‘Zima Blue’: Robert Valley on Directing Netflix’s ‘Love, Death & Robots’ Short

     April 19, 2019

zima-blue-interview-robert-valley-cara-spellerIf you haven’t seen Netflix’s R-rated animated anthology series Love, Death & Robots, first of all, what are you waiting for? And secondly, you’re missing out on excellent adaptations of award-winning stories by awards-worthy animators and filmmakers. David Fincher and Tim Miller brought the 18-episode epic to the content-streaming masses, but it fell to studios like Passion Animation and animators like the Oscar-nominated Robert Valley (Pear Cider and Cigarettes) to bring the individual stories to life, like the incredible short, “Zima Blue.”

This tale, adapted from Alastair Reynolds’ own short story, just so happened to be my favorite of the bunch; you can see how I felt the other segments stacked up in my review. So imagine my delight when I had a chance to chat with Valley and Passion Animation Studios executive producer Cara Speller about “Zima Blue” and how it came to be. Below, you’ll get insider insight on how the shorts-selection process for Love, Death & Robots came about, how Valley and Passion ended up adapting “Zima Blue”, and just how long it took to settle on a design (and a specific color) for the title character. It’s a must-read for fans of animation and all things Love, Death & Robots, now streaming on Netflix.,

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Image via Netflix

How exactly did Passion Animation Studios make the shortlist of studios that would be creating shorts for Love, Death & Robots?

Robert Valley: After the Pear Cider and Cigarettes Oscar run we had, there seemed to be lots of cool projects on the table, gradually, one by one, they all started to fall away; Zima Blue was the only project left standing (Back then we didn’t know what the series was called). Gabriele Pennacchioli was the person who reached out first on behalf of Blur; something tells me he was instrumental in getting me connected with this project. (Thanks Gabriele.)

Cara Speller: We were contacted by Blur Studios who were already interested in working with Rob on this anthology and knew that we had a great relationship with him. Any excuse to work with Rob, we’re onboard!

How did Passion end up adapting Alastair Reynolds’ short story Zima Blue? Was it assigned by Netflix, selected from a list of available stories, or was it something Passion campaigned for?

Valley: Once Gabriele and Blur reached out, they asked if I had any stories I wanted to submit for their series. At which point I submitted a little short story from one of my Massive Swerve books. They said, “No thanks, but how about this Alistair Reynold’s story?” Cara and I read the “Zima Blue” story and instantly thought it was something we wanted to do.

Speller: It was actually a favourite story of Tim Miller’s, and he was the one who suggested it would be a good fit for Rob. When we read the story, we absolutely agreed.

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Image via Netflix

Zima Blue is unique among these stories since it feels very much like traditional sci-fi but also incredibly artistic at the same time. What aspects of the story were most meaningful for you?

Speller: That search for meaning – in your work, your life, your relationships, your very existence, is a very powerful concept – and one I’m sure most people question at some point in their lives. Zima’s drive to create ever more monumental artworks and his insatiable desire to discover his own truths, even if that ultimately results in the undoing of him, is a beautiful way of exploring that.

Valley: What has been really interesting for me is what people are pulling out of this story. I have read all sorts of things about what people think it means. One fellow in particular was convinced this story is about the Flat Earth. I am going to reserve my own opinion about what I think this story means.

Cara, what made Rob such a good fit to direct this particular adaptation?

Speller: For starters, he’s an extremely talented artist! Rob has a very dry, distinctive tone and way of viewing the world that made him a perfect fit to relay Zima’s story.

Rob, whether it’s Pear Cider and Cigarettes or your work with the Gorillaz, your visual style stands out in a sea of sameness. (It was refreshing to see a very different aesthetic in Zima Blue.) How did you merge your specific style with the story elements of Zima Blue?

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Image via Netflix

Valley: Oh man…. I had quite a different and more distorted vision of this job to start off with. I did what I usually do and made Zima about 11 heads tall with huge hands, thinking this all looked perfectly normal. Gradually we made some changes to the design, not huge changes but we normalized the proportions a bit. My idea for Zima was that he should look like Miles Davis with the body of Usain Bolt… Those intense, staring, Miles Davis eyes I thought would be perfect for Zima.

Were there any particularly difficult challenges in adapting this story, whether it was the length of the adaptation, animation hurdles, etc.?

Valley: Somehow we had to take a 20 page short story and cut it down to 8 or 9 minutes of screen time. That was a difficult task because there were so many interesting bits of the original story we had to cut out. At the end of the day, we wanted to stay as true to Alistair Reynold’s story as possible.

How long did it take you and your animation team to settle on the perfect color/hue for “Zima Blue”?

Valley: LOL, yeah that took a while, Alistair Reynolds’ story referred to a certain hue of aquamarine. Robh Ruppel and I went back and forth on this for a while before we settled on the final color.

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Image via Netflix

About how long did the process take to go from the initial pitch or concept to the final product?

Speller: Blur Studios first sent us the original Alastair Reynolds story in January 2017, and we delivered the final cut of the film 14th August 2018.

What was it like to create one of the first adaptations of Reynolds’ stories after 30 years’ worth of his work?

Valley: It was a great treat to have the opportunity to work on one of his stories. Very exciting for us.

Speller: We hope that we have done it justice!

How great was Kevin Michael Richardson as the voice of Zima? And how did you come across Emma Thornett to voice Claire?

Speller: Kevin Michael Richardson is an incredible talent who we have worked with before – on Marvel’s Rocket & Groot shorts. He’s just fantastic and he nailed Zima straight away. Rob wanted an English voice for Claire so we cast her here in London and she was a joy to work with.

Valley: Oh man… the casting… that took a long time. Emma Thornett hit it out of the park right away. Zima on the other hand was a bit more difficult. Once we got Kevin Michael Richardson involved I realized what it was like to work with a real seasoned professional. He came in fully prepared and gave us exactly what we wanted. It was a true pleasure working with both of them.

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Image via Netflix

How has the response been to Zima Blue since its release?

Speller: Really fantastic! It’s so exciting to see people’s reaction to the film – when you’re in production it’s a very intense concentrated experience without any external perspective, and you don’t really have any idea how people will respond to it. When it’s positive, that obviously a very rewarding feeling.

Valley: The response has been good, really good. I love this short anthology format for a TV series.

What’s up next for Passion Animation Studios?

Valley: Cara and I have been cooking up something special. It’s something which has been in development for many years now.

Speller: We’re developing a series of short stories with Rob that we would love to make – watch this space!

Love, Death & Robots is now streaming on Netflix.

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