David Fincher tries animation in ‘Love, Death + Robots’
By Noel Murray
Before David Fincher became an A-list director and multiple Oscar and Emmy nominee — lauded for of-the-moment films such as “Fight Club” and “The Social Network” and the TV series “House of Cards” and “Mindhunter” — he was a co-founder of the production company Propaganda Films. Propaganda was known for its visually dazzling TV commercials and music videos, and Fincher honed his craft in dozens of miniature movies made in myriad styles.
Yet, until recently, he had never directed animation, even though he loves the medium so much that he signed on a few years ago to be an executive producer of the Netflix anthology animation series “Love, Death + Robots,” which returned for its third season Friday.
“Love, Death + Robots” sprung from the ashes of a project Fincher had been developing with “Deadpool” director Tim Miller since the late 2000s: a revival of “Heavy Metal,” the animated movie series inspired by the adults-only science fiction and fantasy comics magazine. The first season of “Love, Death + Robots” debuted in 2019, featuring 18 episodes (ranging in length from 6 to 17 minutes) that adapted short stories by genre favorites such as Peter Hamilton, John Scalzi and Joe Lansdale. An eight-episode second season followed in 2021.
Despite his involvement, Fincher never made a short of his own until Season 3, when he and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (who wrote Fincher’s crime thriller “Seven”) tackled a tale by British science fiction author Neal Asher called “Bad Travelling.” Set on the high seas on a distant planet, the story follows a merchant ship as it is tormented by a giant, intelligent crab that manipulates the crew members and then eliminates them one by one. Fincher described the short as “like a David Lean movie crossed with ‘Ten Little Indians.’”
“Bad Travelling” was made via motion-capture, a computer-aided style of animation in which actors perform on a set and their facial expressions and gestures are mapped directly onto their animated characters. Fincher worked closely with Miller, who co-founded Blur Studio, a special effects and animation company that produced “Bad Travelling,” and Jennifer Yuh Nelson, an artist and filmmaker (“Kung Fu Panda 2”) and supervising director for “Love, Death + Robots.”
In a video interview last week, Fincher discussed the challenges and pleasures of making “Bad Travelling” and the series as a whole, and how he carried his detail-oriented directorial approach to this new medium. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Including this volume’s episodes, there have now been three Neal Asher stories adapted for “Love, Death + Robots.” What is it about Asher that suits this show?
A: Well, “Bad Travelling” was part of our original pitch to do this. We’ve had these giant 4-foot-by-6-foot blown-up copies of really beautiful production art sitting around in the conference room for, good God, 12 years or something. Finally, somebody had to make it. That honor fell to me.
Neal is a favorite of Tim’s, and Tim does most of our curation. He has a list of, like, 350 short stories he’s always wanted to see animated. Neal was one of the first examples that Tim brought up to me of the kind of stuff that’s available out there, to say, “OK, I think this is sustainable.”
Q: That’s an instructive way to think about this series: not just as an anthology of adult animation but also as an anthology of science-fiction stories of varying lengths and approaches.
A: It’s a very difficult thing to write a short story. It’s an art in and of itself to, in the broadest of brushstrokes, bring a reader into an already populated world, make us understand as much as we need to know about the geopolitics or whatever, and then get on with it. It’s what I’ve done making television commercials. That’s a great sandbox to do something with one idea for 30 seconds or two ideas for 60 seconds. I’ve done music videos, which is like a melange of ideas that should hopefully hang together in some abstract way over three to four minutes.
The most difficult thing is to acknowledge the integers. When you have 19 minutes, it’s a very different thing than when you have 22 minutes. You have to force yourself with this material to be terse.
Q: Does your job as a director change, depending on what you’re making?
A: I think any card-carrying member of the DGA knows the acknowledged formula: You want to come into every scene as late as possible, get out as soon as possible and make your point. That can be applied to a lot of different kinds of directing. You can bore people at 30 seconds. I’ve done that. You can thrill people at 2 hours and 45 minutes, and you can bore people at 2 hours and 45 minutes. I’ve done both of those.
I don’t see any of this stuff as slumming. I don’t think of directing television commercials or directing television episodes as a lesser form of directing. And to be honest, that has made my shows like “House of Cards” and “Mindhunter” slightly more expensive than the normal for television programing. Most people think of television as, you know, seven to 10 days of shooting, to produce an hourlong episode. I’ve yet to be able to do it in that time frame. I’m a slow learner, I admit it.
Q: What did you learn from directing animation?
A: When I’m setting up to do a master, I’m thinking in terms of “If this is going to be an over-the-shoulder shot, I either have to get this person away from the door frame or I have to tell the key grip to go get a chain saw.” But in [computer-generated imagery], that kind of stuff doesn’t enter into it. The space is entirely plastic. It was an incredibly freeing, eye-opening, mind-expanding way to interface with a story because so much of live-action storytelling is enduring or working around practical things.
Of course, when you can change anything at a later date, you also have to ask yourself, “How far am I going to kick this can?” You can open up these files and go, “I want the chin to do this, and I want the ears here.” You can modify all this stuff ad infinitum. For somebody who likes to polish as much as I do, at some point they just have to pull it from your cold, dead hands.
Q: With motion capture, is part of your job as a director also to convince the actors that they’re really on a ship, in fear for their lives?
A: Even though you have people in skintight Lycra with Ping-Pong balls hanging off them, you still have to say things like, “OK, in this scene it is the sunset of the third day.” I was working with people from all different kinds of performance-based acting — we had musicians, we had singers. It was an interesting group. And they had no issue being in a leotard, going: “OK, so then I’m fighting the giant crab over here. How big is it? Like two Range Rovers side by side? Where are the eyes? The eyes are on stalks?” You’re attempting to impart this thing that’s totally ridiculous.
But honestly, none of that was as difficult for me as being in the middle of COVID and wearing glasses with goggles and a mask and visor. I didn’t quite realize how much I communicate through my face — a lot of director-actor relationships aren’t about giving a line reading but through the way that you interact and the nonverbal cues. The pandemic gear got in the way of all that.
Q: How much input did you have on the visual design? Was there any illustrator or director you were looking to for inspiration?
A: Tim and Blur had been working on the story for a long time, and they had a lot of production art that felt “Thief of Baghdad”-adjacent. I felt the world itself needed to be a little less phantasmagoric and a little more “Deadliest Catch.” My whole thing was I wanted the people to be at risk of being washed off the deck at any moment. They’re either going to get chewed apart by these blunt-nosed sharks, or they’re going to be dismembered by these pincers of these giant crustaceans.
Q: It must be easier to rip characters apart and spill their guts when you’re working in animation.
A: Yes, and on the water! Like Jim Cameron and Kevin Costner will tell you, there are such things as forces of nature. If you ever do a story that takes place on the high seas, do it in CG, because you’re not going to be chasing the sun, and you won’t be worried about people being crushed between boats or drowning. And you’ll never be waiting around for the wave machine.
Q: Is there anyone you’d like to bring into the fold if you get to make a Season 4?
A: There are a lot, but look, this show takes a while. This episode I did took, like, 18 months. We originally started off wanting to do this with Ridley Scott, Jim Cameron, Zack Snyder, Gore Verbinski. So many friends of mine I went to and asked, “Would you want to do something like this?” And they were like, “Yes!” But the reality is that the only way this show is affordable is if the people who are making it don’t mind losing the money they could be making doing something else.
Are we hoping that the world embraces this show on a heretofore unseen level, making it a no-brainer to increase the subsidy for it? Yeah, that would be great. Until that happens, it’s hard to get the director of “Avatar” or the director of “Pirates of the Caribbean” to drop everything they’re doing and come and play with us.