One of the biggest highlights of Emerald City Comic Con this year had to be the premiere of Voltron: Legendary Defender’s fifth season. The convention center was adorned with a giant banner featuring the Paladins of Voltron as well as the fan favorite villain/anti-hero Prince Lotor and volunteers’ shirts were branded with show’s logo. Convention Scene was fortunate enough to be invited to a roundtable discussion with Executive Produce Joaquim Dos Santos, Co-Executive Producer Lauren Montgomery, designer Christine Bian, and actor Josh Keaton who provides the voice of Shiro. Bian, a Seattle native, also produced the exclusive ECCC poster which was given away to fans attending the premiere.
Naturally, as Legendary Defender is a reboot of the original Voltron series, Defender of the Universe, which in turn was an English-language adaptation of a Japanese anime GoLion, the first questions asked had to do with the challenge of updating a 35 year property and how to keep it fresh while still recognizable to fans. “Initially we had these pillars of the original show we wanted to make sure that we adhere to and we had these meetings where they, for lack of a better term, wanted to “HALO-ify” Voltron and make it very gritty and serious and we’re like, we need it to be fun,” said Dos Santos, “We need to be campy but also dramatic. We need to have comedy, and then beyond that we want them to have a life of its own and become its own thing. And we’ve been lucky to have that.”
From a design aspect Bian noted, “Joaquim had this thing he called the squint test, which means like when you look at the original Voltron, even if you’re squinting, he has such an iconic silhouette, that it’s unmistakable that it’s him. And so that was the key element that we wanted to make sure our Voltron also had.”
Montgomery continued, “The thing that we loved about the old Voltron was he was kind of boxy. He had like these edges on it and so we want to update the lines and make them feel really cool, but we don’t want to lose that element. So you’ll notice they have kind of like a boxier muzzle and then the Yellow and the Blue Lions will have a slightly chunkier look because they’re legs. But then the Green and the Red Lions will be a little softer and sleeker and rounder because they’re arms.”
One aspect of the show which the crew cited in need of updating was the overtly evil archness of its villains. “The quality with the villains being kind of a little goofier here in the older series, like Haggar was very much just like the witchy witch and Zarkon was kind of like “I’ll get you next time, Voltron!” sort of a villain. We knew we had to raise the stakes a little bit with those guys and make them a little more serious,” said Montgomery, “And probably the biggest thing was that Lotor was a little on the pervy side and that’s just, it’s a trope that was really big when I was young, it was in a lot of content and it’s something that we can’t keep doing. I don’t even think an audience today would accept it if you tried to put that out there.” Bian also mentioned the original series’ Galra ships as another update that needed to happen. “I actually love this design because it was so outrageous,” she said “But the Galra and flew around in ships that were literally a coffin flying off into space and had a skull and crossbones and like spider webs on it.”
A huge character shift from the original Voltron was changing Pidge is to be biologically female but originally presenting as a male character, which has been interpreted from some fans to be representative of the transgender or gender fluid community. “Immediately I wanted to bring in more of a female presence so it wasn’t necessarily like we gotta make one of these characters a girl, but I think if none of the characters had really lent themselves to it and we may have thought differently, but Pidge was a character that when watching it as a kid was always a little confusing because he had a very feminine hairdo and he had some fringe and like I was never quite sure what was the deal with Pidge and so it just seemed kind of like a natural transition and in a way that we can just include more females,” said Montgomery, “changing Pidge to a girl really doesn’t change dynamic of the team, doesn’t change who Pidge is as a person and it’s a little bit of a statement of it’s not that hard to just put a female character in the show.”
But more than anything else, the team emphasized that the characters and their development as a team is the single most important aspect of the show. Season 5 will see the Paladins’ growth continue as they wrestle with the issue of whether or not trust new ally Prince Lotor. Dos Santos mentioned that the bayards, the weapons the Paladins carry and use in conjunction with their Lions, originally came from a very marketing-driven place of establishing the Voltron version of a lightsaber, but ended up being an extension of each character, saying “It’s their personal growth sort of representative manifested in this weapon.”
In addressing physical changes to the characters themselves over time, Montgomery noted that subtle differences rarely happen in 2D animation because with several artists working on project the models need to remain consistent. “You think that happens design wise, that would be a thing, but it actually ends up being more of an animation, storyboard thing where our directors and our storyboard artists are staging these characters in the scene, how do they react? And so we try to instill that a little bit in the script from script phase. But luckily a lot of our artists have been with us through like the whole run of the show,” said Montgomery, “They get it and they’ve seen their whole arc.”
Josh Keaton has become a fan-favorite as Shiro, to the point that Dos Santos joked Dreamworks would ask for “30% more Shiro” for episodes in which they felt his presence was lacking. The majority of cosplayers in Voltron outfits during the convention were dressed as Shiro. “It’s been crazy. I knew the show just from reading your early scripts, just at the very beginning. I knew the show was something special, but the extent to which it’s taken off, just the size of the fandom and creativity of the fandom just continues to blow me away,” said Keaton “Every time I go to a con and I’ll see, I’ll see huge cosplay and these are people in full on armor, that lights up and then they’ll even have more obscure cosplays. I saw Galaxy Garrison trio with Lance and Hunk and Pidge they were all in their Garrison stuff. It’s amazing.”
In speaking about his influences, Keaton spoke about how he prepares for voice roles the same as he would a role in a play or movie or live action television show by trying to put himself in the mindset of the character and finding a relatable memory or experience from his own life. He also said that he draws on previous roles such as Spider-Man or Green Lantern. “Some of that found its way into Shiro as well, not the cocky aspect of Hal Jordan, but a lot of the military bearing. I’d say a lot of the parts that I play end up pulling from those in some way in future doesn’t really because that’s just, it adds to my frame of reference.”
Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 5 is now streaming on Netflix.