Voltron Legendary Defender Producers Talk Creative Process

Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery discuss how they brought the new Voltron series to life.

From days of long ago, from uncharted regions of the universe, comes a legend. The legend of DreamWorks’ Voltron Legendary Defender. Premering June 10th on Netflix, we had the chance to talk with Executive Producers Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery (Legend of Korra) about the creation of this new series and what fans, both old and new, can expect.

How were you first approached about this new Voltron series?

Montgomery: At the time we were working on Legend of Korra and it was starting to wind down and we started hearing rumors about DreamWorks partnering up with Netflix and they were making all these new shows and they had bought the Classic Media library which contained Voltron. That kinda piqued our interests.

We were kind of like, “What if we could do Voltron? What would we do with it? Oh my god.” There’s so much potential for improvement. It just so happened things worked out in our favor. Mark Taylor, who works at Nickelodeon, he was now heading up production at DreamWorks on the television side of things. Him and Joaquim had a meeting.

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Dos Santos: It was sort of a general meeting just to talk about possibilities because he knew that we were winding down on Korra and they were staffing up. It was just a general meeting and at the end of the meeting he brought up Voltron. My ears pirqued up and I pitched Lauren and I as showrunners on it and the ball just got rolling from there.

In a previous interview, the president of World Events Productions, Bob Koplar, had spoken about how DreamWorks had came to him with a bunch of specific questions like why five lions? Why does Voltron have a cross on his chest? Stuff like that. Were you a part of those discussions?

Dos Santos: That may have been a little before we came on. We were part of the development process and those might have been super preliminary, just getting those questions out of the way before work proper began on the show. Those were questions we had honestly. The five lions thing is a given. You need the limbs and a torso and the head, etc.

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Montgomery: We honestly wondered why does Voltron have a cross on his chest. I don’t know the answer.

Is there an answer? Did you find out the answer?

Montgomery: I don’t know! Now I’m gonna look into it.

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Dos Santos: Part of it is there’s this certain random aspect to the original series, GoLion where I don’t think those questions necessarily need answering. It was more just an aesthetic. It was trying to get across an idea without necessarily pinpointing anything. They looked at that as a very Arthurian lore symbol. Very sort of western symbol and that’s all they really needed to get across. Then the show was localized for American audiences and they weren’t going to put a big block out mark on the cross or anything.

Once you knew, okay, we’re doing Voltron, what was the first thing that you did? Did you watch all of the episodes? Did you brainstorm? How did the process start?

Montgomery: I know the first thing I did but I can’t say it because it’ll be a spoiler. Beyond that we remembered what we loved, we definitely felt like we had to go back and rewatch the source material because we remember what we love about the show but very few of us remember the legit story points.

What we found was that there was a lot of story missing in the original and it wasn’t quite the show that we thought we remembered it being. So what we ended up doing was we went back and watched the very original, GoLion which is the Japanese version and that one has a much more figured out story because they obviously weren’t trying to cobble something together from footage from another series, they were just making a story.

Problem is? That story was a lot darker than anything we could really do here in America.

Dos Santos: Especially in the ’80s when animation was a whole lot more safe and there were a bunch more regulations than now. Honestly I don’t know if audiences were as sophisticated then as they are now. Those themes from GoLion are something we were able to infuse in terms of their more sophisticated nature into our show. They definitely wouldn’t have gotten across in the ’80s.

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Was it just the Lion Force episodes you watched? Did you watch Vehicle? Third Dimension? Voltron Force?

Dos Santos: No, we just watched the original Voltron series. That was the prime show we were trying to reboot here, and GoLion. Vehicle Voltron? I gotta admit that I’m gonna take some flack for not being the hugest fan of that when I was a kid. Honestly it just weirded me out when I was a kid I was so used to Lion Voltron that when I saw Vehicle Voltron I was like, “Eh, he’s kinda weird looking.”

You mentioned there were things you remembered about Voltron from when you were kids. What are things you specifically remember, or what you thought Voltron was when you were kids?

Dos Santos: It’s literally the thing where so many people remember Voltron, right? They remember the robot, they remember the lions, and they loosely remember these characters. They don’t remember the plot of the show. We largely fell into that category. We knew he fought Robeasts, we knew there was King Zarkon, we know that there was a princess, we knew there was a castle.

As far as individual episodes, the big driving forces for me as a kid was playing and role playing as the characters on the playground. It wasn’t necessarily about following this big continuing story arc.

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What characters did you play as when you were kids?

Montgomery: I was always Allura. She was really the only one. I remember Allura, I kinda remember there was the short one and there was the leader guy. At some point I just had zero recollection. I watched it again when I was a teenager and I went, “Wait, there was another guy before Allura?” I had completely forgotten about him.

Dos Santos: I remember when the Sven storyline took place when I was a kid and he kicked the bucket really early on and me all my friends, I remember talking about it on the school yard. The cool thing about Voltron was a lot of the kids wanted to be Keith but we would all alternate playing all the different characters. I thought that was the cool aspect and everyone had their favorite but they were willing to go, “Hey, now you’re Lance, I’ll be Keith, you be Hunk, you be Pidge.” That was a really cool aspect of the show and occasionally when we’d play with the girls, they got to be the princess.

It was a funny thing back then, toy properties and animation properties were way more segregated in terms of, these were girl shows, these were boy shows. Now things are different and times have changed and we’re in a much better place to be all inclusive of all sexes.

A lot of people have commented that when they heard the show was going to be rebooted they thought some of the cast’s genders might change. So far, at least in what we’ve seen, it’s just five guys. Is that just sticking true to the original source material? Do you have something up your sleeve?

Montgomery: It’s definitely sticking true to our nostalgia, we loved the original and wanted to stick close to that. But again, this is just the starting point for the series. What happens down the line remains to be seen. You’ll see five males in the lions in the first few episodes, but let’s see where this takes us.

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We’re not closing the doors, we’re not trying to be exclusive or anything. And the Allura character is not in any way a background character. She’s a huge part of the series, regardless of whether she’s piloting a lion or not. She probably has the largest understanding of what’s at stake in this world and the gigantic war they’re about to enter and she’s just a way more complex character than what she was in the original show. I honestly just have so many recollections of her constantly fainting. Not what we really wanted to do this time around.

Dos Santos: From a story and character perspective we can hang our hats on that she’s central to this generation of Voltron. She has the most ties to the backstory and origin of Voltron. She’s really the entry point for all of our pilots to really understand what they’re really getting themselves into.

We spoke Kimberly Brooks, who plays Allura, and she mentioned a process with the Lions called Quintessence. Can you tell us about that?

Dos Santos: Yeah, that’s basically what our universe is powered on. It’s a story point that will become more robust as the series continues. That’s the element that a lot of the things in our universe is powered on.

Montgomery: I guess you could say it’s something like the force, it’s out there, it’s in everything, and everything has some amount of Quintessence. We kind of stuck with this very true to the original Voltron series, combination of sci-fi and magic quality.  Quintessence is hinging more on the kind of magic side. It’s kind of what we use to explain those unexplainable force that happen in our show.

The five pilots from the trailer seem very technology based, space cadets and all that, whereas Allura seems more like rooted in the magic thing. So will we see some conflict with those perspectives?

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Dos Santhos: Yeah, I think we’re just going with the idea that the culture she’s from really married those two elements. There’s a real gray area where science picks up and magic takes off and that’s what sort of powers their technology.

In all the material we’ve seen so far, the Lions are sentient. Can you talk about how that whole process came about?

Montgomery: It’s a very minor amount of sentience because if this lion can do whatever why do you need a pilot? When we were watching the original show, there were times when people would just put a key into a lion and it wouldn’t feel any more special than a car.

We wanted it to feel so much more than that. So we kind of introduced this concept that our pilots don’t just get a key. People don’t just hop in a lion. They have to be chosen or accepted by that lion. These lions kind of have opinions and they have a mild amount of sentience but it makes the idea of being a pilot much more of a special thing.

Dos Santos: That to is something that will evolve throughout the course of the series. It’s a sentience that changes and evolves and moves into a different place as the show goes on.

So these five pilots will form a relationship with the lions?

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Dos Santos: Yeah, it really helps establish that each one of the pilots and their corresponding lion has a unique relationship from the other. So it helps on a character level across the board.

Talk to us about creating this universe. You’ve spoken about taking the ‘defender of the universe’ thing to heart and really wanting to have these guys travel around to different planets with different aliens. Can you talk to us about creating that universe?

Montgomery: It was not easy.

Dos Santos: On a TV schedule, believe me it is not easy.

Montgomery: But that’s half of the fun of having a show in space. These characters started on Earth and went into space and found this crazy planet that has an alien princess on it. And then you’re just gonna sit on that planet for the whole series? Nah, we gotta get out and really see what other things are out there and half the fun is just playing with those designs and wow what kind of crazy alien people can we come up with now?

How do they interact with the world? What are their roles? They did some interplanetary traveling on the original Voltron but it usually turned into, here’s a planet with very human looking people but they were togas! And here’s a planet but they wear Jetsons outfits.

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We just kind of wanted to push it a little further and make this universe feel very vast because when we’re dealing with a villain that’s taking over the entire universe you want to see the ramifications of that. You want to see the characters that are affected by it.

Dos Santos: From a story telling perspective and a staging perspective it makes it a lot more entertaining and fun if you’re able to see these crazy aliens and sort of wacky things that allows this latitude in both dramatic and comedic storytelling.

For all the Legend of Korra fans out there, and there are many, what are the things they loved in that series that they can expect from Voltron?

Dos Santos: Characters that evolve over time. Characters that are complex that come into this world from their own perspectives. I think a high level of stakes and relationships that evolve over time. Legend of Korra was a really unique situation in that sense. We’re not creating a soap opera or a romantic show by any means but this type of serialized story telling allows for so many possibilities in terms of how characters relationships evolve over the series.

I was a big fan of those Legend of Korra art books. Are we going to be seeing a Voltron art book for this series?

Dos Santos: We’re trying, man.

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Montgomery: I’d love to. I don’t think we have anything locked in yet but by golly if we have any power, it’ll happen.

Dos Santos: We’ve definitely brought it up in every internal executive meeting we’ve been to.

Can you talk about the music of the series? You’ve mentioned you’re staying away from the original theme song. What kind of music are you going for with this show?

Dos Santos: We’ve steered clear of the original theme and are trying to differentiate ourselves from the show in that regard but overall we’re going for something that pays homage to that era. Those cartoons that we grew up watching came from. There’s a lot of heavy synth, a heavy retro synth vibe that lends itself to a sci-fi feeling. Also this very sort of cosmic sense of exploration.

The composer that we have, Brad Breeck, he’s awesome. He’s worked on  a bunch of other shows and when he came on board, he nailed it right off the bat. While you might not be getting the original theme which felt kind of trumpet like, it’ll harken back to memories you had of that era in general.

If you could pick one of your favorite elements from the show, what would it be?

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Montgomery: I don’t want to give any spoilers but Allura has some really incredible moments in the thirteen episodes and those are the things that have spoken to me the most that have kind of resonated with me a lot. She’s just got some really great moments and episodes that kinda really flesh out her character and really make her seem like this true incredible princess who’s really willing to put herself out there.

Dos Santos: It’s that same idea but on an entire character wide level. I’m really excited about the fact that we’ve been able to start these characters in one place and evolve them into a very different place over the course of the season and the series. Seeing how those play out and seeing the fans react to where these characters are going. That’s really exciting to me.

What is it like knowing that when this show comes out that you’ll be introducing people to the original series as well?

Dos Santos: That’s super awesome, man. If you can do the job of aunts and uncles of a certain age en masse then you’re good to go.

Can you tell us a little about the toy line coming out for the series?

Montgomery: We got a little glimpse at it and it looks amazing. We are very excited, I don’t know how much in depth we can go into it, but I tell ya, they’re pretty cool. I’ll be buying them.

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Dos Santos: We’re big toy collectors as well. If you could see our offices you’d know we’re legit toy collectors.

You mentioned earlier with Voltron it’s a lot of people remembering the more surface elements and less the plots themselves. So what do you think are some of the most important elements with the show? Especially the themes.

Montgomery: Beyond the obvious surface things of the pilots and our lions. I think we’ve already talked about this but the combination of the magic and sci-fi. This Arthurian castle with a princess inside of it and there’s this amazing lore and mythology to Voltron that not everyone quite understands. It’s got an air of mystery to it.

That combined with the sci-fi, because we didn’t want to go completely realistic sci fi where everything works out. We wanted this kind of unexplainable element that treads into territory we wouldn’t be able to if we had gone for making everything explainable and airtight.

Dos Santos: As far as themes go, the overall theme of teamwork is a huge thing for us to get across. Not just teamwork like, ‘we gotta work together to make this happen’ but really building characters that are complex enough to overcome their own shortcomings, evolve, and become the fully realized heroes we know they can be. Nobody at the beginning or end of the show will be perfect by any means but they will change and rise to the occasion.

Favorite lion and why?

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Montgomery: It’s strange cause I love green, but I also love yellow because I just love how his design turned out.

Dos Santos: For me, from when I was a kid, Blue Lion has always been my favorite. I just thought proportionally the leg lends itself to the coolest shape when in lion form. So since I was a kid, blue lion has been my favorite. Sven used to be my favorite.

We would like to thank DreamWorks for making this interview happen. Stay tuned to Den of Geek for more interviews with the cast, coming soon! Make sure to check out DreamWorks Voltron Legendary Defender when it drops June 10th on Netflix.

Shamus Kelley is gonna keep it tight and obey his thirst with Sprite. Hmm, he can only wonder if that Voltron commercial will get a reference in the new show. Follow him on Twitter!