A Girl and Her Robot: ‘Next Gen’ Arrives on Netflix

Writer and directors Kevin Adams and Joe Ksander discuss the making of the Chinese-Canadian animated co-production about the bittersweet power of memories.

Set to debut on Netflix on Friday, September 7, CG-animated feature Next Gen is a funny, exciting and heartwarming adventure that explores the bittersweet nature of memory and celebrates the value of friendship. Written and directed by Kevin Adams and Joe Ksander, the offbeat action-comedy tells the story of the unlikely bond between an angry 12-year-old girl named Mai Su and a runaway combat robot, numbered 7723, as they team up to defeat a madman’s plans for world domination.

A girl and her robot. Written and directed by Kevin Adams and Joe Ksander, ‘Next Gen’ makes its U.S. debut on September 7. All images courtesy of Netflix.

Next Gen is produced by Javier Zhang, Jeff Bell, Ken Zorniak, Patricia Hicks, Charlene Kelly and Olivia Hao. The Chinese-Canadian co-production was produced by China’s Baozou Manhua, with the animation provided by Toronto-based Tangent Animation. Netflix picked up worldwide rights (excluding China) to the film at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year in a much buzzed-about $30 million deal.

Based on an online comic about a damaged robot by anonymous Chinese television personality Wang Nima — who is best known for wearing a radish head mask — and produced by Baozou, Next Gen examines memory and loss amid complicated family relationships. The film stars Charlyne Yi as Mai, John Krasinski as 7723, David Cross as the loveable Steve Wozniak-inspired Dr. Rice, Michael Peña as a foul-mouthed French bulldog named Momo, Jason Sudeikis as corporate megalomaniac Justin Pin, and Constance Wu as Mai’s robot-addicted mother, Molly.

Next Gen is set in a high-tech city of the future called Grainland, a vibrant, buzzing world endowed with a level of detail usually only seen in live-action movies. Production designer Craig Sellars, who had previously worked on live-action films such as Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Robert Zemeckis’s forthcoming Marewncol, was brought on board early during pre-production in order to help create the look of Grainland, which combines a retro mid-century vibe with a futuristic aesthetic from the 1970s and 80s.

Adams and Ksander have collaborated since 2009, when they both worked on the animated feature 9, and discovered a shared love of Kung-Fu movies and The Abyss. A Toronto native, Adams  began his career at Disney Feature Animation, where he worked on now-classic films like Hercules and The Emperor’s New Groove. He went on to production design at DreamWorks Animation and Reel FX Animation, and was the creative director of ARC Animation. Ksander grew up in Silicon Valley, where his obsession with monsters and spaceships drove him into a career in visual effects. He animated characters for movies like The Chronicles of Narnia, Pacific Rim and Transformers: Age of Extinction, and also worked as an animation director at Walt Disney Imagineering, where he animated the full-scale Na’vi Shaman figure for Pandora – The World of Avatar.

AWN had a chance to catch up with the writer-director duo to discuss the making of Next Gen, including the genesis of the story and characters and the development of the look of the film. read the full Q&A, which has been edited for length and clarity, below:

AWN: How long have the two of you been working on this project?

Joe Ksander: I started about three years ago. It was an earlier iteration of this movie where I was just helping out as a friend art directing for somebody. But we both came on as writers in January of 2016, and then, about a month later, Olivia Hao, our producer, asked us to also come on as directors. So really, we’ve been on as writer directors since January of 2016.

AWN: And where were the two of you based while you were working on the film?

Kevin Adams: Originally in Burbank, and then we spent most of the production in Canada, because the bulk of production was done at Tangent Animation in Toronto.

JK: Yeah, it was about a year in Burbank doing editorial and story. We were also working with a Toronto storyboard studio called House of Cool during that time, but we were based in Burbank until January of 2017. Then we both moved back to Toronto full-time, although we still both came back to California quite a bit because the voice actors were there, and stuff like that.

AWN: And were you also working with a team at Baozou, in China?

KA: In the beginning, we did story sessions with them to try to find which elements they liked from the earlier versions of the film, and then we put that stuff away. Then there was some correspondence, mostly with Olivia Hao, the EP on this project.

JK: Baozou is a Chinese multimedia company that produces all kinds of online and TV content. But they are also an online comedy group. Early on, in the outline phase, we were working with their writing team to hash out some of the big story issues and come up with gags and stuff. We worked with them pretty closely, and actually traveled to China, in January 2016, to meet with Olivia and the rest of the team. She showed us around parts of China like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, places she thought would be inspirational for the film, and a lot of that showed up in the design of Grainland.

AWN: Describe Grainland for us, and tell us some of the thinking that went into the development of the look of the city.

KA: Grainland is a fictional location, roughly based on, as Joe says, Chinese cities like Guangzhou, but also with a heavy mix of American cities like Los Angeles and New York. There’s also a touch of Amblin influence to a lot of things as well. We can’t help but reference the stuff we loved while growing up, so Mai’s neighborhood, for example, has a little bit of ET in it, as well as a little bit of China.

JK: We often refer to the city as Happy Blade Runner.

KA: When we were talking to our production designer, Craig Sellers, he was very excited about 1970s neo noir, because we were really trying to push the idea of not referencing animation, and referencing more live-action movies and old neo-noir films.

AWN: Sellers has background primarily in live-action, right?

KA: Craig is an old friend of mine from my Disney days, but since then he’s gone on to design Guardians of the Galaxy and stuff like that. But we got him specifically because he didn’t really do animation. In fact, when we had our first meeting and started talking to him, he said, “Well, you know, guys, I don’t really do animation.” And it was like, “Well, that’s exactly why we’re here to talk to you!”

JK: We were talking about things like the French Connection, The Parallax View, 70s neo-noir techniques for shooting a city that were unexpected, especially in animation, using a different kind of film language. Craig was really excited by that, and he brought a lot of influence to it, including a heavy dose of Canadian brutalist architecture from that era. So it’s a mix of us visiting Shanghai, us watching Blade Runner, and Craig taking his own architectural inspiration from the stuff around him, visiting universities and stuff in the areas around Ontario that had that look to it.

KA: We actually used a lot of 70s design references, but we tried to be selective about it. Mostly people do bell bottoms and afros, but there’s also a lot of really cool architectural and industrial design from that era, and a lot of the elements in our movie are influenced by that.

AWN: You also mentioned Amblin and Blade Runner as influences. Are there other cinematic references?

JK: We definitely captured ET in there, but there’s also movies we grew up with like Akira and Macross, and a lot of Japanese animation from the 80s like Cowboy Bebop. In the 70s things were a little more cartoony, but in the 80s things were given more of a live-action feel, but in a pushed animation kind of way. Because we were doing animation that was inspired by live-action, we looked at a lot of the tools that they used, and plus there’s just all cool robot stuff that we loved from that era that we referenced as well.

KA: In fact, if you go through the movie, it’s just chock full of references. You can call them an homage if you want, but really we loved the stuff that we loved, and so instead of hiding from it, as long as we’re not copying it, we’re happy to reference to it.

JK: Yeah, especially when you’re doing a modern movie about robots. There’s a whole history of movies about robots and you can’t ignore that. We imagined a world where it’s like that future that takes place maybe on a different timeline. It’s much more influenced by the 70s and early 80s, and so there’s definitely a thread of that in the design.

AWN: Talk about the casting. I know you made an effort to avoid whitewashing, as far as the Asian characters in the film are concerned, but can you talk a little more about how you found your cast?

JK: A lot of that — not being forced to whitewash the characters — came from the support of Olivia Hao and her team at Baozou. They had no interest in doing a movie specifically about white people. They just wanted us to tell the story that we needed to tell, and these are Asian or Asian-American characters.

KA: We were cognizant of the whitewashing because, especially when we started, there were a few movies that came out where it annoyed us, so we wanted to at least be fighting the good fight. Allyson Bosch was our casting agent, and she helped us find amazing actors and actresses, which I think should always be the main goal. We went for a small number of people who we were really excited about and we got most of them, which is great.

JK: One of the things we were looking forward to is working with people who play comedy, so folks like Constance Wu, Jason Sudeikis and Charlyne Yi, who are great actors but they also understand comedy, because there’s a natural sense of timing, even when they’re doing drama or big action moments, there’s a natural rhythm and entertainment to the way they can play against each other.

There’s a sequence near the end of the film where Molly, Mai’s mom, has an emotional confrontation with her daughter. She lets out all of her emotional angst, and they come together, and it’s a big reunion moment. But we had to get it done fast, so we leaned into the fastness of it, and in the early track record we actually sped up the dialog. But Constance was like, “No, let me try it. Let me try it.” She hit it at 100 miles an hour, and it’s one of the funniest bits in the movie. Mom just spilling her guts, the entire emotional arc spilling out in something like 15 seconds. It’s pretty spectacular.

AWN: The soundtrack is very striking as well, especially the opening track, Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl.” Tell us about the music in the film and what influenced those choices.

KA: The composers, [Los Angeles-based songwriting duo] Alexis & Sam, were a large part of that. We’ve worked with them and their indie group DYAN before on other projects, but they’re equally at home doing big orchestral stuff. They’ll do that giant orchestral piece at the end for a 60-piece orchestra, but they can also write a Punk Rock song or an indie song. All the humming and singing in Mai’s bedroom is all Alexis and Sam. That’s very much their voice, which makes it very specific.

The other part of it was that, in the movie, we wanted to express Mai’s inner angst in two ways. One, that there’s an angry voice there. That’s the person that she wants to be, the rage person. Then there’s an inner, more innocent side of it. Thematically, we said, “Okay, there’s an acoustic, raw version of that,” which is ukuleles and so on, and then there’s the heavy version, which is Punk Rock songs.

JK: It’s worth mentioning that all the songs that represent Mai are all female voices, female vocals, even the Heavy Metal and Punk Rock and stuff like that. For one, it’s a fresh sound. But it speaks to what’s going on inside Mai. There are a couple of background songs that are male voices, but those don’t represent May; they represent other things in the world. If you can track her emotions listening to the songs that she’s listening to, you can put the audience in Mai’s headspace.

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