Lauded by critics and fans alike, Voltron: Legendary Defender's third season is arguably the series darkest, most dramatically dynamic turn yet. So it came as a bit of a surprise when DreamWorks chose the "How to Cow" clip as the Season 4 preview during a New York Comic Con panel presentation last October.
The two-minute scene sees the then-blue paladin Lance walking Princess Allura and her adviser Coran through what can only be described as a milkshake explainer. While most viewers wouldn't bat an eye at where the sweet, chilled treat comes from, Voltron's executive producer Joaquim Dos Santos says he understands why obtaining its key ingredient might be weird for members of an alien race.
"I mean, look, I love milk, but if I were to see an alien [milk] another alien, I'd be like, 'All right, something's wrong here,'" Dos Santos laughed at the convention. "It's funny to flip it, to see from the aliens' perspective what we take for granted as a very common occurrence. In Star Wars [Luke Skywalker] did it to the alien on the rocks and I was like, 'I don't wanna be a part of that.'"
A colorful comedic moment, the clip illustrates a distinct Voltron storytelling trend. One where food is a subtle but evocative tool of world and character building. "How to Cow" makes you laugh while revealing part of Lance's backstory and establishing how different Voltron's planetary food systems are. It's also just one of several multifaceted food moments in the show.
In the episode "The Depths," Lance and Hunk get stranded on a planet where the food source is a mind-controlling predator. The primary ingredient in Hunk's cookies power the castle ship out of enemy clutches in "Eye of the Storm." "Crystal Venom" uses memories of an Altean berry festival to reconnect Allura with her father as a blue, Altean juice makes the paladins long for garlic knots and home in "Fall of the Castle of Lions." Meanwhile, "Changing of the Guard" sees pigs in a blanket become hors-d'oeuvres and a tool for negotiation during a meeting with alien dignitaries.
Where other shows use food as set dressing, Voltron's culinary subplots morph cooking and dining into forms of battle and play, conduits of relationship development, and opportunities for characters to celebrate and share who they are.
"Coming from a Chinese background myself, food plays a huge part in my heritage. It's how I connect with my family," Christine Bian, a Voltron design supervisor, said. "So sometimes the food is representative of a character's heritage or their background. Like on the ship, they get served traditional, ancient Altean food."
Altean cuisine is one of the earliest and most common examples of the way Voltron: Legendary Defender uses what we eat in a narratively significant way. Beyond Nunvill, the aforementioned Altean juice, a green "food goo" serves as both the main source of sustenance on the Castle of Lions and one of the only remaining pieces of Allura's 10,000-year-old culture.
Voltron's Earth-born paladins also see meals used as nods to their human culture and identity. Science fiction often relies on things like music, TV, and books to tell viewers about Earth, but human-inspired pop culture references are largely absent from the Netflix series. Dos Santos and co-executive producer Lauren Montgomery admit that while they could have written in some "boy bands," food was both a necessity and the only thing they could easily recreate.
"When they left, they didn't really know they were going to leave," Montgomery said. "They didn't have time to pack things that they like, but they do need to eat. And generally when they're out and about, the only thing they can find that they need and have ties to is food."
Yellow paladin Hunk is the means by which both those connections are most consistently made. A character designed "to bring people together," Voltron's resident chef is based in part on one of the show's head writers, Tim Hedrick, who Montgomery says infused a bit of his humorous and food loving personality into Hunk. As a result, Voltron's left leg became a galaxy defender who also enjoys whipping various galactic ingredients into Top Chef-esque dishes.
"I think the question with Hunk was always, what if an amazing chef had a flavor profile that was something other than what he or she could find on Earth?" Dos Santos said. "What would that do to them? We thought their mind would be blown. They'd go crazy."
But how does the team behind Legendary Defender churn out all these elaborate edible adventures for their sprawling universe? Daily meetings between designers and the showrunners help cook things up.
"Initially, we go into this blue sky phase, which gets all of our artists together to say this is the prompt from the script, now go off, brainstorm ideas and doodle,'" Bian said. "We check out all of the sketches people have created for us. Sometimes it's a matter of [saying] we really like this part from A and this part from B… From there we tweak small things like, 'We wanted it to look a little bit more like pasta and less like blah.'
"The majority of the time, we let them take the lead, but if there's something we feel strongly about, or that they need a little help with, we'll give them a bit of a direction," Montgomery said of her and Dos Santos' roles in food design. "There are certain cases where we know we wanna go a certain route, so we're like, 'Here is this good thing to reference.'"
Storyboards and key art along with color scripts are among the tools used to chart tonal perceptions of food, which can vary from disgusting to delicious depending on where and what the characters eat.
"The color supervisor looks at everything universally and makes sure all the color is working well with one another," Bian explains. "With a hot dog example, it depends on not just the hot dog's natural color, but its color within the lighting of the scene. A hot dog in one room is gonna look different than a hot dog under the sunlight. The supervisor will adjust the color of it per scene so that it lives correctly in its environment."
"For the alien food, the paladins look at it and are often disgusted by it, so visually we knew it needed to be kind of gross looking to humans," Bian continues. "During the [early] phase of design, some of the original concepts that we had involved a lot of tubes and coils. Sacks — drooping off bowls — is another shape."
While making food look figuratively and literally "alien" can involve a lot of playing with shapes, making it look tasty requires a simple, widely used animation trick: specular highlights.
"It's like a secret ingredient," Bian teased. "Specular highlights make any food look good. Taking the hot dog, if it's just a drawing that's oblong in shape and a purplish-pink color, it's not exactly the most appetizing. But add a couple of little shiny spots on it, and suddenly it's looking like a grilled hot dog. Or with a muffin, when you're looking at it under the light, and it's catching a little bit — we make it glisten."
Getting the appeal of food right is one major challenge of bringing Voltron's culinary world to life. Another is creating menus specific to each planet. According to Montgomery, the underwater spread from "The Depths" was a balance between what they knew and the limits of imagination.
"When deciding what that food was gonna be, we had to think, 'Well, what do they have around?' You're not really gonna put bread under water, but there's a lot of leafy things," Montgomery said. "Then there's the stuff that we just makeup, and it looks like it belongs under water, but it doesn't have to based on any reality because this is an alien planet."
Bian reveals that one of the more difficult food scenes to pull together was in the memorable "Space Mall" episode. During one storyline, Hunk mistakes a menu item for a free sample at Vrepit Sal's diner and ends up having to work off what he owes. In the process, he revamps the menu.
A favorite moment for members of the creative team, the scene addresses one of the biggest questions behind creating alien cuisine for Voltron: Legendary Defender, and really, any imagined universe. Can what they put on screen translate into something viewers meaningfully identify and connect with?
"A challenge when Hunk took [Vrepit Sal's diner] over and he was making this food that everybody wanted was that it still needed to be 'alien' food," Bian said. "Vrepit wouldn't have access to earthly ingredients, so we tried to make the preparation look human. Instead of having a steak cut up with like Béarnaise sauce and chives on it, we'd substitute steak for pink or yellow meat—something that was analogous to an Earth ingredient and we could understand. You might not be sure what it is, but it reminds you subconsciously of something you know."