In 2019, Tim Miller had explained his work on the first season of Love, Death + Robots but also on Terminator: Dark Fate. Today he is back with Jennifer Yuh Nelson, the supervising director on Volume 2 to talk about the new season of his animated anthology!
Jennifer Yuh Nelson is an animator and director who joined DreamWorks Animation in 1998. After several movies like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Madagascar as a story artist, she is the director of Kung Fu Panda 2 and Kung Fu Panda 3. The Darkest Minds marks her first live action film.
What was your feeling to be back on Love, Death + Robots?
Tim Miller // Well, we never really left — we’ve been working on Volume #2 & #3 almost since the release of Volume #1. I would ask the AUDIENCE that question!
How did you react to the great response from the fans for the first season?
Tim Miller // It was extremely gratifying to have actual DATA to support what I’d always hoped was true — that there was a huge audience for the kind of adult animation I’d always dreamed of doing. On many levels, anyone who thinks of themselves as a « storyteller » is essentially an « entertainer, » and so it’s good to know that people are, in fact, entertained.
What are the main changes that you made since the first season?
Tim Miller // Well, having Jenn on board is a big one – she has a keen eye for a story, and we have similar enough taste to work well together — while at the same time having enough differences to provide the needed variety of viewpoints and tone needed to make the show stronger.
How did you get involved in this show?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson // Tim had told me about Volume One of LDR way back before it even started, and I thought it was the coolest dream to do quality adult animation, but I wasn’t available then to do it. When Volume 2 came around, he called me to ask if I could recommend anyone to oversee it, and I didn’t give him any other names but for me.
Can you elaborate on your role in this anthology?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson // As Supervising Director, I oversee the whole show, getting all the different directors and studios to be able to do their best work. It’s a mix of therapist and safety net. Sometimes that means doing storyboards, or mentoring directors doing work that’s new to them, or just making sure they look good in front of Tim.
Can you tell us more about the collaboration between you?
Tim Miller // I read quite a lot, so I fill the POOL of short stories that we then swim through together. The show is as much about the MIX of style, genre, and tone as it is about the individual shorts. So we curate that blend together. We have a lot of spirited but healthy debates about which stories we choose. But after that, we are surprisingly quick to get on the same page with adapting and managing them – we either seldom disagree, or Jen has an excellent poker-face when she doesn’t agree.
What was the biggest challenge this season?
Tim Miller // The biggest challenge is always finding the right stories for the show… the next is finding the right TALENT – studio, director, etc. Covid was certainly an issue for everyone on the show, but we were very lucky that all our teams could power through the difficulties and survive.
Were there any story themes that you wanted to bring to this new season?
Tim Miller // Not really… I love that the show can be ANYTHING… it’s the Swiss army knife of adult animation formats! Having a theme — beyond doing stories and art that excites us — would be limited. I feel… and this show is all about having the freedom to try new and different things.
What were your main influences and inspirations for the new stories?
Tim Miller // Nothing specific beyond just my curiosity as a reader. I love genre material — sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc. — and value all storytelling styles from the « slice of life » structures to « high concept » to straight-up « hero’s journey » types of stories. I like ’em all. But that doesn’t mean I think EVERYONE will like them all — but we hope the show has something for everyone.
How did you choose the various directors and studios?
Tim Miller // We have quite a few « returnees » in the director column and many of the studios we know well because they are Blur‘s competitors in the game trailer space, and we admire their work. Other than that, we simply look for good folks we want to work with and who we believe will make something great.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson // It’s a very organic process. Sometimes we hear about a director doing something very cool, and we try to find a story for them. Sometimes we have a story that begs to be made in a certain medium, such as stop motion, and we look for a director or studio specializing in that. And sometimes, it comes down to having two amazing directors, and we choose according to what style we don’t have yet in the mix.
Can you elaborate on the creative process between you and the directors?
Tim Miller // I hope that we always hand the directors a working script. It can always be better, and the directors can and should bring their unique styles to each. But if the story « house » is built on a solid foundation, I feel we’ve set them up for success.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson // The point of this anthology is to have variety. So we want the particular weirdness and vision each director brings. Sometimes they will do something completely unexpected, and that is what makes the mosaic pattern work.
The various studios are based worldwide. How did you handle this challenge?
Tim Miller // We have a crack team of production folks who do whatever possible to help each of our partners!
Jennifer Yuh Nelson // It’s actually been a silver lining during lockdown that we already were doing remote meetings for most of our studios. We have a lot of zoom calls.
Can you elaborate about directing your own episode?
Tim Miller // I was so happy I got to do THE DROWNED GIANT, which I’d wanted to do for… well, almost my whole life. Thankfully Ballards daughters allowed it after a lot of reassurance that I would do my best not to fuck it up, a promise I could make because I planned to stick very closely to the original short story. In the beginning, it was going to be a hybrid live-action / VFX film, and we would shoot everything except the giant. We got quite far down that path and Sean Haworth (production designer from Deadpool) had figured out how to build pieces of the giant on a beach in New Zealand for our actors to walk on. Steven Pacey, who did the voice of Steven, our main character, was going to do the onscreen acting. Then Covid happened and we decided to do it all-CGI. I’m proud of the way it turned out — the Blur team led by Matias Jourdes did an amazing job on the visuals, and I simply love the sound of Steven Pacey’s voice saying JG Ballards words… it’s hard to explain just how happy that makes me.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson // When I came on, one of the promises was that I’d get to direct too. That’s the fun part. I also got to read all the stories and choose pretty early which one I wanted to do. It was also a chance to direct with the crew at Blur, which was really great.
Why did you choose these specific stories for your episode?
Tim Miller // I’d fallen in love with this story in Highschool… I’d found the book, « Chronopolis and Other Stories » on my father’s bookshelf and enjoyed every story… but this one stuck with me. I highly recommend any and all of Ballards work, like Borges or China Mieville’s short stories; his writing has a sense of other-worldly strangeness mixed with every day.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson // I read all the stories, and Pop Squad just stuck in my brain for days afterward. It suggested questions that could apply to real life. And it was damn dark.
The lighting and rendering work on your episodes are stunning. Can you tell us more about that?
Tim Miller // Blur handled The Drowned Giant – it’s a bit easier for both Jenn and I to work with an in-house team for CG because we can interact with the artist very closely — and I’m proud to say the Blur has collected some of the finest artists in the business. Like everything, it all comes down to great people.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson // The Blur team is pretty world-class. You have this small group of people who aren’t trying to get it done but are trying to push the level of immersion with each shot.
Did you have specific visual references in mind for your episodes?
Tim Miller // I was trying to make the world appear as real as possible – the greater the contrast between the mundane and the fantastic, the more the story would resonate. Ballard’s original story was set in a nameless British seaside town, so I gathered tons of references of towns in Cornwall and the Northeastern English coast.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson // For Pop, I was thinking of how these people are very, very old. We all know how our dads like the car they had during their twenties or how our aunt does her hair as she did in the eighties. People form their aesthetic opinions once and pretty much stick to them. So I was thinking these people, despite all their advancement, like things the way they were. Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Hugh Ferris showed that mix.
Can you elaborate on the animation work for your episodes?
Tim Miller // As close to reality as possible was our goal, and luckily, our friends at Digic allowed us to use their mocap stage remotely since LA was shut down for Covid, but Budapest was still in business. So with their help, we cast actors there, and I directed them over the internet… not ideal because I like to interact with the actors… but it worked. And then the animators at Blur handled the rest — the crowds were one of the main challenges, especially after we decided to handle some passage-of-time scenes in timelapse… but the team, led by Warren Grubb, did a great job with the necessarily subtle animation.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson // Pop was mocap with heavy animation work by the animation team led by Thierry Labelle. In some cases, such as the children, it is all keyframe animation. This was to get real subtle acting from our actors, including facial capture for some of the tense conversation scenes. While also being able to push and manipulate where we needed to. In some scenes, such as the car make-out scene, we took reference and then key animated off that since the rigs wouldn’t allow the actors to touch.
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
Tim Miller // I wouldn’t say I obsess over it, but we’re always hoping that the audience will like what we’ve done… will like the show… will see how much we care and the hard work we’ve put into trying to make something great. That… and there’s always the regret about the ones we DIDN’T do… because there are a TON of beautiful stories up on our « potential short films » board.
Tricky questions, what is your favorite shot or sequence?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson // You love all your children equally unless you want to give them a complex.
Tim Miller // I agree with Jen on this one!
What is your best memory of this show?
Tim Miller // Too many to count… but there is a special feeling when you see the story for the first time really WORKING. Some stories happen in the script… some it doesn’t « click » until the final sound mix, but when it does, I always get this great feeling of accomplishment. It’s not a personal EGO thing at all, and it’s the excitement about bringing a story I love to the rest of the world who I think might enjoy it too.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson // I think we recently got to be at work again for the first time in a year and had lunch outside on the patio. We just ate and were so happy to see each other again. It’s because it’s not just a show, we are all friends.
How long have you worked on this show?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson // Two years. It takes a long time to do animation. Tim has been on, counting all the years he was trying to get this made, maybe 15 years.
Tim Miller // Like… 100 years! Fincher and I have been wanting to do this anthology for a long… long… time.
What is your next project?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson // That’s a secret.
Tim Miller // Jen’s right — Top secret! But before that — we still have more Love, Death, + Robots to do. Aren’t we lucky!
A big thanks for your time.
// Love, Death + Robots | Inside the Animation: Vol. 2
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2021