What happens when animation geeks get the green light to produce what they want? You get Love, Death and Robots from Netflix, an anthology series meant to remind viewers that cartoons aren’t just for kids. You’d think that would be a foregone conclusion by 2022, decades after anime went mainstream, Adult Swim’s irreverent comedies took over the dorms, and just about the network/streaming platform has their own “edgy” animated series (Arcane and Big Mouth on Netflix, Invincible on Amazon Prime).
Still, it’s all too common for the medium to be reduced. At this year’s Oscars, the Best Animated Feature Award was introduced as something entirely for children, prompting filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) to demand that Hollywood the genre instead. Even Pixar’s library of clever and compelling movies is still not seen as “grown-up” stories.
Love, Death and Robots, which just released its third season on Netflix, feels like a crash course in animation’s limitless story potential. It bounces from an adorable entry about robots exploring the remnants of human civilization (the series’ first sequel, 3 Robots: Exit Strategies, written by sci-fi author John Scalzi), to an almost silent, visually luscious cat- and mouse play between a deaf soldier and a mythical siren (Jibaro), to a harrowing tale of whalers being taken aboard by a giant man-eating crab (Bad Traveling, the first animated project directed by series co-creator David Fincher).
Jennifer Yuh Nelson, co-director of Love, Death and Robots, tells Engadget that the animation industry has definitely made strides when it comes to telling more mature stories. “Everyone who works in animation has been talking about getting more adult stuff done because it is [about] the freedom to explore the whole spectrum of storytelling,” she said. “You’re not trying to do things for a certain age group.”
But, she says, animators were also told that the audience for adult projects wasn’t necessarily there. “I think it takes a show” [this] to prove that it is possible [work]and that makes the whole company and the whole corporate city look around and say, ‘Oh, this is a viable thing that people really want to see.'”
Series co-creator Tim Miller (Deadpool, Terminator: Dark Fate) also points to the power of video games, which have been telling adult stories with interactive animation for decades. That’s another industry that was initially thought of as a kid’s toy, but has matured considerably with rich stories, from indie projects, like Kentucky Route Zero, to big-budget blockbusters like The Last of Us. Games and animation practically evolve together, with audiences asking for more complex ideas and creators who grew up with earlier generations of those media. You can’t get to the excellent Disney+ remake of DuckTales, or Sony’s recent God of War, without a taste for the simple delights of the originals.
“Animation has grown like that and reflects the taste of the people who make it and the people who watch it,” Nelson says. “It’s a generational shift. People demand a certain amount of complexity in their story, so they’re not princess movies anymore.”
With each season of Love, Death and Robots, Nelson says she and Miller are focused on finding stories that evoke a sense of “nerd joy.” There is no overarching theme, instead they look for projects with scope, emotion and a potential to be visually interesting. And while none of the shorts have been turned into standalone series or movies yet, Nelson notes that’s a possibility, especially as some authors have explored other ideas within those worlds. (I sure would love to see those three quirky robots mock humanity for an entire season.)
The series also serves as a showcase for a variety of animation techniques. Some shorts show off carefully crafted CG, while others, like Bad Traveling, use motion capture to preserve the intricacies of an actor’s movement or face. Jerome Chen, the director of the military horror film In Vaulted Halls Entombed, relied on Unreal, which makes his piece look like a cutscene from a game I really want to play. And there’s still a lot of love for more traditional 2D techniques, like the wonderfully gory Kill Team Kill (directed by Nelson, a far cry from her playful Kung Fu Panda sequels).
“Technology doesn’t replace art, but through experimentation, these studios can find ways to do things better,” Nelson said. †[The show gives] freedom for all these different studios to try their own language.”
Miller has a slightly different opinion, saying that on some level it’s like “technology is the art and they’re somehow mixed together.” While he agrees with Nelson, who was quick to point out that “artists can create art with a stick,” Miller said you still need a certain level of advanced technology to create photorealistic stories.
The beauty of an anthology series like Love Death and Robots? Both philosophies can coexist while demonstrating the power of animation.
All products recommended by Engadget have been selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories contain affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.