SDCC 2016: “Voltron Legendary Defender” Interviews With Joaquim Dos Santos, Lauren Montgomery, and Tim Hedrick
Joaquim Dos Santos, executive producer on Voltron Legendary Defender, is known for character designing and directing DC DTV movies such as Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam and directing TV shows Justice League and Avatar the Last Airbender.
Lauren Montgomery, Voltron Legendary Defender co-executive producer, also served as supervising producer on The Legend of Korra and directed Wonder Woman, Justice League: Doom, and other films.
Tim Hedrick, writer on Avatar the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, is currently head writer of Voltron Legendary Defender.
Toonzone News, got the chance to talk to them following their panel at SDCC2016 about their work on the series. Note that this interview contains some spoilers for season 1 of Voltron Legendary Defender.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS AND LAUREN MONTGOMERY
TOONZONE NEWS: When you’re not working on your own stuff, how do you geek out?
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: A lot of video games.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: Yeah, a lot of video game playing.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: It’s crazy, I don’t get to do it so much anymore, but I used to just draw for fun. I used to do a lot of drawings. We’re passionate about it. Now we work so hard, so much, and now I’m like, I have a second to sit, I’m just going to sit. I’m just going to sit, stay here, play video games.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: Although we did just get iPad Pros, it actually reignited a passion for drawing.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: Yeah, with Apple Pencil, now I draw more because I sit on my couch with my iPad. That, and I’m a super nerd about toys, so I do a lot of toy hunting. Going to the Toys R Us’s and people are probably like, “There’s that weird lady again in the Toys R Us.”
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: Feeling all the LEGO bags.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: I do that. Zero shame. I just feel the LEGO bags.
TOONZONE NEWS: They screened Wonder Woman at Loyola Marymount University. You weren’t there, though.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: I don’t think I was. The last time we went back, they invited me back to do some talk, and I dragged him, and a few other people. I’ve dragged along Phil Bourassa, too. You guys help me talk, I can’t talk that long. So yeah, we did a little thing, and it was fun.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: It was cool.
TOONZONE NEWS: What did you screen?
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: We didn’t screen anything
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: We just did a panel.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: They asked questions and we answered. Each of us just kind of told them like how we went about getting our job. Phil talked about character designs because that’s what he does. You talked about directing, I talked about directing, storyboarding, all sorts of things. It was because one of the things when I was at LMU was that it was so difficult to understand what the industry is like.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: And how to really get your foot in the door. What you’ve got to do to actually get a job.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: Just having people that work in it come and talk was a good thing.
TOONZONE NEWS: How did you guys get your foot in the door?
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: That’s LMU-related. Jay Oliva used to teach there, and he was my storyboard teacher. That was the first time he was teaching, I was one of his first batches of students, and it was around the time where I was realized that I was actually enjoying storyboarding a lot more than I was enjoying animating, and so I just worked really hard at his class and didn’t do amazing things, but at least I got my work done, I was diligent, and so when the time came that I graduated, I just got in touch with him and was like, “Hey, Jay, can you look at my portfolio? Just for suggestions.” And it just lined up on a very lucky tip that he had just lost his storyboard artist. They lost a character designer, one of their board artists was moving up to be a character designer, and they needed to fill a position, and he’s just like, “Well I might have a position for you,” and he had me storyboard out a really quick, rough, just off the top of my head, small action scene, just as a test. And I brought it in, and he was able to hire me. Luckily because it was a pretty small studio, it was working on the 2002 remake of He-Man, that was at Mike Young Productions. Had it been a larger studio, it might’ve been a more in-depth process of hiring, and it might’ve been a little more difficult for me to get a job, but because it was such a small studio, they just kind of went on, he kind of vouched for me, and then I got that job. That kind of helped me build my experience and build my portfolio.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: And strangely enough, you just had pulled out the sketchbook that had the roughs for it.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: I found a sketch book in my house that I didn’t realize was 14 years old. A 14-year-old sketch book, and it had those very thumbnails from that. They are atrocious now. I look at them, and I cringe.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: They’re actually pretty good.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: But it’s fun to look back.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: I had a very opposite experience. I was a horrible student in high school. I went to a semester and a half of community college and dropped out immediately, but I was lucky that I grew up in the Valley, so I was really close to Burbank and I grew up in North Hollywood, so we had the animation union, probably, ten minutes from my house, and they would offer courses there in animation specifically. Life drawings, storyboarding, all that stuff. I always wanted to be a comic book artist, so my mom encouraged me to just go knock on some doors take some courses. I started to take some courses on that, and then I think those started taking off and a bunch of the professionals who were working up in all the studios in Burbank would get together at night and started a little animation technical school. So I started just paying my way through their courses, and it was like I got through, I don’t know, four semesters there of just storyboarding, life drawing, took a couple animation classes that I was not very good at. Then on a whim, I did a sketch in a comic book store on a sketch book that the owner had all the artists do sketches in. A director by the name of Mike Chang, who was working at Sony at the time, who was actually good friends with Jay Oliva, he saw the sketch and was like, “Hey, who drew this?” And the owner told him my name and he got in contact with me and said “Hey, do you want to come work at Sony and be a storyboard revisionist?” I said, “Yes sir, I do.” I was working at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf at the time. I quit there on the spot.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: So all those animation classes, nothing, but a sketch in a comic book store, bam! Got a job.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: A sketch in a comic book store, that’s what got the job done, yeah.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: Those animation classes added to it.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: They definitely helped because I actually did have something that resembled a loose portfolio. I had actual storyboard samples that I could show them that were actually really bad. For real-life bad.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: No, I’ve seen his old drawings.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: I could show that I at least had a passion for the industry, so that was good.
TOONZONE NEWS: You’ve both worked on comic book adaptations, does that translate well into storyboards?
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: A little bit. When there’s an iconic moment that you can sync up that exact shot and that exact moment, it’s cool, and I think that it gives the fans of the comic book…
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: That moment.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: I was working on the Dark Knight Returns before Jay Oliva had come on to direct that one, but I was going through the comic. It’s an iconic comic, but there are some shots in there that are just really not the greatest.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: They work in the layout of the page, but not necessarily in the story.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: Keep the idea, but make it better, so you’ve just got to know what to keep and don’t be beholden to the entire thing.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: The only one I can think of, I worked on that Death of Superman thing.
TOONZONE NEWS: Superman: Doomsday?
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: Yeah, that’s the one.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: Yeah, it was seeing Superman’s cape on the stick blowing in the wind, that was the big moment. But beyond that, I think it was just, “Go for it.”
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: But that story did not follow the comics. There are different ones that follow the comics way more closely.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: I think later on, they started doing those.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: The earlier ones were more influenced by the comic, but like a different story. Superman: Doomsday had some of the pillars of what was in the comic, but everything in between was their own stuff.
TOONZONE NEWS: How is being producers on Voltron different than your roles on previous shows and movies?
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: One big difference is that since we’re the executive and co-executive producer on Voltron, we kind of get to come forth with a lot of the creative mojo. Working with Tim Hedrick, we get to figure out the story beats.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: Help form the bigger scale. The downside is that we don’t get to do as much drawing as we used to.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: Not as hands on.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: There’s still a bunch that gets done, but I think even on Korra, we were utilized more as overseeing the direction and overseeing the directors. We were storyboarding a lot still, but we don’t get to do as much of that. Lauren does a bit more than I do at this point because I’ve got a kid I’m going home to every night. But there are times that, for me, that I wish I could just sit in my office. I pine for the days where I could just sit in my office and draw and see a scene all the way through to the end, but now it’s sort of like, “This is the idea, get it out, this is the idea, get it out.”
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: Yeah, it’s a lot more overseeing and a lot less hands on.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: But it’s gratifying in a different way. It’s gratifying when you see entire story arcs start unfolding and you know you’re a part of building those.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: Yeah, making those decisions.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: We didn’t try to be so beholden to the original that we were actually pulling story beats. So I’d say Voltron has a pretty original story, aside from, you know, Zarkon is the bad guy, Voltron is a robot made of five lions. The story that Tim and the writers came up with is pretty much all new, so that’s a huge thing, that’s a lot of brainpower that goes into building that new world.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: It really is, and keeping track of episodes, especially now when you get into multiple seasons, and you’ll get to, “Oh man, this is a story thread that we’ve had to track since season one, how would that logically have worked out during the timeline of these episodes? What was this character doing to get from A to B here?” That is thinking on a weird, matrix level. It’s a new skill for us.
TOONZONE NEWS: It’s cool, I feel like Voltron is a show adults can enjoy.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: Awesome.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: Right on. That’s what we set out to do, is make a show that played to literally every age group. If you can get enjoyment out of it, if you’ve got a cousin that is like six-years-old, he or she can get enjoyment out of it, and you’ve got a grandparent, that’s what we’re shooting for.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: A show for everyone.
TOONZONE NEWS: A grandparent would be interesting.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: Well hey, your mother-in-law watched Korra.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: She watched Korra and she was really, really into it.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: She’s in her 60’s.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: She felt it. And when we were doing signings for Avatar, we’d get entire families coming down the line, and it was really cool. It was something that the entire family could experience together.
TOONZONE NEWS: What would the kids say to you when they met you about the show?
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: For a long time, it was what happened to Zuko’s mom.
TOONZONE NEWS: Even kids asked that?
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: Everybody asked that.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: With Voltron, the thing that I get the most is love for Corran. Whenever I get to a panel, it’s, “Oh my kid, any time Hunk or Coran is on screen, he’s cracking up.” That’s their favorite thing. Then you get the older people who would really love that Pidge is a girl and she’s got this story about her family and all that sort of stuff. They love the dynamic between Keith and Lance, their fake rivalry.
TOONZONE NEWS: The rivalry that’s entirely in Lance’s head.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: Yeah, it’s one sided. So it’s that stuff. They like the smaller details that add to the characters.
TOONZONE NEWS: One last question, Joaquim, do you insert your name into everything you work on?
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: No, I actually didn’t do that.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: Okay, so his name was originally one of the professors that got blown up, and then he is an a-hole, so they put my name in there. It’s like “Oh, Professor Montgomery is dead,” and I’m like “Thanks.” So I got him back by sticking his name on the wall, and he was not happy about that.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: I was not happy about that.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: He was not happy, he was like, “How dare you.” Well sorry, man, you killed me, your name is on the wall.
TOONZONE NEWS: I seem to remember your initials popping up on JLU.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: My birthday.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: It was his birthday as a code.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: That’s as big as my ego gets. My birthday and my name on a wall.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: We’re not usually the type of people to shove our names everywhere.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: I was embarrassed that it was written.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: That’s why I did it.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: The Montgomery thing it’s like, what did he say? Professor Montgomery? That wall one’s just in stone and then it trucks in on it. Not my idea.
TOONZONE NEWS: Did you always want to be an animation writer?
TIM HEDRICK: No. I was a comedy writer. The first job I ever had as a writer was actually on an animated show, but it was an animated sketch comedy show on MTV. It was called Head Trip and it was awful and no one has ever seen it and they shouldn’t. It went on for three months.
TOONZONE NEWS: What year was that?
TIM HEDRICK: I started working on that in 1999, so I think it came out in 2000. I really was a comedy writer, and I was actually working on a pilot for HBO when Aaron Ehasz, who was the head writer on Avatar the Last Airbender, asked me if I wanted to come in and pitch some episodes. I was like yeah, sure, that sounds good. I didn’t really know anything about the show. I came on about halfway through season one and I just really enjoyed it and ended up staying until the end of the run. The first episode that I wrote was episode 16, and I went on until the end. That was super cool and it was such an awesome show that it kinda gave me this entry into the world. After we ended that, I did a couple shows in between, but then Mike and Bryan called again for Korra and I said, “Yeah, I’d love to do that.” So after doing those two, it kind of became my thing. When they started doing Voltron, I just got the call. That’s been great too. I’ve just been really lucky, honestly. I had a chance back then and I’m just riding it out.
TOONZONE NEWS: You’ve been on some amazing shows.
TIM HEDRICK: I know. Thank you.
TOONZONE NEWS: They’ve got deep characters we’re emotionally involved in.
TIM HEDRICK: Yeah. I think the emotional soap opera aspects are what makes the fights so satisfying. It makes it so that when you get to that point in the end when you got it all on the line, everybody is invested. I was just talking with somebody about the episode of Airbender where Katara learns to bloodbend.
TOONZONE NEWS: That was a dark one.
TIM HEDRICK: It’s super dark, and the episode ends with her crying. That’s what we like to do, have these episodes where the characters go really deep. Then you can throw in the silly jokes and the space mice and all that stuff that’s lots of fun, but if you don’t have that squishy bubblegum at the core, then it’s not going to hang together.
TIM HEDRICK: No, I always write to entertain myself. Then you go back afterwards and you’re like, “Okay, this is too mature, this isn’t going to work” or whatever. I think that for DreamWorks, I think they said the ideal audience is like 6-12 or something like that. Kids who buy action figures. But I always found my favorite movies when I was a kid were like E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars and movies that everybody likes, so I think we always shoot for just a real general audience and try to make it play across the board.
TOONZONE NEWS: A lot of DreamWorks on Netflix is comedy-oriented. Did Voltron come to be because they wanted to have a more action-focused cartoon?
TIM HEDRICK: I think that they owned the Voltron property, and I think that they wanted to develop that aspect. I think the three of us had to come off of Korra at the same time so the crew was there and they got Joaquim to do it and so it just kind of came together at the right place, right time. Obviously, they want to sell a bunch of toys, which is awesome. We all love toys, so that’s cool. I think that’s the kind of show that has more legs than a show that’s just straight up comedy. Because that’s not the binge-watching audience. They want the guys that are just going to lock-in and watch all the way through.
TOONZONE NEWS: Does the writer’s room of Voltron function any differently than it did on Avatar or Korra?
TIM HEDRICK: It’s set up exactly the same way as the room we did with Mike and Bryan, and we have great writers. Josh Hamilton, who was also on Korra and on Airbender, he is incredible. We had our writer’s assistant, Mitch Iverson, who is now a staff writer, who I wrote the comic books with. May Chan was on the earlier episodes and she’s hilarious, she worked on Avatar too. So we’re pretty deep, we have some really good people there, and that’s been great. But the way we try to do it is we try to come up with where we’re going to go over the course of 13 episodes or so and get into the mechanics early on. When you’re writing episode 3, you kind of know where everybody is supposed to be going. Otherwise, what happens is you’ll get down to episode 7 and then you’re going to be like, “You know what we should’ve done, set up this guy 5 episodes ago,” and then go, “Can we go back? Where are we in production?” So the more that you think about it before you go in, the better off you are.
TOONZONE NEWS: As you mentioned on the panel, it doesn’t matter that the show is so continuity heavy because it’s on Netflix. You won’t miss an episode.
TIM HEDRICK: Yeah. Sometimes we’ll still get the notes that are like, “I don’t think they’re going to remember this, I don’t think the audience will remember this guy.” I’m like, “They just saw it like 15 minutes ago, they’re going to remember it, trust me.” Everybody kind of thinks that you’ve got to explain it more for the kids, but I’m like, “The kids are the ones that are studying this. You’ve got to explain it more for adults, they’re the ones not paying attention.”
TIM HEDRICK: No. Honestly,the original version that I wanted to do was we have one episode for each lion, so I would’ve slowed it down even more and really let each character discover that, but DreamWorks was like, “So wait a second, they’re not going to form Voltron until the end of episode five?” We were like, “Okay, maybe three is plenty,” but hopefully you can rewatch it and enjoy it more with the stuff you know. You want it to be layered, and if you don’t get everything, you always know where you are in the story, because it’s pretty simple. Zarkon is trying to destroy them. There’s always that.
TOONZONE NEWS: The world is sci-fi heavy with alien species, how do you plan for and create something like that?
TIM HEDRICK: We have to keep a glossary going because I’ll forget, did we do this before? When Coran said that one word: when was that, what episode was that, and what did it mean then? Is that what we said here? So yeah, you gotta keep a record of that stuff because it will definitely slip by. There’s a lot of it that you’re just making it up on the fly. That’s cool, stick it in there, but if you don’t keep track of it, it’ll get away from you for sure.
TOONZONE NEWS: Did you carry anything over from the original series?
TIM HEDRICK: Not any specific kind of plot stuff.
TOONZONE NEWS: How about the universe in general?
TIM HEDRICK: We had Voltron and GoLion and watched them both and cherry-picked the best stuff that we liked, so the main thing is the team and the robots and the lions and all that stuff. You’re definitely not going to lose any of that. The rest of it, Galra Empire, what names you’re going to call people, eh, “we like this” or “we don’t like this,” so it was a little bit catch as catch can. But I don’t think there was anything that if you watched the original, you’d be like, oh, I know exactly what’s going to happen now, because we kind of drifted away quite a bit.
TIM HEDRICK: Yeah, that was kind of tricky because we didn’t know that we were going to do a comic book until we were done writing all the first season, so it was kind of like, “Where can we find a spot to put it in that we could make it plausible and not screw with any of the stuff that we had already done?” So we put it in the spot after Allura heals the Balmera and she needs some rest and so she parks the castle, and then the guys go out on a training mission. It was kind of a bummer because we kind of lose Allura in the story, but it was kind of the only place where we could slot in five issues of all this stuff. I really like the story of the comics, it came out great, I think. I think we managed to work it out pretty well.
TOONZONE NEWS: How does the comic differ from the show?
TIM HEDRICK: It is fast. It happens immediately. It’s like you write it, you send it in, they draw it, and then it’s like, hey, the comic is done. It’s unbelievable how fast it happens. Compared to the show, where I was working on the show for like a year and a half before I could even tell anyone what show I was working on. The Cone of Silence over the thing is just ridiculous. And now people ask about season two, it’s like, “I can’t tell you.” The comic, boom, comes out right now. It’s very satisfying.
TOONZONE NEWS: Is that going to change? You’ve had all this time to prepare before it started, but since it has begun, will it be quicker?
TIM HEDRICK: Yeah, that’s kind of part of the challenge, just keeping up with the production cycle. In the beginning you can kind of walk, you set everything up, you outline, you’ve got all this time, but once you’re in it, it’s just coming fast. That’s how it goes. That’s a good problem, it means you didn’t get canceled.
TOONZONE NEWS: Do you engage fans more now or do you stay tight-lipped?
TIM HEDRICK: We’re pretty tight-lipped. It’s weird because you drop 13 at once, so you don’t have that time where you’re building up to the finale: “Oh, watch this guy.” You can’t really tweet in between it and get people fired up. It’s out, and then everybody watches it. It’s a little tough and it’s hard because you don’t want to spoil anything. So it makes it difficult to interact, really.
TIM HEDRICK: Yeah, that was a bummer, actually, that that went on. Everybody that wanted to see it, saw it, but it kind of cut off our opportunity to reach a wider audience. But now it’s on Amazon or whatever and anybody can see it. There’s always time to go back and re-binge other shows.
TOONZONE NEWS: I’m glad Korra got so many episodes anyway because of how shaky it was in the beginning.
TIM HEDRICK: That was an interesting production. I think there were a lot of stops and starts in there. We are going to do more, then we’re not going to do more, but yeah, in the end, I thought it turned out really well.
TOONZONE NEWS: Netflix is a good home for Voltron.
TIM HEDRICK: Totally.
TOONZONE NEWS: Do you think Netflix will have more shows similar to Voltron?
TIM HEDRICK: I hope so, yeah. I think that there’s a big viewership for that. They’re bringing shows over all the time, it seems like, from Japan and Korea and then they’ve got some Netflix originals that they’ve done, so I think there’s room for that. The great thing about Netflix is their philosophy seems to be “Not every show needs to reach everybody.” They can make those niche shows, and that’s a cool place to be. That means you can really just find your right audience.
TOONZONE NEWS: If you could adapt any old property, what would it be?
TIM HEDRICK: I was thinking about this the other day because someone else was like, ‘What else is there could possibly be rebooted from our youth?” It’s like they mined every single thing. I don’t know if I’d want to do a straight-up remake, but I really liked Cannonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit, those dumb car chase movies and shows. There were a ton of them. Sheriff Lobo, B.J. and the Bear, Dukes of Hazzard, super dumb, guys racing cars around. I would love to do a show like that. Maybe it would just be Cannonball Run the show, I don’t know, but there’s somewhere in there that I think would be pretty fun.
TOONZONE NEWS: So you see yourself as action plus comedy?
TIM HEDRICK: Definitely, definitely, I think that’s the way I like it. To me, Raiders of the Lost Ark has incredible jokes, and that’s what makes it fun. I just don’t like the new Batman vs. Superman where it’s just dark and dreary the whole time and long. I just think that if you’re making a movie and it’s over two hours long, then you better really look in the mirror and say, “Am I making that good of a movie?” A lot of good movies are like maybe 95, 110 minutes long. But that’s just my opinion. I think you’ve got to have the comedy because it just helps everything move along. Sets it up.
TIM HEDRICK: I really like Lance because he’s really good with jokes but he’s also got a lot of heart, and he projects this ego to protect how he feels about himself, like maybe he’s not the best paladin. I think he’s my favorite.
TOONZONE NEWS: I like Lance a lot, and when he gets hurt, it’s a sad moment.
TIM HEDRICK: Yeah, you feel bad for him, you know? He’s really trying. He’s not the best pilot, he’s not the smartest guy, but he’s really got a good heart. He’s fun. Hunk’s fun too.
TOONZONE NEWS: Hunk surprised me because you gave him layers. He has a mission and he goes for it.
TIM HEDRICK: Yeah, when he goes to the Balmera and has his interactions with Shay and her family, I thought that was a really nice relationship on the show. It was important because it was the first time we see them go out and take the fight to Zarkon to liberate this planet. It’s a big deal on the show, but it’s also a very personal story for him. And maybe there’s just a little bit of romance there. Just a whiff.
Toonzone News would like to thank Joaquim Dos Santos, Lauren Montgomery, and Tim Hedrick for taking the time to talk with us, and the Netflix PR team for setting it up. Voltron Legendary Defender season 1 is streaming now on Netflix, with season 2 currently set to premiere later in 2016. Stay tuned to Toonzone News for more updates on Voltron Legendary Defender!