By Todd Matthy
The first season of “Voltron Force” has wrapped and what a ride it was. From betrayals, trainees, secrets, and new pilots, the series not only resurrected the beloved property, but pushed it into new areas of excitement.
Jeremy Corray is one of the architects behind Voltron’s revival and was kind enough to take the time to talk to me about the development of the series, the origins of some of the twists, and a little “fishing” for tidbits on Season Two.
Now that the First Season has wrapped up, what’s the consensus on the series at WEP Headquarters? How about at Nickelodeon? After that cliffhanger I assume the shows been renewed?
Everyone at Voltron HQ is thrilled with the fan-response to Voltron Force particularly the season finale, which we thought was some of the best work done by everyone from writer Todd Garfield to Directors John Delaney and Steven E. Gordon, Kickstart Productions, to the animation studio Toon City. All the emotions and plot points of the series seemed to be building up to these awesome moments and throwbacks like the Castle Starship and Four-headed Lion attack with a twist at the end. As for the ending, Todd and I wanted to put that in which was a risk and were lucky to get the support of other producers like Bob Koplar so that much like Back to the Future when the Delorean flies into the screen and you see To Be Continued you knew there just HAD to be more to the story! It was our sneaky second season insurance policy in that fans will always be asking for us to finish telling that story! Much like we classic fans remember what happened to Sven, the goal was to make a shocking moment that kids would hopefully remember watching years from now. We’ll have to see if it worked. While nothing official to announce, we are hard at work at making a second season happen but in the meantime fans can check out the excellent comic books from VIZ Media and VIZ Kids which serve as official episodes!
Can you describe the process of planning out the series? How did you decide that the master/apprentice approach was the right one to take? What made you go with “Voltron Force” as opposed to the other proposals that were kicked around for all of these years? Did any ideas from those proposals make it into “Voltron Force”?
It was always a balance between doing a completely new team, which was the original Panthera Force pitch by Darrick Bachmann (which I really dug) that had aliens and a giant feline-man named Bruno on the team and a reformed Drule named Imam mixed in with Daniel, Vince and Larmina. It was pitched to the network and they liked. It was the original Voltron creator Ted Koplar who suggested we use the fan equity that our key characters Keith, Lance, Hunk, Pidge and Allura have built up over the years. At one point we were even pitching a “Voltron Academy” but Ted wisely reminded us that would be way too many characters, which was probably best. In the end it became a bit of a hybrid solution and something more of an ensemble piece like X-men or Avengers. Todd did a brilliant job of fleshing out all the characters and developing their personalities in a relatable way. The great thing he also did was take that mathematical problem of five lions with essentially eight pilots and put it into the narrative of the show where our characters are wondering the same thing we are. Who is going to replace who and how? As you can see we had some surprising results.
The cadet pilot addition made for a nice dynamic that I think was reflected in our audience as well. The buzzword in kid’s TV is “co-viewing” where parents watch the show alongside their kids and enjoy it together which is what Voltron Force embodies. Based on what we saw at C2E2 in Chicago interacting with classic fans and their next gen fan kids it seems to be working!
What episode was your personal favorite and why?
Well, obviously getting to personally write the episode where original Blue Lion pilot Sven returns (Ep.17 “Ghost in the Lion”) was such an honor. I will never forget being in my childhood home and watching Voltron and writing an episode of Voltron – quite a “is this really happening?” moment. Normally I would be nervous about fan expectation there but truthfully the story of Sven’s self-exile to the frozen planet of Crydor just flowed out like I was channeling years of fan-fiction and daydreams. I felt very lucky that at least one of “us” got to do that episode. It wasn’t easy though, as the first draft may have been too serious for the tone of the show and Todd really guided me in to add moments of levity for our primary kid audience which overall I think helped get the tone right.
In the end though I think my personal favorite episode had to be the season finale episode 26 “Black” which as I stated above just really came together on all fronts. It just feels like the last chapter of a great sci-fi action series. I know Bob Koplar really likes “Roots of Evil” which has action above and below ground. I hope fans agree.
That episode stood out because the Voltron Force suffers a tragedy. I feel its important on shows like this to show that it’s not fun and games being a hero and that people can and do get hurt. Would you ever consider doing an episode where a character died? What about one where a child hates Voltron because a family member was hurt or killed during a battle? Also, how many rewrites did you do?
Thanks for that. Again, it’s a balance where you don’t want to upset kids but as shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and even Transformers Prime had some ‘bots getting killed. I don’t believe in sheltering children from consequences. It’s interesting you bring that up as I did have to fight to have a more “serious” episode in the series as Voltron Force is a show much lighter in tone than the 1984 series. I felt “Ghost in the Lion” was a bit more of a throwback to the original series and Todd placed it between two “funnier” episodes in “Brains” and the wacky “Gary” which kids love. It’s the old Grimm Fairy Tales argument as those stores are so dark but there are lessons in that. I felt it was important to keep Sven a tragic character in the Voltron universe and kept it vague at the end when we see him in hologram form almost like a ghost. Actually pieces of the frozen planet Crydor were supposed to be entering Arus’s atmosphere and melting, creating a surreal snow fall to end the shot but that got cut out. I would say after my initial pass Todd directed me in another draft then finished it off with a punch up of his own which was fairly common on the scripts. Even though I was a producer on the show, believe me, he ran me through the ringer like any other writer.
Can you tell specifically tell us what you look for in a script? What in your opinion constitutes a bad script?
You always know if you’re reading a good script because it is easy to get through and doesn’t feel like a chore. The best one’s read like a breeze. When I get in a script by Brandon Thomas on the new Voltron comic book from Dynamite I start reading then look up and suddenly I’m halfway through it. Very rarely are there just plain “bad” scripts but just ones that you connect with more than others. Sometimes you try things and they don’t work but it’s been my experience that there are so many talented writers out there at this level you rarely sees something that is what I would call “bad.”
You took an interesting approach with the cadets. Rather then immediately make them pilots you had them grow and mature over the course of the season. Was this the plan from the beginning?
Yeah. We thought the audience might appreciate that instead of cold-casting new recruits into the classic team. We actually developed their story so our new kid audience could take that journey with them. It’s controversial with some core fans, but I love the idea that the Voltron Force is this ever evolving team that every millennium or so is brought together by destiny to defend the universe. To that point, in episode 2 of the original Voltron series, Coran does mention something to the effect “It’s good to see the uniforms back in action again.” To me, there is just so much more story possibilities in that than in the Voltron Force being this elite team that will never grow and keep their positions for life. Isn’t that some sort of military dictatorship? Seems sort of selfish considering how the Space Explorers found them in the first place.
What made you decide to divide the season into separate story arcs?
That was all Story Editor Todd Garfield and I think it’s not so much a conscious decision as much as it is the story will take you on its own path and the breaks will feel natural. We knew we wanted to wrap up the Sky Marshal Wade arc about mid-season. He made for an interesting villain we hadn’t quite seen developed in the Voltron universe before. An evil industrialist who is attempting to imitate the power of the Voltron Lions but can’t quite replicate the magic of Voltron.
How do you deal with Standards and Practices? Did you ever get into trouble with them?
Not that I recall as we are fairly self-governing with some experienced producers like Loris Lunsford on the team that had been down the road on these things. I think there was one “be careful” on Larmina referring to Awesome Tron being a “threesome” that we may have cut as they didn’t like that word for obvious reasons.
The best part of that process was the S&P gentlemen from the network said at the end of the process that he normally doesn’t comment creatively on the work but wanted to let us know just how much he enjoyed the writing on the series and was looking forward to the final product. Voltron fan I guess!
What’s the reaction been from parents that grew up on Voltron? Have they used “Voltron Force” to get their children into the original series?
Yeah we hear that a lot on the official Voltron Facebook page and Twitter and I’m always most interested in how the kids are responding to the show. I can only speak from first hand experience that my son enjoys both “Voltron Force” and “Old Voltron” as he calls it. He actually made a homemade Voltcom out of cardboard so I can’t wait for Mattel to make a real one! It seems like a lot of kids are seeing the original series on Netflix so we look forward to getting Voltron Force on there as well in the near future.
Some of the most successful cartoons in recent history were “Beast Wars,” “X-Men,” and “Batman: The Animated Series.” These shows were successful because they told compelling, dramatic, serious stories aimed at kids but did not talk down to them. How do you strike the balance of being dramatic yet “child friendly” without talking down to your audience?
Sure, like you said it’s a balance. We always like to come from a place that kids are more sophisticated than ever and our target audience is smarter than ever but at the same time you need someone overseeing everything and making sure the intended emotion or information is coming through. With so many characters and even a couple villains things can get out of hand quick. We get so close to the material sometimes it takes another producer to see the big picture and call us out on something that we might be taking for granted. I recall some of the kids during a focus group testing not realizing that the people actually pilot these Lions so it’s stuff like that that we just know as classic fans but might not be working for a new audience that we need to restate and make sure it’s coming through.
How do you go about keeping each episode fresh? The “Robeast of the week” formula can get repetitive and predictable after awhile.
That was one of the goals of the series was to break up the formula and throw some surprises in there like the Flash Formation sequence and the new Center Configurations to keep kids on their toes. In defense of the charming formula of the original series it does work with kids and there is a certain comfort in the predictability that kids seem to respond to so yeah we wanted to get to the same place but maybe in a different way that felt a little more fresh.
Who came up with the idea of switching the center lion? How did you go about designing that?
Well the “lost” Voltron, Albegas had done something similar so we had always had something like that in the back of our minds but really solidified it at a brainstorm meeting with Mattel, where one of the designers Scott Derman had thrown that out there and then everyone just ran with it. The fun part was deciding the different looks and powers, Yellow Lion being my favorite with no wings and that Hunk personality infused. Green Center was tricky as the original thought was to go you know… solar re-charging Green Voltron but what kid wants to play with that. In the end we played up Pidge’s ninja past and did Tech Ninja Voltron.
How much input did Mattel have in the development of the series?
Mattel really helped us to learn more about our own property by doing what Dave Voss would call “Deep Dives” on the brands and boiling what makes Voltron different than say a Thundercats or a Transformers so they were instrumental. Everyone over there are fans so they also helped with the redesigns of the Lions where our initial designs had much more Terminator complicated-wires. I can remember Brandon Sawyer over there taking us through smoothing out the hard edges and really bringing out the personality of the pilots in the Lions so you know Hunk’s Lion reflects his attitude with its under bite and battle-damaged eye. Steed Sun, Michael Montalvo, all the designers are fans and have been awesome especially on the Voltron Classics line they did for MattyCollector.com!
Were there any ideas you wished made it into this season but ultimately didn’t?
Two words: Space Whaling. (Production joke). Sure, there were many ideas that we would put a pin in for Season 2. I can remember one episode that was supposed to be a sort of Cirque-De-Lotor with Haggarium infecting a traveling space-carnival, so you can imagine the sort of freaky things you see at one of those neo-circus acts being evil that would have been fun. And then there are bigger ideas I’m always pushing Todd to do like seeing a hyper-intelligent Robeast, as if Voltron is the biggest, baddest hero, it would be cool to go up against the biggest, baddest arch-villain. Sort of Voltron’s Bane or Doomsday if you will, just a lethal foe. I remember I wanted him to be stitched up right down the middle so nothing would say “I’m coming for revenge on Voltron for cutting me in half” than some crude stiches down the middle of his body. Still might do some of those in Season 2.
What character(s) surprised you over the course of the year?
I think everyone just fell in love with Larmina, which probably had a lot to do with the performance of Shannon-Chan Kent, and the attitude she brought to it. There were some voices that were just slam-dunks like her and Ashleigh Ball as Allura. I remember we went back and forth on Andrew Francis and Giles Panton as Keith but in the end made the right choice. The whole cast was great and the funny thing is they all look like their cartoon characters which is kind of weird… though Ron Halder as Maahox does not have mecha legs. I was also happy that Garry Chalk one of the voices of Optimus Prime was doing the evil Sky Marshal Wade who wanted to be Voltron but couldn’t. Little smug satisfaction there.
Second Season Speculation:
Will new cadets be showing up in the second season? Could one of them perhaps be Pidge’s sister?
There aren’t really anymore cadets as Vince and Larmina have joined the Voltron Force full-time, which brings a fresh dynamic to the team. It looks like Daniel has a serious case of the evils so it’s going to be interesting for sure.
Since Allura’s Queen, can we look forward to her dealing with suitors?
This is where I remind our loyal K/A’ers that the show is primarily for boys 6-11 who last time I checked don’t play many dating sim games, so that would be tough. That being said we always try and throw something in for the fans so you have to watch and see. Also, Allura has ascended to the role of Queen and I don’t think she is done convincing Keith he needs to be King.
I would argue that a little romance never killed a boys cartoon. One of the most memorable aspects of the “X-Men” cartoon was the Cyclops/Jean/Wolverine love triangle. Would you consider making passing references to suitors in dialogue before finally introducing one for an episode?
I think we played that up in the series here a bit with hints of that here and there with Lance though if you watch the original series it’s debatable if there would have been anything between Lance and Allura besides a one night Lion ride. Were always going to go where the characters take us so yeah I’m sure something will come up again.
Are there any plans to do a flashback episode to the Zarkonian Wars? I think it would be fun for the new fans to see what the Voltron Force was like in their prime.
That’s funny I was just pitching an episode today that would feature a young Alfor in armor taking on a Prince Zarkon and really go into the role that Alfor played in the development and resurrection of Voltron. Now that Voltron Force sort of changed the origin a bit of the creation of Voltron, which was a little contradictory in the original series, where Voltron seemed to be ancient but yet King Alfor was referred to as the creator many times. Now we have 5 planets involved in the creation of Voltron which as Todd says seem to fit a Defender of the Universe rather than “oh yeah my Dad made this” which would make Voltron just one generation old. We shall see as we know the first four planets but have never seen that 5th energy planet.
Are there plans to use the Zarkonian Wars as a “Clone Wars” type background from the Original Star Wars Trilogy?
We’ll see how it all falls into place but yeah we love to try and keep the mythology where we can while creating a new forward looking one.
If you have flashbacks to the Zarkonian Wars do you plan to make those scenes darker then usual? I ask because I think it was emphasize just how much of a threat Zarkon was and how unpleasant war can be.
Again, seems like a cool idea that we’d love to do but also have to keep in mind the target audience so we won’t have anything too graphic in there. Maybe for an eventual OVA project or something we can get a little more edgy.
Has anyone pitched an episode like “Legends of the Dark Knight” where the three cadets tell different stories about Voltron and each story is told in animation style? (i.e. one’s done in traditional anime and the other CGI)
Ha. Well no. But we’ve come close to inserting scenes from the original 1984 series in there as flashbacks and often joked about putting scenes from Voltron: The Third Dimension in but in the end would probably just confuse the heck out of kids and the network.
Will you be continuing unresolved plot lines from the first season?
Yes a lot of unresolved issues and a big deal is there is still Haggarium out there in the universe. Could this be leading to the return of everyone’s favorite Witch? We’ll see.
Will we learn who Larmina’s parents are?
Ah yes, Larmina-gate. Yes we will have to find a place to explain that one to classic fans for sure!
Have any celebrities shown an interest in voicing a character in an episode? How about the original cast?
Indeed there are many celebrities who are Voltron fans including Seth Green and his wife Clare Grant (TeamUnicornFTW.com) who came out to our launch party for the THQ videogame in November. Seth actually knew WAY more about the original die-cast toys than I did pointing out the silver stickers and such. We would have loved to feature some and may still in the future.
I recently had a chance to meet some of the original cast members in Neil Ross, BJ Ward and Michael Bell who were all just class acts and it was one of the highlights of my career if not my life. Our childhood heroes all in one place. I explained how we had done the voices this time in Canada and had sort of re-imagined it in a different take but hope to work with them on future projects. They seem to get it and certainly staying busy with all sorts of projects including Neil doing narration for the Mass Effect videogames and Michael Bell is now a talented director so they were just so super cool. They still had the voices in them so we’d love to bring them back for the right project.
Nickelodeon often creates “movie specials” out of their cartoons. Has Nick asked you to do one? What type of story would constitute a movie?
Well we combine the first three episodes into a movie-special like we did this season with “New Defenders Trilogy” and I can share with you that would be the plan for the first three episodes of any future seasons as well. It’s just a cool way to launch and get everyone engaged in the characters, action and story of the series.
Finally, would you consider bringing Saber Rider as a foe for Voltron?
Yes, I pitched Ram Rod vs. Voltron many times but again we’re dealing with so many characters it would be tough to get into Colt, Jesse and Fireball in addition to supporting our entire regular cast. That and maybe it had something to do with the robot being called Ram Rod that it just never could happen.
Thank you again to Jeremy Corray for taking the time to speak with me. Be sure to check out Voltron’s Official Facebook page, Twitter and Voltron.com! And don’t forget to Vote for Voltron in MTV’s “Battle Arena Otaku.”