Acclaimed animation director Hisko Hulsing guides us through the process of delivering the “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” bonus episode to fans of The Sandman on Netflix this month.
The adaptation was brought to life by a crew of over 200 artists, actors and producers at Untold Studios and Shepperton Studios in London and Submarine Studio in Amsterdam. Hulsing has identified the artists who worked on specific shots in this exclusive breakdown.
1. Comic – written by Neil Gaiman and drawn by Kelly Jones
I first read A Dream of a Thousand Cats in its original comic form, drawn by Kelly Jones. I loved the drawings and the storytelling a lot. But in order to adapt this into an animated film, I realized right away that I had to make changes. First of all, a comic usually consists of all sorts of frames; they can be vertical, horizontal, square, elliptical or any other form. We can’t really do that in animation. I opted for a 16:9 horizontal frame. My style of filmmaking utilizes oil paintings for backgrounds, which offers the opportunity to create cinematic shots that have more depth and atmosphere than a graphic style like that of Kelly Jones can have.
Apart from that, I do have my own style of visual storytelling. So once I read the comic (twice), I put it away and started to work from the script. The comic would always be in my vicinity though, so I could check it whenever needed.
2. Script- written by Neil Gaiman and Catherine S. McMullen
The script written for the screen stays very close to the comic. A couple of small scenes have been left out, as well as some lines, but in general showrunner Allan Heinberg and writer Catherine S. McMullenis stayed very truthful to the original comic. It’s a solid script that is very easy to work with.
3. Thumbnails – by Hisko Hulsing
Once I read the script, I started thumb-nailing the whole story.
I had access to the notes that Neil Gaiman wrote for Kelly Jones. They are descriptions of each panel, so I read those and interpreted them in my own way.
I have made hundreds of storyboards, so this comes very natural to me. I have the freedom to move the virtual camera in my head in any position to visually tell the story. Also, I developed my own way of visual storytelling over the years. I love cinematography and my aim is always to drag the viewer into the story emotionally while creating depth within in the images.
As you can see, in this case I deviated from Kelly Jones’ drawing, because I felt that the hard voyage of the Prophet on her way to the King of Dreams would be more epic if I used much wider shots. Knowing that this would be painted with oil paint on canvas gave me more freedom to suggest lots of depth with a couple of rough lines.
4. Storyboard – by Michael Sewnarain
I use the thumbnails to form my ideas and check the consistency, but also to be able to brief our storyboarders as detailed as possible. Most directors do this in words. I have the possibility to do it with words and images, which makes the process easier for everyone involved.
The storyboarders often come up with even better angles and put in efforts to sketch the motion of the characters, which will improve the communication with the animators later on in the process.
A storyboarder like Michael Sewnarain is the perfect story artist for me, because he is a very good animator himself, but he also has a great sense for framing and perspective, both of which are extremely important for a film like this.
5. Animatic – drawings by Michael Sewnarain, editing by Eva Krispijn, sound editing by Jeroen Nadorp (CLIP)
Once the whole storyboard was done, we made an edit with temp tracks of voices (sometimes done by other editors and showrunners) and temporary music tracks that I put in myself. I composed orchestral music for two of my short films, so I know very well what I want to hear. I know a lot of film music, and my taste is usually closer to scores from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s than modern films.
But, knowing that David Buckley would score “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” and having access to a lot of music that he already wrote for other films, I could easily use some of his older tracks as a temp track — and they already made some scenes become very emotional, so I knew that David was going to hit it out of the park when he would score the film at the end of the process.
I wanted this animatic to be as convincing as possible, so that everybody involved could get a clear view of how the film would work out emotionally from the start.
This time, I took one extra step and I went to Bob Kommer sound studios in The Hague, where Jeroen Nadorp created a pretty detailed temp track.
We did the right thing! Neil Gaiman, Allan Heinberg, David S. Goyer and the producers all loved it. And from that moment on I received much trust. And being trusted helps a lot to be able to get the best out of people.
6. Rough Concept Art – by Eelco Siebring
We had to move quickly because of the strict deadlines, so we did something that was quite new for me. While the storyboarders already started, our designers started to make quick black and white concept sketches with clear notes about location and camera’s, so that it was clear to everyone what was needed later on.
7. Colored Digital Concept Art – Eelco Siebring
The only way to make that the oil paintings have consistency later on in the process, is to make precise concept art on forehand, so that the painters always have an example to work from.
These concept sketches are often pieces of art by themselves.
8. Layout – by Eelco Siebring
A layout drawing is needed in order to create a background painting. The layout is projected on a canvas and traced by the artists, after which they start painting it. The drawn layouts are often based on a rough 3D blocking that has the right lens to match with the 3D animation of the cats, or with the rotoscoped human beings later on in the process. Any discrepancy in perspective or width of the lens will result in a mismatch of characters and background and destruction of the illusion that they are all part of the same world.
9. 3D Animation of the Cats – by Tim van Hussen (CLIP)
I knew that I couldn’t direct real cats and rotoscope them, as I would do with the human beings.
(I tried to direct a cat once for Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. The only thing he had to do was to walk and then jump onto a table and that simple shot already cost me two days. Cats don’t listen! That’s the whole point of the story.)
This meant that the cats had to be animated, and to match the realism of the oil-painted backgrounds and the rotoscoped actors, this animation had to be very realistic. Producers Ian Marckiewicz and Alex Reinach from Warner Bros. introduced met to Untold Studios in London. Tim van Hussen and Matthew Kavanagh made a test that was very convincing.
I had made the decision to make sure that the cats behaved in cat-like ways. So there should be no anthropomorpization at all — no lip sync and no human-like acting. This meant that the team of animators under the supervision of Tim van Hussen, had to walk a thin line. The motions of the cats needed to be in sync with the voice acting, but they should always move in cat-like way. I think that they completely nailed it.
Assistant director Nora Hoppener gathered numerous film clips of cats for each shot to serve as reference for the animators.
I am still blown away by all the animation of the cats and the creatures in “A Dream of a Thousand Cats.”
10. Line Animation – by Mirte Tas (CLIP)
The fur rendering of the 3D animated cats is beautiful, but way too realistic to match with the background paintings. All animation had to be rotoscoped by our team, to stylize the cats and turn them into 2D characters in order to feel as if they were part of the painted world.
11. Coloring and Shading – by Merel van den Broek and Mirte Tas (CLIP)
Our team colors the cats in a flat way first. Then the shading that is based on the 3D animation is being applied frame by frame on a multiply layer and stylized.
12. Oil Painting – by Hans Versfelt and J.J. Epping
Our team of excellent painters make all the backgrounds of “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” with oil paint on large canvasses. They were all classically trained, but had to adopt my style of painting, which is very much based on the old a la prima techniques of the 17th century Dutch masters. We also have a small team of digital touch-up artists that go over the paintings if a zoom in is required and the textures are too rough.
The reason to use real oil paint is that we get the depth and the handmade quality that can not be done easily with digital means. I like the warmth of oil painted backgrounds and I feel it is one of the reasons that “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” feels so magical.
This painting turned out so incredibly beautiful that I changed the camera from a pan to a static shot, to mesmerize the audience and let them feel the epic grandness of this world.
13. Compositing – by Luuk Meijer , 2D special effects by Lucas Flaton (CLIP)
Our compositing team under supervision of Marti Pujol brings together all layers — the paintings, 3D animation, 2D animation and animated effects. This is the phase where everything is color graded in such a way that it becomes one cohesive world. Sometimes some light and dust particles are added.
Seeing these finished composited shots at the end of the day was an enormous joy!
Hisko Hulsing (hiskohulsing.com) is a writer, director, painter, animator and composer. His shorts Seventeen and Junkyard won numerous awards, including the Grand Prize at OIAF and the Audience Award at ITFS. Hulsing is also the director and production designer of the critically acclaimed adult animated series Undone.
The two-part bonus episode “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” is streaming now as part of The Sandman Season 1 on Netflix.