Executive producer Joaquim Dos Santos talks tight production schedules and Zarkon’s growing obsession with Voltron as the new season comes online.
When it comes to TV animation, there’s never enough time or creative hands on deck – it comes with the territory that you do the best you can with the budget and schedule you’re given. There’s always the next episode to finish up.
And while Netflix provides creators a unique opportunity to produce an entire season of episodes for concurrent streaming without the often stressful assessments – good, bad or indifferent – measured through traditional TV audience metrics, the streaming platform giant’s aggressive expansion into episodic animated series faces the exact same narrative and production challenges that any broadcaster faces.
For DreamWorks’ Voltron Legendary Defender Season Two, which launched on Netflix this past Friday, executive producers Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery met those challenges head on; their team of 200 artists took 52 weeks – an entire year – to produce each episode of the kids’ sci-fi adventure series. Dos Santos recently spoke to AWN about how that team hit its creative stride coming into Season Two, and despite the challenges of a compressed schedule, he’s extremely proud of the show he and Montgomery were able to put onscreen.
Dan Sarto: What are your main duties as one of the show’s executive producers?
Joaquim Dos Santos: As one of the show’s executive producers [Lauren Montgomery is the other], we oversee and manage almost every aspect of production. Writing, design, storyboard, music, sound FX, animation and editing. As you can imagine, it's a lot of work and our schedules are jam packed. Luckily we've got an amazing crew of writers, designers, directors and production staff who are involved on an episodic level allowing us to focus on the entire series. We've got an amazing supervising producer in KiHyun Ryu, an absolute genius, who takes on a good portion of the artistic retake duties during post. We still do a good amount of storyboarding ourselves mainly on the back end to help the directors with revisions and story tweaks.
DS: What’s in store for Season 2?
JDS: We can say for certain that based on the events that unfolded at the end of Season One, it's clear the team is not yet ready to take on Zarkon. In Season Two our heroes will continue to evolve and grow while Zarkon’s obsession with Voltron only grows stronger. Looking for allies in the fight against Zarkon and the Galra Empire will be key to our teams success.
DS: How long does a typical episode take to produce?
JDS: All told we're looking at a 52 week turnaround per episode, give or take a week depending on an episode’s complexity. It takes around 200 people to make it all happen.
DS: Who’s handling the main areas of production this year?
JDS: Pre-production is split between DreamWorks Animation Television and Studio MIR. We've been working with them since the Legend of Korra and a good number of the staff going all the way back to ATLA. At this point in our partnership we do consider ourselves one team, so much so that "one team" has become our cross-studio motto. Studio MIR handles animation, both CG and traditional, as well as compositing. Our CG assets are built in-house at DreamWorks and post is split between DW and our partners at Atlas Oceanic Sound and Picture. Our music composer is Brad Breek and he works closely with his partner Brian Parkhurst to score every episode.
DS: What did you learn in Season One that carried over into Season Two? Can you point to any areas where the production is running smoother or more efficiently?
JDS: With Season Two we've hit our stride more creatively speaking. I think everyone has their heads wrapped around the show's direction now. There is a better understanding of where to push the comedy and where to push the drama. We are far more aware of how much content we can and should try to fit in an episode...although that is always a bit of a balancing act. The animators now have a better handle on how to draw the characters and there have been noticeable improvements in the model checking. Thankfully, we're past the "figuring it all out" stage. There have been some small tweaks made to the main model designs to help simplify them, limit pencil mileage and keep the look of the show more consistent. It's important to try and continually streamline production when you're working on a TV schedule.
DS: Based on where the production has improved this season, what have been the main challenges you faced?
JDS: With a show like this, your instincts can scream at you to try and top what you've done before, which can be a bit of a trap. That is to say, you can run into a situation where the follow-up is all flash and very little substance because you're so focused on making things bigger and louder. The key for us has been to not lose sight of the fact that without memorable characters that evolve over the course of the series and have motivations that are interesting and relatable, all the explosions and robot battles are meaningless. We've gone to great efforts to give the characters through-lines that the audience can really sink their teeth into.
DS: Were there any particular production issues this year where something you figured would be relatively simple ended up being much more difficult than expected?
JDS: At this point, we've been in the game long enough to know what to expect from the production process. I can't think of one specific thing that really "surprised" us. I can say this: when you put your all into your work things can be a bit tough generally. The entire crew truly cares about the product and has high expectations for how it all turns out. As a result, none of it is easy.
Often times with TV animation, especially traditionally animated programs, you acquiesce to the notion that the high volume of work and quick turnaround means you're not always going to get a perfect image or animation cycle. It's just part of the deal. There simply isn't enough time to massage things to absolute perfection. Despite that fact we are incredibly proud of how the show has turned out and just how polished it looks. We see ourselves almost like animation guerrilla fighters in the sense that we don't often have the luxury of time, budget and manpower. But this crew in particular strives for excellence at every turn and hopefully that shows on screen.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.