Volume 3 of Love, Death and Robots covers a lot of ground: haunting alien landscapes, terribly realistic sea monsters, beautiful zombie apocalypse. But, even still, one episode in particular manages to stand out: “The Very Pulse of the Machine.” It’s a beautiful, lonely animated short about an astronaut named Martha (Mackenzie Davis) trapped on Io, Jupiter’s desert moon, while perhaps also communicating with the Moon – or maybe she’s just hallucinating. It is based on a short story of the same name by Michael Swanwick and presents an artistic style clearly inspired by the late French artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud.
After the premiere of the new season, I had the opportunity to talk with Emily Dean, who directed the episode, about how the pictures came out, the challenges of adapting the short story, and why she found herself wandering on a beach wearing motorcycle gear. Also, spoiler warning: we discuss the end of the episode and what it ultimately means.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
What was your first contact with this short story? Did you know about it before?
I was invited by Blur Studio to read a set of short stories they were considering for volume two. I read many of them, and I landed on “The Very Pulse of the Machine.” And I just fell in love with the story from the beginning.
What was in it that stood out? Was there anything you thought would work especially well for such an adaptation?
I was really drawn by the psychological element to the story and the notion of this female astronaut stuck on this moon trying to survive. And I really liked the female point of view, but I also loved this conversation that this character had with this unknown entity throughout the story. And I thought that was very existential – not just because of the physical nature of trying to survive on a desert moon but, you know, in a conversation with something bigger than one’s own. I found that very interesting.
It seems that some of these things could be difficult to translate into animation. In the short story, there is a lot of internal dialogue. How did you approach translating that psychological element into a visual environment like this?
So Michael Swanwick, the author of the short story, acknowledged that this was very difficult to adapt for a film. And great credit is due to Philip Glass, the screenwriter who wrote the script for this short story. Because, in the short story, there’s a little more inwardness to the character, and that’s very hard to portray in a kind of third-person way in film production because you’re out of the character watching the character go through these struggles. . So that was a big challenge. We actually had to pretty much downplay the dialogue, the chatter, etc., and externalize a lot of the inner emotions that Martha felt. And a lot of that came from Mackenzie Davis ’acting and just really putting a lot into that vocal work – and also into the animation of the character himself struggling in this environment and in the actual augmentation of the environment and making the world. feels very dangerous.
I guess you saw the blog Michael wrote praising this adaptation. How did that feel? He seemed really psychic about what you did.
It was a great honor, honestly, and a nice surprise.
Going back to what you were talking about with the vocal performances, how did you decide how you wanted the Io unit to sound? In my head, the voice was much less human and more cryptic.
In animation, in the storyboarding phase, when we put together the animatic, we do what is called a scratch voice, where we try different readings. And, at first, we did have that very robotic monotonous voice everywhere. But we found it to be very slow and felt that we were not going through the poetry and the movement and the rhythm of the whole story. So we ended up going with [Holly Jade] and she was absolutely amazing.
How did you decide on the visual style? I feel like it could be some darker, more desolate visual style as opposed to Moebius, who is very poppy and bright.
My personal style is heavily influenced by Moebius, and I love color. But, from my first presentation, I came in and said, “I’d like to make a love letter to Moebius.” And I felt like he wasn’t exactly an unsung science fiction hero, but I felt that way, with Love, Death and Robots – because of his connection with Heavy metal magazine – it was a good place to try his style on screen, which I haven’t really seen done in a long time. Since my first performance, I have come up with many works of art that have invoked Moebius. And I said, “I believe in this story because of its psychological elements, because of its communion with the outside world,” which is a kind of theme for Moebius and his work, especially his. 40 Days in the Desert. It lent itself very well to this psychedelic visual style.
What was it like to invent some of those hallucinogenic scenes?
There was a lot of brainstorming. In my first pass, I got pretty close to Michael Swanwick’s story pretty close, and we found it to be a very long one. And, secondly, we wanted to push some of the elements a little further to capture what the essence of the story was, rather than a literal translation. So, in later steps, I would go into the draft bay, close the door and just draw; put on music and just draw whatever feeling I got from the story, from the script, and put that into storyboards. There were a lot of crazy ideas, like giant astronauts walking around. And those ideas have finally diminished, and you see some of it in the hallucinatory sequences.
But, for me, I really wanted to capture this underwater feeling. Because, for me, growing up in Australia, I used to swim, and I was always amazed at how much life was underwater and how you were in another world and how you have a surface layer to the world and then underground. table. And this whole story, to me, was about how things aren’t all the way you see them on the surface. It could be a desert moon, but below, there is a prosperous life.
Do you remember any ideas that were a little too weird to make it the final product?
There were some technological limitations. At one point, I imagined that Martha was completely melting, her body was just melting in this psychedelic way. And she kept walking while bits of balls fell, floating out of her body. And that turned out to be very difficult to do. But we also felt that, creatively, we had probably strayed a bit from the story.
You worked with Polygon on that. Were there any particular challenges in translating the Moebius style into 3D?
So Polygon Pictures in Japan, they are amazing. And I give them incredible amounts of praise for all their hard work. But they come from an anime background, and so, bringing in this completely different style that is very French, we actually had to work with a few French artists to do some concept art to begin with, just to somehow prove the difference in sensitivity. . From a creative point of view, there was such training for the studio team in this new look, which really meant going back to the basics of art, which was really fun because I used to do substitute teaching. So that was a little fun for me.
And then, on the technology side, that was also very difficult. I believe that Polygon had to create a whole bunch of new tools in their software and reset their pipeline in many ways to accommodate this project. To go back a bit, I first presented this project in the summer of 2019 with the idea that this piece would be part of the second volume. But due to the pandemic, and also due to the technological difficulty of this piece, it was pushed to volume three. And so, there was a lot going on and on about things like where each line should be on Martha’s face, and the line weight of everything, because it’s very easy when you have so many lines across the background and on the character to lose. focus or to make the images very busy. And then integrate the character with the environment.
Color was also a great conversation for us. And I’m very proud of the color work that has been done on this piece. Solid sulfur is yellow, and when it is melted, it shines with such an iridescent blue color. And so, we used that as the template for our entire color script. And the whole journey of the story through color is this midday to night kind of color palette that I wanted to do because I wanted to show how, when you see it from a different perspective, you see it in a completely different way. What looks like a desert, sulfur moon, is actually full of life.
Besides ironing out those technical and artistic details, were there any other ways that you used that extra time?
I had to go to Japan to work with the team at Polygon, but obviously no trips will take place. And the animators needed a reference to how an astronaut would move across a desert in space. So I went and put on a motorcycle helmet and motorcycle gear and got weight and straps and went out to Santa Monica beach and filmed myself dragging what would be the standard for a corpse on the beach and falling and making my own. basic stunt work, which was a lot of fun. But it was to show the weight of the body, how the body gets tired from dragging a heavy weight across a sandy surface. We also had conversations about gravity different on Io than on Earth. But we wanted to go with something that was believable. So we chose to go with something a little closer to the gravity of the Earth.
In both versions of the story, the ending is quite ambiguous and left to the reader or viewer. Do you have an opinion on what happened to Martha?
I chose to take the ending a little more than Michael did in his short story. In the short story, she jumps and flies, and that’s all we know. However, I wanted the satisfaction of seeing what’s under that lava and what’s under the surface – or suggesting it, at least. And so, we follow Martha as she descends into the depths. And, in my opinion, she’s merging with Io. The question I didn’t really focus on was whether she was merging with Io. But, more importantly, if she merges with Io, is she still Martha? I wanted to leave that to the public.