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Dream Therapy for the Desperate
William Mendoza explains how a small team creates the absurd world of Adult Swim’s Dream Corp LLC.
Adult Swim’s surreal dark comedy Dream Corp LLC recently wrapped up a third season and fans are waiting for word on season four. Centered around the dilapidated lab of distracted dream therapist Dr. Roberts (Jon Gries), the series is known for artfully blending live action, rotoscope animation, visual effects, and 3D backgrounds to create psychedelic dream worlds that are unique to each patient's issues.
William Mendoza—a Los Angeles-based designer, animator, and VFX artist—has been part of the small team who has worked on the show since season one. We asked him to tell us about how the team uses Cinema 4D, After Effects, Red Giant tools, and more to create the series’ environments, VFX, and bizarre animated dream sequences. He also explained how the show’s visuals have evolved over time.
William, tell us about yourself and how you got into the industry?
Mendoza: I went to a school in the San Francisco Bay Area called Expression College for Digital Arts. They had a new 3D animation program at the time, and I focused on 3D character animation using Maya. I wanted to work at a big studio like Pixar but, back then, I’d barely even started using a computer for design.
I took all of these classes on character rigging and motion capture, but it wasn’t until I started focusing on texturing and lighting that I realized what I was good at. After I graduated, I sent my reel to a bunch of studios and got an internship at Electronic Arts where I worked on The Sims video game franchise for four years as an environment artist.
I was 20 years old and didn’t know anything about architecture or interior decorating, but I learned on the job as I made houses and furniture for the Sims characters. The amount of home decorating assets was massive, as we had to account for every possible player's taste because they were designing their dream homes. I became very good at making real-time environments efficiently, but I wanted to work in film and television.
How did you get the job working on Dream Corp LLC?
Mendoza: I moved to LA to look for work in film, but my background didn’t help because it was so specific to The Sims. I started at the bottom, creating visual effects and titles for low-budget comedy sketches. From those gigs, I was able to freelance for motion graphics and visual effects studios. I was mainly using After Effects, but Cinema 4D was becoming more popular on job postings so I learned it in a weekend and switched from Maya.
I was freelancing for Brian Hirzel’s studio, BEMO, when they got the order for Dream Corp LLC season one. We asked Brandon Parvini, one of the most resourceful 3D artists I know, to work with us. Artbelly Productions was in charge of the rotoscoped character animation, while BEMO created the 3D environments and VFX for the animated dream sequences.
Season one had an experimental style to it. We were designing a narrative for the first time, so the results were random and unpredictable. Every 3D artist worked independently on their own scene. It gave the show a very strange feeling. Daniel Stessen, the director, loved that at first. But, as we worked together longer, we realized how much we could control a scene's tone and strengthen the story. We started coordinating and began to push the show towards a more cinematic style.
Describe your process for working on the show.
Mendoza: By season two, Stessen started to see how the environments we were making could enhance the audience's emotional response. With the turnaround for an episode being four weeks, typically, we had to work fast. The goal for the dream sequences was usually a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland-style journey where the patient would discover something about themselves through a series of transitioning environments. Luckily, we were able to hire Alex Braddock, who became our go to 3D generalist.
We were given the scripts in advance, but the stories would change drastically through the process of editing and the freedom of green screen. We couldn't plan much, so we would use our gut reaction from the first cut of an episode to see what was missing to tell the story.
After the cameras were tracked, we would begin to lay out the environment in Cinema 4D, and use Takes for each shot. This allowed us to work on dozens of shots and make sure the director was happy with the stage direction. We would then start to populate the environment with assets made from scratch, the Cinema 4D content browser or purchased online. Materials were created and lighting was designed to enhance the mood. I leaned heavily on the Cinema 4D variation shader and MoGraph color effects to animate the materials.
Once the roto was completed, we would start to composite the character animation with the 3D environments in After Effects. We used Trapcode Horizon to create the 360 skies and Trapcode Particular for things like the raining milk cartons (with collision), or filling an ocean with glowing jelly fish. One scene had the rotoscope footage rendered with feedback and then fed into Particular to convert the characters into miniature atoms.
The process has been refined so much by now that we can mostly avoid issues and surprises from the director, especially since we are always anticipating his feedback. Animating the environments with a procedural system like MoGraph allows us to make quick changes or create complex transitions from scene to scene.
What’s the trick to making things look dreamlike?
Mendoza: You want the set to look familiar but different. The most basic trick is to take objects in the room and use cloners in C4D to repeat them hundreds of times and animate them with effectors. There’s a cafeteria scene where you see tables, floor tiles and ceiling lights and nothing else, so the environment could be made in a day and yet the room feels huge and dangerous. You have to keep things simple since the show moves quickly from scene to scene.
We don’t have a lot of time, so I try to avoid using textures and just use the Cinema 4D’s standard renderer, which works better with the MoGraph system. I typically just use C4D’s Noise shader for textures because they can be animated easily. Animated noise is great because it makes everything look like it’s moving and breathing all the time.
Tell us about a scene that was particularly interesting or challenging to make.
Mendoza: There was an episode called "Dust Bunnies" where we needed to create a hoarder’s dreamworld that included every object he’d ever owned. There was a Godzilla-style fight scene at the end where the two characters turn into giant monsters and beat each other up. Showing every object someone owned seemed like it would be really hard to convey, but I figured out that we could make huge filing cabinets that would be holding everything.
They were so tall, they looked like towering buildings, which worked great because the characters had to wander through that wasteland before turning into monsters. There are millions of objects in the wasteland scene, which were easy to make in C4D. One of the things we always have to do is keep in mind where an episode is going. In this case, we knew where the monsters would rise up from so I put a big pile of debris in the middle of the scene to let the audience know something would be happening there.
To save time, we used the same models in every scene. The camera starts low on the ground and sweeps up and you see the monster. It was a lot of work to do so quickly, but it was so cool and fun to work on. One of the beauties of 3D is that you can just copy and paste stuff from scene to scene, and once you make an environment it's done. That was our most challenging episode, and it had all of the elements you really want to make something good, including a story that was great from beginning to end.
What are you working on now?
Mendoza: I’m currently freelancing at studios and working remotely at Masterclass making animated 3D backgrounds.
Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.