: Ultimately the way we chose to go with the music was just to different from the original theme song that I think if we had ended up going with it, it would've felt a little out of place.

Dos Santos: It would've felt a little forced.

You were fans of the original series. Could you imagine if you had streaming back then to watch every single episode at once?

Dos Santos: Oh my God. I wouldn't be here right now.

Montgomery: I used streaming to rewatch every episode. Yeah, I think I probably would have never left my house.

Dos Santos: I can't imagine, just as somebody who's making the show, that we're potentially going to get feedback the day after this thing drops about the entire first season.

Montgomery: We're so used to our whole lives of episodes coming out one per week. I still feel like, "And then they'll see the first episode and then we'll get to tease the second one." No, it's all going to happen in the same day. I think my brain isn't really going to figure that out until it actually happens.

Dos Santos: I was just saying to somebody, I was obsessed with this film called Buckaroo Bonzai growing up and I rented that film every day one summer. Finally the guy at my video store just gave it to me. He said, "Dude, just take it, man, because you have it at your house every day." I would just show back up, like, "I'm going to take this one back."

Of course the original was five male pilots. Did you ever consider gender switching any of them?

Dos Santos: Yes.

Montgomery: For sure, but ultimately we made the choices we made for reasons. Ultimately, we just ask people to give it a chance. If they're upset that there's not a female on the team right now, just give it a chance. We definitely have female representation in the show. They bring things in different ways. Watch the show.

Dos Santos: All of our characters evolve over the course of the series. Princess Allura I think in this iteration really is kind of the key to a lot of this. She understands the importance of Voltron more than any of our other characters do.

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Voltron: Legendary Defender premieres Friday, June 10 on Netflix.