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‘Next Gen’: Netflix’s $30-Million Animated Pickup Taps the Sentient Robot Zeitgeist

A girl and a robot try to preserve memories while saving the world in the China-Canada co-production streaming on Netflix September 7.

NEXT GEN

“Next Gen”

Courtesy of Netflix

Animation

When Netflix picked up the sci-fi animated feature “Next Gen” at Cannes for a whopping $30 million, the streaming giant put the industry on notice that it was serious about animation.

For directors Kevin Adams and Joe Ksander (who first collaborated as art director and animation director, respectively, on the dystopian “9”), it was the best possible distribution opportunity, despite the lack of a theatrical release and Oscar qualification.

NEXT GEN

“Next Gen”

Courtesy of Netflix

“Buying the film for the price they did was great for everybody involved, but more importantly, they’ve been a partner who’s been really supportive of what we were trying to do,” said Ksander of the China-Canada co-production about the unlikely friendship between rebellious 12-year-old Mai (Charlyne Yi) and a runaway weaponized robot, 7723 (John Krasinski).

“Netflix was fine for what it is,” added Adams. “Studios weren’t sure how it fit as animated children’s film with Marvel-like action. Netflix was the most generous and they’re in a place where they can take a risk.”

Indeed, “Next Gen” is smart while still mainstream. It’s based on a comic by artist Wang Nima and the feature was financed by Baozou, the Chinese multimedia company, and made by Toronto-based Tangent Animation. The initial idea was about a broken robot forced to discard its memories to survive. Adams and  Ksander stepped in to write and direct, after helming the short, “Gear,” about a rebellious teenage girl who befriends a robot.

“Next Gen”

“We came up with Mai as a broken little girl [bullied at school and ignored by her mother, voiced by Constance Wu of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’], and they help each other get better,” said Ksander. “7 has to delete its memories every night and she realizes that this robot is more than just a tool for her to get revenge or a toy to have fun blowing up other robots with.”

First, they had to build the future-retro world of Grainland (dubbed “Happy ‘Blade Runner'”). There are hints of LA, New York, China, Japan, and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin suburbia. Yet all of the technology and vehicles contain a ’70s vibe, as Mai and 7 join forces to battle a nefarious tech CEO (Jason Sudeikis) bent on world domination. Action and virtual cinematography are also reminiscent of the ’70s, riffing on “The French Connection” and “Dog Day Afternoon” including authentic shadow and light interaction and anamorphic lens distortion.

NEXT GEN

“Next Gen”

Courtesy of Netflix

But the dramatic thrust revolves around Mai and 7 learning about filling the voids in their lives. “From a design standpoint, we focused on what works best for our narrative,” Adams said. “He’s soft, strong, and round like a bear, but she’s more aggressive in her design. After that, there were different color representations. Rainbows play heavily into Mai’s psyche.”

“He starts out very symmetrical,” added Ksander. “His eyes are perfectly round, he travels by rolling on a wheel like a machine. He was designed to learn morality from humans, so the more time he spends with Mai, the more human he becomes. His eyes get more expressive, he gains a mouth at some point [he walks more like a person].

“Even in the sound design, the guys at Skywalker did a great job at changing the arc of his voice. He starts off very processed with a ‘Star Wars’ robot voice and at the end of his arc with Mai, he’s got no processing at all, just the natural John Krasinki voice, and John made the choice to make him grow from childlike to a little more wise.”

NEXT GEN

“Next Gen”

Courtesy of Netflix

But the survival of the world depends on 7’s sacrificing memories of Mai to preserve his storage capacity. “We deliberately tried to show memories as part of his development,” said Adams. “He keeps getting more of them and the types of memories show what he’s valuing. But towards the end, they’re more randomly placed and we made them warmer like a carousel of old photos.”

“And the ultimate message was we all have negative and positive memories and both of those are important for who we are,” Ksander said. “And even nostalgia represents the pain of remembering the past, and 7 understands that before Mai.”

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