Creating Voltron Legendary Defender

Story editor Tim Hedrick and Design Supervisor Christine Bian give us a behind the scenes look at creating the universe of the new Voltron.

It’s not easy to bring back a beloved franchise. Past attempts at new Voltron series have all proven that. DreamWorks’ Voltron Legendary Defender, now streaming on Netflix, serves as the perfect blueprint of how to update a franchise. We spoke the story editor and design supervisor behind the new series to get an idea what went into bringing Voltron back.

First up is Christine Bian, design supervisor and one of the main people behind the design of the new Voltron. She gives us the inside scoop on how she researched the iconic franchise, getting started in the business, and why her favorite Lion is also the most traumatic!

Some of our readers may not know what a design supervisor is, so can you give us a quick summary of that?

As a design supervisor I’m responsible for helping create the artwork that defines the look and feel of the show, as well as overseeing the work of the rest of the team to make sure it’s all falling in line with our unique visual style!

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What was this process in designing this show? Did you start with Voltron itself?

The first thing that’s worth mentioning is how excited we all were at the opportunity to work on such an iconic property. That so many people already loved and had already captured so many hearts. I personally have always really loved the giant robot genre. I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m gonna work on Voltron!’ I remember in college there was this old game/video store near my dorm and in the window there was a VHS copy of Voltron and I still remember thinking ‘oh my gosh, that 80’s art is awesome!’

When I first came on, the first couple of weeks we worked on Voltron and the Lions. During the early stages of development one of the biggest concerns was honoring the source material so a lot thought and consideration went into how we were gonna put our own stamp on such an already beloved design.

So how does the design process work in this sort of case? Are there a zillion drafts of all the different versions of Voltron? How did you narrow it down to what we eventually got?

We went through many many many iterations and we had a lot of conversations between Joaquim, Lauren, Ryu, and myself. It was really fun in the beginning during that brainstorming phase, we were all doing preliminary sketches. We were all thinking ‘we can go this way’ ‘ we can go that that way’. I think Joaquim and Lauren already had a pretty strong vision of the kind of Voltron they wanted to build and they wanted to see. Even still we went through tons of sketches before we locked into a final design. Everyone kinda pitched in and contributed a little bit to the pot.

When you’re designing something like this, do you have to keep in mind, “Oh this might become a toy in the future so we have to design it a certain way”?

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That, for me, as a designer, was the biggest challenge. Since we were building it in CG as well, it wasn’t just going to be a 2D drawn element. There was a level of reality that we need to include in the design since we couldn’t cheat a lot of it and it had to actually be functional. When it comes to designing giant robots, no one has quite perfected it like Japanese mecha designers.

We looked to a lot of inspiration from properties like Gundam and stuff like that. We learned a lot from those designs as far as how joints work. Especially with Voltron it was tough because he’s not just a giant robot. He has to be able to be reverse engineered into five giant robot lions.

In the beginning I didn’t talk directly with anybody from consumer products or toys or anything like that. We definitely kept it in the back of our heads that our version of Voltron had to be able to work as the toy. We were kinda give those parameters from the get go. We definitely wanted to keep it simple and fun and not too Transformers-y. You know the new Transformers. They’re super cool but they have tons of little details and parts and I think that wasn’t quite the vibe we wanted to go for. The original Voltron was big and bulky with cool big shapes and a great overall silhouette. Those were all things we loved and wanted to keep.

When you’re working on not just Voltron itself, but on the rest of the production, what was the process?

In the beginning it was just me and Joaquim and Lauren. I was there doing the groundwork, setting up a lot of the style guides for the background design. I’ve always been a big fan of sci-fi so I looked to a lot of games that I liked in the past. I had a lot of conversations with Lauren and Joaquim and Ryu. We all came up something that we thought we would like and be sustainable through the episodes.

When you were designing the show did you watch the original Voltron? Did you watch GoLion? The other versions of Voltron to see how those designs looked?

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I watched the original series. I didn’t watch Vehicle Voltron. But I did watch parts of GoLion as well. I have to say that I watched them as homework for this show though, I feel like I can’t be like, ‘oh yeah I was a fan from day one!’ It would be poser of me to say that.

Cast and crew at the Voltron art show. Photo courtesy of Lauren Montgomery.

What was it like going to that Voltron art show last week?

It was pretty magical. It was really cool seeing so many people. It was so awesome to see so many people excited doing art of our show, for our show, it was surreal. It was so gratifying to see everyone’s hard work coming together. I think we’re in a really lucky situation where we’re working on something like Voltron. And then having DreamWorks supporting us with all these events like the art show. It’s an incredible opportunity.

How did you get your start in this business?

After I graduated from college I was pretty lucky, I got an internship at a small gaming company up in Seattle, Washington. That’s where I’m from. I did odds and ends kind of jobs. I know a little bit of Maya, a little bit of other 3D packages. I started off doing modeling of props and little things like that.

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After getting my feet wet there I really wanted to be serious about doing conceptual art and design work as my main focus. So I did some freelance jobs here and there and then I moved to LA from Seattle. I started taking classes at this awesome place that offers classes for people like me, it’s called the Concept Design Academy. It’s in Pasadena, so shout out to them!

I started taking classes there and they offer classes that are focused toward people that want to do entertainment design. It’s cool because a lot of the classes are taught by industry professionals so everything’s really relevant and current. That school is actually how I got my first job at Nickelodeon on Legend of Korra because the owner of this school knew the producer who was working on Korra at the time and this producer was like, “hey, do you have any students that you think might be a good fit for our show?’ And the guys name is Kevin, he contacted me, ‘hey, you should bring your portfolio’ and he set up this job fair thing. That’s kind of where it all happened!

I also saw you have your blog where you draw a lot of animals, what’s your fascination with that?

Basically that’s what I like to draw in my spare time. I’m really into animal drawing. I just took a couple of great classes about animal anatomy actually, so that’s kind of my side hobby. I like to go home and read about muscles and skeletons.

I think a lot of that honestly informed the design of the Voltron lions. I mean, quadrupedal robots are tough in general, so I’m really glad I had at least a tiny bit of background in quadrupedal anatomy before I started so I could kinda draw from that knowledge to help me.

Favorite Lion and why?

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I knew you were gonna ask this so I already prepared myself! My favorite Lion is the Blue Lion because he was the first Lion and he was the most traumatic in terms of design. Because he was the first Lion, he was the guinea pig Lion. We did so many iterations drawing him. I pulled out probably half a head figuring out the design. So whenever people ask me that I always say he’s like my favorite son. I call him Bluey.

Check out the next page for our chat with Tim Hedrick, story editor for the new series.

Tim Hedrick is well known in nerd circles. He wrote some of the most beloved episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Tim gives us insight into the gestation of the Voltron story, updating the original characters, and how’d be running into things as a Lion pilot.

When did you first hear you’d be working on the new Voltron series?

It a little over two years ago. I think I started here April of two years ago. It’s been a long ride.

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What are some of the first ideas that jumped out when you started to create this universe?

Really I had to go back and watch the old show. Because I remembered Voltron as a kid. I enjoyed watching it but I couldn’t remember if there was anything kind of from the past incarnation that we were gonna have to stick with. In terms of major plots, because as a kid maybe it went over my head. When I went back to watch I realized, ‘not really”. It was pretty much the way I remembered it.

We were pretty free to just get going on it. We kicked around the idea that someone had been captured and had come back with this information and that became Shiro’s arc through the first set of episodes. Aside from that, we just started trying to figure out where we wanted to go with what became the Galra empire, which had several different names throughout the history of the series, but we went with Galra. Worked from there and talked about what everyones motivation was and just let it evolve naturally.

How much research did you have to do? Did you just watch the original Voltron?

We watched GoLion. I really enjoyed that. Cause I’d never seen it and wow, this makes sense! It filled in a lot of the blanks. We went back and researched all that and DreamWorks had a bunch of Voltron comic books so I looked at some of those. There’s just a wealth of universe. I hadn’t watched any of Voltron Force so I took a look at that. We went back through the whole back catalog.

What were some the big things that jumped out at you that you needed to keep?

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We really wanted to keep the original core characters. Voltron Force got away from that. When you start with a franchise that is thirty years old you kinda have to ask yourself, what’s the intent? Who is this for? What’s the worth that comes with that? When you just totally reboot and start with new characters, with new vehicles, and new everything, you’re kinda getting rid of the value you had by remaking Voltron. You’re throwing away everything people loved from the original. You want to keep all the original lions and original robots and freshen it up and make it look great and make the story resonate in a way that modern audiences expect. But not throw away any of the core.

Voltron is all about teamwork. That’s the whole show. You start with a team. You start building the team. Where do these guys meet and how do they come together and how do they find out about these abilities they’re gonna have and opportunities to jump into this intergalactic war. I think if you follow their character arcs you’ll get to a good place. 

The show has a really great sense of humor about it. It wasn’t, ‘oh let’s stop and make a joke’, it’s more situational that’s organic to the characters. Can you talk about choosing that direction to go with the show?

I think that comedy does not undercut drama. I think it sets it up and makes things even more dramatic. When you’re doing a show like Voltron, on the face of it is just so ridiculous that you have five robot lions that create one giant robot and you’re fighting intergalactic forces. If you play that just straight it ends up being campy. So to have your characters just to start talking about the ridiculous situations they’re in, I think that makes them more realistic as characters and makes their situations more realistic and dramatic as they play out.

We had an incredible team of writers, May Chan and Josh Hamilton worked on those opening episodes with me. They’re really funny and it’s only natural for us to start goofing around and making jokes throughout the series. So that was a big part of the fun of doing it. You can’t just have this super straight space story and expect people to sit through. I think we’re kinda past that as a science fiction viewing society.

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Something I notice is the show isn’t super reference heavy. There wasn’t a single moment in the premiere where you had to reference something specific from the original Voltron for the fans. What lead to staying away from those heavy references to the past?

I’m just thinking, we have such a long way to go with the storyline. That’s the great advantage we had going in knowing that DreamWorks was committed to making many many episodes of Voltron.We didn’t need to cram anything in. Also, we want to be able to appeal to a whole new group of viewers who may not even know what Voltron is. Quite frankly, our core audience has never heard of Voltron. Probably their older brothers uncles dad are fans but we don’t need to be catering the show to them.

This is it’s own show and it can stand on it’s own two feet and people will love it for what it is. And there will be plenty of opportunities for Easter eggs and they come. There’s a zillion of them. People who are like ‘I can’t believe they didn’t do this or that’ just wait cause it’s all coming out.

How do you feel the only negative complaint that’s really out there is you didn’t have the formation sequence be just like the original show?

Yeah, the whole dynotherms connected thing. You know, it didn’t really fit with the direction we were going. I understand people are huge fans of the original and they want to see that stuff. It’s a choice we made and we never looked back.

The characters in this series are so fleshed out whereas in the original show they’re more one note. Was it a matter of extrapolating out from the original characters or just making up your own ideas for them?

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The characters in the original are like, here’s the good looking guy, here’s another good looking guy, here’s the big guy and here’s the little guy. Kind of shape based characterization. There was a lot of room to really expand on that and to give some deep back story to a couple of the people that will drive the plot and personalize it to them.

Pidge is out there looking for his family that is lost in space, that kinda anchors the audience with this whole quest when Shiro comes back with these memories he doesn’t understand and he’s trying to put all that together. That just makes the adventures that they have week to week more personal to the characters.

Then you’ve got Lance who is kind of a blank slate. Or Hunk, these guys who really didn’t have much character from the original show so it’s open door to do whatever you want. I think a lot of that comes from acting. Tyler Labine and Jeremy Shada are both really awesome voice actors, very funny, and you know you can go to them and give them jokes and they’re gonna nail it. So you tend to write in that direction with them so they become the more funny characters on the team. It’s a combination of a lot of things.

Making an animated show, you have so many people working it, it’s really a mistake to not utilize every single person’s talent as part of it. Instead of trying to cramp your view down the middle, you’ve got to use everybody. It’s an all hands on deck undertaking.

So you worked on Legend of Korra and that show really broke ground with having Korra and Asami get together at the end of the series. Will we be seeing any LGBT content in Voltron?

I think I’ll just let that play out as we go. No comment on that question.

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What is your favorite character dynamic on the show?

I really like the Hunk, Lance, Pidge, Galaxy Garrison team. They’re just a core group of misfits, they’re really fun. The thing about Shiro is he’s so sensible and competent, he’s the leader that sometimes isn’t the character you want to see as much as the character who’s gonna screw everything up and is barely holding it together. I love the idea that Hunk thought he was gonna be this engineer who was just gonna be on Earth working on things that go up into space and he gets launched up in there and he can’t come home.

I love the idea that Lance thinks he’s the very best pilot there is but clearly is not. He has this whole feud with Keith that’s playing in his mind that Keith doesn’t even recognize. He’s such an ego maniac and pseudo ladies man that’s he a lot of fun to play with. And then Pidge, is just this little kid who is along for this crazy ride. To see the whole experience through his eyes as they just go week to week from battling monsters and going out into unknown regions of space, that’s really fun to. The fact he’s the brains of the operation is a fun dynamic. I really like the interplay of all the characters on our show.

Coran is a scene stealer. Rhys Darby is a comedic genius and he’s great in every scene he’s ever in. The problem with having him on the show is that you kind of just want to have a whole show about Coran but we gotta keep him to the side cause he will steal every scene.

How is the upcoming comic book tied to the continuity of the series?

I have to say, I’m very excited for this because I was working on it two months ago and now it’s coming out. That’s a dream come true that it’s happening so fast. The way we set it up is, there’s a break in between some episodes later in this first drop. There’s a little bit of a pause that we have that we could get the Paladins out of the main storyline without messing with how the main story plays out.

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So it happens in this little pocket we made for it, it’s focused around this training exercise that Coran takes the pilots on. Then it all goes wrong. It’s just this set of really epic adventures and battles that probably would have broken the bank on the series. In the comic we can just top ourselves and that’s been a lot of fun. Those are coming out great. They’re really fun and funny and hopefully people will enjoy those.

Favorite Lion and why?

I think I like Hunk’s Lion. It seems like the Lion you’d probably want to fly if you were gonna fly a Lion because it can take a lot of damage. I feel like I probably wouldn’t be the best Lion pilot that there is, so I’d probably be running into things. I’m gonna say Yellow cause it’s the most forgiving.

We would like to extend a huge thanks to both Christine Bian and Tim Hedrick for taking the time to interview with us. 

Want more Voltron? Be sure to check out our interview with Voltron Executive Producers Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery.

Not enough? How about our chat with the voice actress for Allura and Pidge?

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DreamWorks’ Voltron Legendary Defender is streaming now on Netflix.

Shamus Kelley wonders if one of those easter eggs will include Stealth Voltron. Or a signed jpeg. Follow him on Twitter!