Love Death + Robots, Netflix’s cutting-edge science-fiction animation anthology, returns this week for another set of startling tales ranging from turbulent, creature-filled seas to surface of the moon and every reality in between. But that breadth of material does not preclude the show from returning to some familiar characters and environments.
Its first sequel, “Three Robots: Exit Strategies,” reunites viewers with K-VRC (Josh Brener), XBOT 4000 (Gary Anthony Williams), and 11-45-G (the Kendra text-to-speech program) from the first volume of Love, Death + Robots as they continue their vacation among the ruins of human civilization. The short debuted earlier this week, and it represents just one of the new volume’s films Rotten Tomatoes had the opportunity to discuss with executive producers Tim Miller and Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Beyond the return to the Three Robots, the producers also talked about David Fincher’s debut directorial effort for the series, Miller’s unending commitment to The Goon, and Love, Death + Robot’s role in presenting different sorts of science fiction.
The new “Robots” short, written by John Scalzi — who also wrote the Volume I short and the original short story – sees the three robots investigating the various methods mankind employed to escape various calamities. The situations, proposed solutions, and failures certainly feel timely. But that might not have been the key reason Love, Death + Robots returned to the characters. “I don’t think [John] would’ve allowed us not to do another ‘Three Robots’ story,” Miller said. “And he is the biggest cheerleader of the show by far.”
“John is amazing,” added Nelson. “We’ve used so many of John’s stories through all the seasons. The characters are beloved and we love John. So, it was a no-brainer.” In addition to “Three Robots: Exit Strategies,” Volume III includes contributions from writers like Philip Gellatt and Joe Abercrombie, directors like Emily Dean Robert Bisi, Andy Lyon, and, of course, Miller and Nelson themselves. As in previous seasons, the shorts are based upon stories from authors including Michael Swanwick, Justin Coates, Alan Baxter, new addition Bruce Sterling, and others.
But one interesting addition to the directors’ roster is Zodiac’s David Fincher. Although an executive producer on the series from the beginning, he makes his directorial debut with Bad Traveling. Based on a Neal Asher short story, it sees what happens when a group of sailors must make a deal with a hungry and murderous creature of the deep. Featuring the voices of Troy Baker, Kevin Jackson, and Elodie Yung, it is an intriguing mix of stylized characters and detailed, almost photo-realistic backgrounds. Even the monster at the center of the story seems to come from a place of reality. According to Nelson, that sense of realism was necessary to “be completely immersed in this world where people are riding this amazing ship over these waves with monster sharks and gigantic crustaceans.”
She added the ability to generate an intense amount of detail was also key to Fincher’s approach.
“He’s all about the tactility and the moisture and the sweat. The greasiness,” she explained. “And so that needed to be shown to the full degree.”
(Photo by Netflix)
Of course, that sort of realism on the faces of the characters can lead to the infamous uncanny valley. So the human characters appear more stylized than the environment which surrounds them. “Stylizing the characters makes them both interesting visually and artistic, but it also doesn’t pose the danger of getting in the way of the story if you drift into the uncanny valley,” Miller said. It also continues the program’s overall ethos regarding computer generated 3D animation and its varied approaches.
The dance between the photo-realism modern animation techniques offer and the stylization of more traditional methods is often at the forefront of director Alberto Mielgo’s work for the program. His Volume I short, “The Witness” turns that tension between approaches into a literal dance even as its principle characters are engaged in a chase. Although, Mielgo — who also spoke to us about his new Love, Death + Robots short, “Jibaro” — wouldn’t say photo-realism is what he’s aiming for.
“I’ve always been depicting the real world based on the physics of light,” he explained. “I would say that it is a ‘real impressionism,’ perhaps, because I remove a lot of details that we don’t need. Pores, grains, wrinkles [of photo-real characters] — you basically saturate the brain with information.” Nevertheless, the fluidity and authenticity of motion in both “The Witness” and “Jibaro” will still startle those who see either short.
“Jibaro,” written by Mielgo and loosely based on various myths, is also a chase. This time between a siren and a deaf knight. His immunity to her abilities fascinates her and the results are, well, a Mielgo specialty in terms of how the characters move and interact.
“I am obsessed with body mechanics and with movement,” he explained. “I started in the industry at Dreamworks, working in a very realistic sort of animation. And it is incredible how you can trick the eye when something moves realistically and when the weight and the actions are correct.” He noted this precision is present in Dreamworks and Disney computer-generated 3D productions, but “The Witness” and “Jibaro” feature correct human proportions and strike the mind of the viewer in a very different way. As he put it, “Because the proportions are actually realistic, it’s even more shocking. And then you are like, ‘Wow. How did they do this?’”
Directors like Mielgo and the breadth of the stories featured in Love, Death + Robots speak to the wild diversity of material contained in the science fiction genre. Other stories in the new volume feature an astronaut lost in a drug trip, a group of US soldiers unprepared for a new, unspeakable threat, ancient powers awakening when the modern world interrupts their sleep, an investigation into an insectoid species, and at least two apocalypses viewed from very different angles.
“I think what’s great about this show is it’s really shown that adult animation is a viable thing; that you can have a very high quality show with very, very strange stories that aren’t necessarily mainstream in any way,” Nelson said. “[It’s] very challenging, very violent, very adult and people will watch it. And you don’t have to keep making the case every time you try and sell a show like that.”
Love, Death + Robots also has the anthology format on its side, which means it can vary tone, intent, and even length in a way a feature film or episodic series cannot.
“I do think that all of those formats have their own value, and a series is different from a movie, which is different from anthology,” Miller said when asked about what the show can do for science fiction. “All of them can coexist and they perform different kinds of functions in the world of science fiction,” he continued. “There are some stories that are meant to be short stories. There are some that are sprawling space operas and need a series or a movie. And to each it should each be what the DNA of the story or work demands.”
Miller believes there is space for all of it.
“In Love, Death + Robots, I love short stories as I love longer stories as well. I just feel like there’s a whole world of potential there that wasn’t being made use of and we’ve been able to bring them to the public’s eye. And I think that’s great for science fiction and animation,” he said.
And it may eventually lead to something Miller and Fincher have been trying to get off the ground for years: an feature-length animated adaptation of Eric Powell’s comic book series, The Goon. It tells the tale of the Goon (to be voiced by Ron Pearlman) and Franky (Paul Giamatti), a pair of ne’er-do-wells trying to get by in a world of monsters and mobsters. “The Goon will happen. The Goon has never been forgotten,” Miller said.
Back in 2010, both he, Fincher, and Giamatti made a memorable (and hilarious) presentation at that year’s Comic-Con International: San Diego. Two years later, Miller’s Blur Studios initiated a Kickstarter campaign to produce a story reel. Since the Comic-Con appearances and the Kickstarter, Miller directed Deadpool and Terminator: Dark Fate and created Love, Death + Robots, but never stopped trying to secure a deal for The Goon. It finally found a home at 20th Century Fox in 2019, but the Disney merger put an end to the deal. Despite the delays and other projects, he vowed to make the film happen. “It gets more possible the more the world becomes accustomed and comfortable with adult animation,” he said. “The Goon is very adult and it was really hard to make that case when we started out. It gets less hard every day and we will not give up. Eric has been staunchly behind the time it takes and I promise you, we will get there.”