With Vol. 3 now out, creator/EP Tim Miller and supervising director Jennifer Yuh Nelson explain how it works.
Late last week I got to see three episodes of Love, Death + Robots Vol. 3 just before they were released: David Fincher’s Bad Travelling, Alberto Mielgo’s Jibaro and Patrick Osborne’s Three Robots: Exit Strategies.
Then I had a fun chat to LDR creator/EP Tim Miller and supervising director Jennifer Yuh Nelson about the Netflix series, specifically about how filmmakers get their ideas in front of the team, or how the team finds filmmakers to contribute to LDR. Miller and Nelson also talk about working with directors like Fincher and Mielgo to deliver ‘adult-level’ animation.
b&a: One of the things I wanted to share about my own experience is, I feel like I’m amassing my own collection of Love, Death + Robots shows as if it’s my own DVD collection that I’ve got in my lounge room. I go back to my favorite episodes occasionally as if I’m pulling a DVD out of the library. And then some friends will come over and I’ll show them some of my fave episodes. I don’t really do that with any other show, and I wondered if you ever thought that might be the way people consume Love Death + Robots.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Oh, you can hope, I don’t know if you can assume.
Tim Miller: It’d be cool if you could make a little playlist inside the episode list. We did talk about that, whether people could reorder a playlist. Making a mix tape for your friends, it’d be pretty cool to be able to do that.
Could you actually send an episode to your friend on Netflix? Like you can forward a tweet to your buddy.
Because then you could go, ‘Yeah, Mom, watch this show.’ And then it would have a link directly to it.
b&a: I think this should happen. And I’m pretty sure I should get some kind of royalties out of this, right?
Tim Miller: I agree…
b&a: One thing that I’m also really curious about that I’d love you both to talk about is the process for choosing these films. There’s incredible directors that I know and many that I don’t know, or animation production companies that I know and don’t know. I’m really curious from the beginning, how have you chosen who gets to make an episode? Or how do they pitch it to you? Or how do you pitch them?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: It’s a pitch fight. It’s a real combination. Sometimes it’s studios that Tim’s worked with, because there’s a whole history with many of these studios. Maybe it’s somebody we know, maybe it’s somebody that we just heard about or is doing something really interesting and innovative. Sometimes people come in with a pitch for an idea for how to approach one of these stories that will really break something open. And we might add more of the stories that might not have been on the hot list because someone had an interesting take on that story.
Tim Miller: It’s different every time. I mean, we do keep going to the same group of people that were Blur’s friends slash competitors in the game cinematics area—it’s a unique group of companies that do really high quality short form work. And one of the things I love best about the series is that we have this international group of companies that all produce different, but high quality work. It’s really great.
b&a: That is also the bit that I love about it, that there’s this mix of CG, 2D, something else, something else. When you’re working out the line-up, is it very deliberate about how much of each ‘kind’ of animation will end up being in a series?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: It’s definitely in the mix because sometimes you have several stories that are really great and several pitches for the stories that are all really great, but with maybe the mix is, one of the stories is being pitched as a 2D project and it looks like that would really stand out next to a realistic project. And so we just have to balance which story is best told in what way.
Tim Miller: It is deliberate, although that sounds like there’s a math formula somewhere that we run, but that’s not what we do at all. They’re actually up on a wall. There’s images with the running time and then the title of the story. And then we move some in and out, because there’s 100 on the wall and we move them in and out of the lineup. And we talk about, ‘Oh, well, shit, this one’s like that one or this one really should be 2D, but we’ve already got so and so.’ And so it’s a little more freeform. And then Jennifer and I tie our wrists together and put rusty knives in the other hand and fight…
b&a: I think some people might be surprised to realize that so many of these are based on short stories or graphic novels. I’m curious about that mix as well.
Tim Miller: I think that when we first did volume one, there was a little bit more of a, we’re going to open it up to the cornucopia of ideas out there, be very original ideas or whatnot. But when we developed Heavy Metal, in five minutes I’d said, ‘Oh, fuck, we’re not going to get any great stories from the past as easily as I can find them by just going out and getting all these short stories because I read a lot.’ And we developed 28 stories for Heavy Metal. 25 of them were stories I found, short stories that had nothing to do with Heavy Metal. And we did that same process with LDR.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: There’s also a case of, I think a lot of people who maybe use previously existing IP do it because they know that it’s very popular already or it’s going to have already a built-in audience. That’s not the case with this at all. Here, many of the stories are very obscure and some of them are less obscure. Many of them are in some very obscure collection from decades ago. And so in some ways, it’s a way of getting really good stories to have something, a kernel of something, that’s resonating and be able to share it with a bunch of people that may not be familiar with the original. It’s one of the reasons why the short stories were consolidated into these volumes so that people wouldn’t have much trouble finding some of them.
Tim Miller: On Amazon, we a book for volume one that has all the stories, the original stories. And the next one is coming out, volume two and three together, coming out, right now. And an art book is coming too.
b&a: I have to ask you about Alberto Mielgo’s Jibaro. I, obviously, love all of his stuff, but do you ever think of this as a risk with something so original?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Well, he does send us what he’s thinking. He’s not pitching it with a black box and we can’t know what he’s pitching. He does explain really clearly what he’s going for. And then he’s quite consistent on getting here.
Tim Miller: But you do saddle the bucking bronco and you do put it in the corral, but then at some point you have to let it out of the gate and ride it. And that is the experience of working with Alberto. There is a lot of back and forth about, when he pitches his story. And I wouldn’t say that we control it. I would rather say we influence it in certain directions.
For instance, in The Witness, he pitched the idea of doing the greatest strip tease in the history of animation. And then when I get a script, there’s no strip tease in it. The guy goes in a club and goes in the back room and there’s a guy asleep and he digs through drawers full of dildos to get a gun. And so I go, ‘Alberto, what happened to the fucking strip tease, man?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re right. You’re right. You’re right. I’ll do it. I’ll put it in there.’ And so it’s that kind of thing.
b&a: With his new film, and previous ones, I wonder if you know about the ongoing debate amongst the animation community about how his stuff is even done. There’s that hyper-real / realistic feel to it as if it’s live action photography almost. And I almost love that he barely discusses how it’s done. It’s actually a really good thing. Keep the audience guessing. Do you feel the same way?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Yes, but I think one thing that we should be clear about because knowing what his process is to some degree, as anyone is able to know, he doesn’t use mocap. It’s all keyframe. I think people sometimes assume it’s just mocap. No, it’s absolutely every frame has been touched by an artist.
Tim Miller: He likes to do things the absolute hardest way possible—‘Let’s put a woman with lots of jewellery and a dude with fabric in the water and do a bunch of CG.’
You know, I keep saying, I want to release this, or I want Netflix to release it, but all the directors do pitch documents for their, ‘This is my intention for the piece.’ And Alberto did a video where he talked about the way he sees the world, how he approaches art, the way he breaks down scenes and figures. And I shit you not, it is as good as The Witness to somebody like me in animation, because it’s just really amazing. Because he is a genius level artist, and the way he approaches things is very different than anybody that I’ve seen in this industry. And I wish we could release this little video about how we break it down.
b&a: You mentioned mocap there. I, obviously, want to talk about Bad Travelling and working with David Fincher. Had he done any mocap like this in any of his past films at all, in a big way?
Tim Miller: No. He had done some early on when we met. I met him when he was working on Zodiac and he asked me to, I think it was, do a piece of previs for Zodiac, but the movie had already been done. So it was like I was doing previs for something that was in post. Maybe there was a reason for it, but I fucking can’t remember. But he came down and did a little mocap session then. But it was nothing like what we do now. I mean, we were there for five days with that.
I was the second unit director for the mocap, and Jennifer storyboarded most of David’s short for him which was cool. But a lot of it is directing actors, here. I’ve seen David shoot and the things he cares about most are things that you have to use your imagination for the mocap stage. He couldn’t even look at the video reference monitors because they’re so terribly lit. People in leotards and video feeds. He would look at the mocap software where you just see little balls, little dots of light moving around in space. It visually offended him to watch the reference camera!
It is a freeing experience for a director, though. He’s said that in a few interviews now, where you could put the camera, say, theater in the round, and you could put the camera anywhere and we can adjust the timing of performances. But he knows what he wants. And that’s 95% of the battle.
b&a: The other film I got to see was Exit Strategies, the Three Robots follow up. And what I really loved about this was that I was ready for some LDR darkness and violence and stuff like that. And I watched it and was just giggling. And my girlfriend came in and said, ‘What are you even watching?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, just some light relief.’ And I feel, again, it’s my question about the mix of things. It’s just really nice to have that in there as well. I wanted to get your thoughts on the light relief side of it.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: It definitely helps to have the contrast because if everything’s dark then nothing feels dark. The impact is not there. It’s one of two of the more comedic episodes we actually added fairly late in the season, because we were looking at—we were playing them–looking at them as they’re coming in. And we thought, ‘Hmm, I think we need a little bit of light in this darkness.’