Executive producers Tim Miller and Jennifer Yuh Nelson fill us in on the second season of Netflix’s animated-shorts anthology series, which conjures lovingly-crafted sci-fi and fantasy worlds, features incredible life-like animation, and is not for kids.

Love, Death & Robots volume 2

(Photo by Netflix)

When Netflix’s eclectic animated sci-fi anthology series Love Death & Robots returns on Friday, it will unleash a new set of eight startling visions that recall anthology magazines like Heavy Metal in terms of well-rendered worlds and intense short subjects. It is a different style of series for the service, which tends to support serialized storytelling, so if you happen upon the program while browsing Netflix this weekend, you may wonder what the program is all about.

Fortunately, executive producers Tim Miller and Jennifer Yuh Nelson spoke with Rotten Tomatoes about the new shorts and how the series uses animation to tell different kinds of stories. With their assistance, here are some things to know before you push play.

1. It Creates Lovingly Rendered Sci-Fi Worlds

Love, Death & Robots volume 2

(Photo by Netflix)

As Nelson pointed out, the second set of shorts have a common thematic tie: “showing the worlds” created by the various filmmakers and animation studios involved in the project. Although, both she and Miller agreed that commonality is more of an unconscious decision enabled by the format.

“Animation allows you to create worlds in a way that’s so liberating. It’s almost like the worlds become characters to these allegorical stories that ground these questions and challenging ideas in a way that’s accessible to people,” she explained. “And in a short, it’s kind of insane the amount of world-building that we did for something that’s 15 minutes.”

One example of this tantalizing worldbuilding is the short “Snow in the Desert.” Set in a rocky landscape, the stark beauty of a distant alien world — and the clues indicating why anyone would choose to live there — offers the story a richness thanks to elements which are entirely visual.

“It’s an amount of world-building that you would do for a feature, and it just is for 15 minutes, and then it’s gone,” Nelson continued. And, perhaps, the fleetingness of those realities helps them seem more alive. It also means the sensation you may feel of having left Snow’s desert or a field of tall grass too soon is entirely intentional.

Miller added, “But it is nice that [the viewer] wants more. I love the short and sharp.”

2. It Utilizes Some Great Sci-Fi Short Stories As Jumping- Off Points

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(Photo by Netflix)

Like the first volume, Love, Death & Robots continues to use some great and evocative short stories as the creative jumping-off point for each film. The tall grass story comes from a story written by Joe Lansdale and may constitute the most frightening tale of the second volume. Other shorts are based on the works of Rich Larson, Joachim Heijndermans, and Harlan Ellison among others.

“We’re free to choose whatever stories we want, obviously, for the mix, but as Jennifer will tell you, I get a little obsessive about being true to the story once we’ve chosen them,” Miller said. “I feel such a debt to the authors. They had the original flash of brilliance … The story wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for them having an idea.”

Although the tendency is to be faithful to the original text, some changes do occur for a variety of reasons.

“Sometimes [it is] a concession of the format, or going into the visual nature of film versus the written work,” Nelson explained. “But it’s always been a respect to the original spirit of the story.”

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The short she directed, “Pop Squad,” features an altered ending from Paolo Bacigalupi’s story. Despite that change, Nelson felt the “relevant” nature of the author’s work still comes through in the finished film.

“It’s the idea of what happens to society, relationships, the meaning of life when a basic tenant of something that you live under is changed. Some limitation is removed,” she explained. “I think that is something we’re probably going to have to face as a society at some point.”

Although to elaborate further would constitute a spoiler for “Pop Squad,” its philosophical conundrum may prove to be the most harrowing issue some viewers are confronted with in Volume 2.

3. It Very Nearly Crosses the Uncanny Valley … Even If the Producers Aren’t So Sure

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If you recall some of the early attempts at creating human characters in computer generated animation — Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, for example — you may note that the program also highlights the breathtaking advancements in crossing the so-called Uncanny Valley: the limitation of 3D CG animation to convincingly render those characters without some form of abstraction.

“It gets closer every day,” Miller said. “Generally, I find that if you have a character that’s just standing there, and smiling and emoting, or frowning, we can say we’ve crossed the Uncanny Valley.”

At the same time, Miller maintained that dialogue is still “a different animal” and presents a further hurdle in seeing the other side of the valley. Thanks to the growing sophistication of that branch of the medium — and some visual trickery to avoid traditional close-ups — the viewer’s eye may not be so drawn to the aspects of human speech CG animation has yet to conquer.

Nevertheless, it is still a far cry from the early attempts to render human characters in CG animation 20+ years ago. Those hollow and glossy puppets have been replaced with far more detailed and visually appealing characters who move in very convincing ways. Nelson credits that increased appeal to a better understanding of how to get good acting out of the animation programs.

“If you have good acting, you forget that it’s animated. It could be a stick figure [or] it could be a super realistic face, if you feel for the character, you’re there with the character and you’re not looking at whether that nose looks right,” she said.

But as Miller pointed out, the Uncanny Valley is rooted in the human brain’s primal need to suss out friend or foe.

“You’re often trying to overcome something that is hard to quantify because it’s an unconscious understanding of how facial muscles work,” he explained. Consequently, some will see the humans rendered in Volume 2 of the series as more successful than others.

4. It Also Celebrates Other Animation as a Complex Form of Filmmaking

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While many of the shorts utilize a very realistic CG style, several of them go for something more stylized in terms of the characters, the overall design, or something the viewer might perceive as more arty. As Miller explained, “The Tall Grass” was designed by Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia episode director Simon Otto to have a “painterly texture, so you almost see an illustration come to life.”

“He’s an amazing animator so he wanted to make things feel like fitting in that world,” Miller continued. “And he wanted to make sure that the acting, and the animation, and the looseness, and the frame rate actually worked with that sort of stylized texture.”

Although Miller thought the original Landsdale story could become a very compelling live-action short or feature, Otto’s “conscious artistry” was half the thrill of producing it as an animated film.

(Photo by Netflix)

“That’s where I think animation is superior, because not only are you worried about all the things that you have to worry about in live action, but there’s this whole other layer where you can do things; this creative layer, whether it’s a choice of style or animation. You can do stop motion, you can do 2D, you can do 3D. There are a lot of decisions that fall outside the realm of what you do when you’re doing live action.”

That sense of artistry runs right through the volume, whether it’s the more caricatured humans of “Automated Customer Service,” the 2D look of “Ice,” or Miller’s very grounded CG short, “The Drowned Giant.”

5. It’s Not Afraid To Be Melancholy

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By not needing to support a serialized story or build up a single, franchise-able world, the program also has to the freedom to do something rarely seen in Western animation: be melancholy. “The Drowned Giant,” for example, is a rumination on mortality via the slowly decomposing corpse of a giant human man which inexplicably washes up on the British coastline. And though Miller mentioned it has a certain joke at the end of the short, it never goes back to the song-and-dance default conclusion of so much American animation — whether that means a literal song-and-dance or just a more upbeat ending.

In the case of “The Drowned Giant,” the impulse was also to follow the tone as laid out by the story’s author, J.G. Ballard.

“If you read the short story, you will absolutely recognize that it is a translation of that story. It’s told in the same way, it’s told with the same tone that Ballard did. And because I love the story, it didn’t even occur to me that I should try and push it one way or the other,” Millar said.

And though that is the tone of “The Drowned Giant,” don’t expect all of the shorts to have that same contemplative and melancholic feel. Some are rousing, others crescendo in a punchline. Nelson’s short, “Pop Squad,” may leave you pondering its central question for some time after. That variety is key to the notion of an animated anthology even as it offers a filmmaker like Miller to do something which would otherwise be “too downbeat” to produce.

Nelson said the important thing is to create “entertainment value, optimism, [and] positivity,” where appropriate, but not the song-and-dance finale. Then again, who knows, maybe the next set of Love, Death & Robots shorts will feature a sci-fi musical with a showstopping ending. As with the melancholy of “The Drowned Giant,” anything is possible in the program’s format.

Love, Death & Robots: Volume 2 launches on Friday, May 14 on Netflix.

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