Volume 3 of Love, Death and Robots covers a lot of ground: haunting alien landscapes, frighteningly realistic sea monsters, cute zombie apocalypses. 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, a desolate moon of Jupiter, while also possibly communing with the Moon – or maybe she’s just hallucinating . It is based on a short story of the same name by Michael Swanwick and features an art style clearly inspired by the late French artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud.
After the new season premiered, I had a chance to talk to Emily Dean, who directed the episode, about creating the visuals, the challenges of adapting the novella, and why it’s so great. is found wandering on a beach while wearing motorcycle gear. Also, spoiler warning: we discuss the end of the episode and what it ultimately means.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What was your first contact with this news? Did you know before?
I was invited by Blur Studio to read a bunch of short stories they were considering for volume two. I read a lot of it and landed on “The Very Pulse of the Machine”. And I fell in love with the story from the start.
What stood out? Was there anything you think would make it work particularly well for an adaptation like this?
I was really drawn to the psychological element of the story and the notion of this astronaut stranded on this moon trying to survive. And I really loved 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 desolate moon but, you know, being in conversation with something bigger than yourself. I found that very interesting.
It looks like some of this stuff might be tricky to translate to animation. In the short story, there is a lot of internal dialogue. How did you approach this psychological element in a visual medium like this?
So Michael Swanwick, the writer of the short story, admitted that it was a very difficult story to adapt for a film. And great credit goes to Philip Glass, the screenwriter who wrote the screenplay for this short story. Because in the short story there’s a kind of interiority in the character, and that’s very difficult to portray in a third-person way in film because you’re outside of the character watching the character go through these struggles. So it was a big challenge. We actually had to reduce the dialogue, chatter, etc. a bit, and externalize a lot of the inner emotions that Martha was feeling. And a lot of that came from Mackenzie Davis’ performance and the investment in that voice work – and also in the animation of the character itself struggling in that environment and actually raising the stakes of the environment and creation of the world feel very unsafe.
I guess you saw the blog post that Michael wrote praising this adaptation. What did you feel ? He seemed really excited 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 entity to sound? In my head, the voice was much less human and more enigmatic.
In animation, in the storyboard phase, when we put the animatic together, we do what’s called scratch vocals where we can test out different playbacks. And, initially, we had this very robotic monotone voice throughout. But we found it to be very stunted and felt like it didn’t convey the poetry and movement and rhythm of the whole story. So we ended up going with [Holly Jade] and she was absolutely fantastic.
How did you choose the visual style? I feel like it could have become a kind of darker, more desolate visual style as opposed to Moebius, which is very pop and bright.
My personal style is heavily influenced by Moebius and I love the color. But, from my very first pitch, I walked in and said, “I’d like to write a love letter to Moebius.” And I had the impression, not that he was exactly an unsung hero of science fiction, but I felt that, with Love, Death and Robots — because of its connection with heavy metal magazine – it was a fitting place to try out her on-screen style, which I hadn’t really seen in a long time. From my very first pitch, I came up with a lot of artwork that kept Moebius coming back. And I said, “I believe in this story because of its psychological elements, because of its communion with the outside world”, which is kind of thematic for Moebius and his work, in particular his 40 days in the desert. It lent itself very well to this psychedelic visual style.
What was it like making up some of these hallucinogenic scenes?
There was a lot of brainstorming. On my first pass, I pretty much followed Michael Swanwick’s story very closely, and we found that it was getting very long. And, second, we wanted to push certain elements a bit more to capture what the essence of the story was, more than a literal translation. So on subsequent passes, I would walk into the edit bay, close the door, and just draw; put music on and draw whatever i felt from the story, script, and put it into storyboards. There were a lot of crazy ideas, like giant astronauts walking around. And those ideas ended up being reduced, and you see some of that in the hallucinatory sequences.
But, for me, I really wanted to capture that underwater feeling. Because for me, growing up in Australia, I used to go swimming, and I was always amazed at how much life there was underwater and how you were in a different world and how you have a surface layer in the world and then a subterranean layer. And this whole story, for me, was about the fact that things are not all as you see them on the surface. It might be a desolate moon, but below there is life thriving.
Do you remember any ideas that were a bit too wacky to make the final product?
There were some technological limitations. At one point I imagined Martha completely melting away, her body just melting away in this psychedelic way. And she kept walking as little pieces of globules fell, floating off her body. And it turned out to be very difficult to do. But we also felt that, creatively, we were probably moving away from the story a bit.
You worked with Polygon on this. Were there any particular difficulties in translating the Moebius style into 3D?
So Polygon Pictures in Japan, they’re fantastic. And I give them incredible praise for all their hard work. But they come from a lively background, and so, bringing this completely different style, which is very French, we actually had to work with French artists to do concept art to begin with, just to demonstrate the difference in sensibility. From a creative perspective, there was kind of a training for the studio team in this new look, which really meant going back to the fundamentals of the art, which was really fun because I had the habit of doing substitute work. So it was kind of fun for me.
And then, on the technology side, it was also very difficult. I think Polygon had to create a whole new set of tools in their software and reconfigure their pipeline in a lot of ways to accommodate this project. To go back a bit, I first pitched on this project in the summer of 2019 with the idea that this piece would be part of volume two. But because of the pandemic, and also because of the technological difficulty of this piece, it was pushed back to volume three. And so there was a lot of back and forth about things like where each line should be on Martha’s face, and the line thickness of everything, because it’s very easy when you have that many lines on the background and on the character to lose focus or for the visuals to get very busy. And then integrate the character into the environment.
Color was also a big conversation for us. And I’m very proud of the color work that was done on this piece. Solid sulfur is yellow and when melted it glows with this kind of iridescent blue color. And so, we used it as a template for all of our color script. And the whole story journey through color is this kind of noon to night color palette, which I wanted to do because I wanted to show how when you see it from a different angle, you see it completely differently . What looks like a desolate sulphurous moon is actually teeming with life.
In addition to polishing these technical and artistic details, were there other ways to use this extra time?
I was supposed to go to Japan to work with the Polygon team, but obviously the trips weren’t going to happen. And the animators needed references of how an astronaut would move through a desert in space. So I went and put on a motorcycle helmet and motorcycle gear and got some weights and straps and went to the beach in Santa Monica and filmed myself hanging out which would be standard for a corpse on the beach and falling over and doing my very basic stunt work which was a lot of fun. But it was to show the weight of the body, how the body gets tired dragging a heavy weight on a sandy surface. We also had conversations about gravity being different on Io and Earth. But we wanted to go with something believable. So we chose to go with something a little closer to Earth gravity.
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 go a little further in the end than Michael 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 was under that lava and what was below the surface – or hinting at it, at least. And so, we follow Martha as she descends into the depths. And, in my opinion, she merges with Io. The question I wasn’t really focused on was if she merged with Io. But, even more, if she merges with Io, is she still Martha? That’s what I wanted to leave to the public.