Thu 13th Feb 2014, by By Meleah Maynard | Production
“When the dream of childhood is stolen, a nightmare is born.” That’s the tagline for independent filmmaker M dot Strange’s new animated film, I Am Nightmare, in which a young mother moves her five foster children to a place called The Town That Never Changes. For kids whose lives have been chaotic, a little consistency sounds perfect. But shortly after arriving, the family discovers that the town is hiding a terrible secret. Each night, the children are forced to patrol the woods to keep the monsters that lurk there at bay while adults do nothing to help them.
Only the monsters that eat children depart from the doll-like look of the other characters in M dot Strange’s I Am Nightmare.
Using Cinema 4D, it took Strange a little over a year to make the dark, dream-like tale, which he describes as “a simple, straightforward story about saving your dreams in a world that’s trying to crush them.” Now available for download here. I Am Nightmare is his third feature-length animated film, following Heart String Marionette in 2012 and We Are the Strange in 2007. (You can see the trailers at the end of this article)
To create Teenee’s huge eyes, Strange scanned the eye of a doll he bought at a thrift store and used the image to create a texture.
“People always say that this or that is impossible as a way to justify not changing and I wanted to tell a story that shows how frustrating and wrong that is,” he explains, adding that he’s never written a script so fast in his life.
For those who aren’t familiar with M dot Strange, he is primarily a filmmaker, though he does take on a few projects like music videos and commercials to help make ends meet. He prides himself on being the “world’s smallest CG feature animation studio,” and uses the term “Uberector” to describe what he does because people who make movies “by any means necessary” do much more than direct when they’re working on a project.
Three of the foster children try to fend off a monster with a Samurai sword in this lantern-lit scene. “In all of my renders for this movie I used only three passes, a beauty pass, a depth pass and a material luminescence pass to keep things simple,” Strange explains.
Inspired by a lot of things including David Lynch, countless movies and books and the paranoia in his own head, he credits his five-year-old nephew for helping him come up with the look of I Am Nightmare. “My art direction can be complicated sometimes, but I’ve been spending time with my nephew so I’ve seen how much imagination kids have,” he says.
In this scene, two children climb the stairs in the town’s clock tower, which Strange created using MoGraph.
“For them, two dots and a circle can be a monster, so I decided to simplify and that’s been a lot more fun.” But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a lot to do to make the 122-minute film. This is the first movie Strange has made in which all of the characters speak, and he created the music (26 original tracks), too, in collaboration with Austin, Texas-based musician, Mad Dashiell.
Strange started this project as he usually does by storyboarding every frame—1,420 shots in this case. Though he’s tried other methods, he prefers drawing everything by hand on paper so he can see how things will actually work. Next, he created a construction list by going through the storyboard to see what would have to be modeled in C4D. He also likes to take the time to break the story down into sequences based on location changes. “It’s a lot of work, but it helps me figure out how many shots I need do per day to finish the film on time,” he explains.
Strange used visible and volumetric lights to create the atmosphere inside The Lantern House where the adults of the town go to party at night.
Strange, who has streamlined a lot of his processes since starting to use C4D to make movies 10 years ago, says he’s hoping to release a new film every year going forward. He shares some of his tips, tricks and caveats in a new webinar called Becoming a One-Person Animation Studio. “Even for a short CG movie you have to learn how to animate, composite and everything,” he says. “But if you do a full-length film it stresses your workflow and your pipeline and forces you to create one that’s really efficient.”
Characters in the film were based on the work of Osama Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and Black Jack.
I Am Nightmare features a long list of characters inspired by the work of Japanese animator, Osama Tezuka and based on some Japanese ball-joint charts Strange found online. In the interest of simplifying things, he stylized all of the characters as dolls. Each was modeled in Cinema 4D and uses the same rig, allowing him to make modifications as needed. “Like when you pull the arms and legs off of G.I. Joes and put them back together with different heads,” he explains.
Strange hand-painted all of the characters with help from his wife, Icelandic artist and musician, Rakel Musicbox, whom he describes as the “unsung helper” in his studio. Texturing was done in BodyPaint 3D. To raise a little money and get people interested in the film before it’s release, Strange put out a call for extras, offering to create characters in the likeness of anyone willing to contribute $50 to the project. He got quite a few takers, and used the money to buy a new computer devoted to rendering.
A nightmare stalks Mack, Tub and Fran in the forest outside of Lantern Town.
The only characters that depart from the doll-like look are the monsters, particularly the Monster That Eats Children. Round-faced with glowing eyes, that scary monster is based on a drawing that Strange has been doodling in notebooks for years. Other “nightmares,” townspeople turned into horrible monsters, look similar but aren’t quite as menacing. Check out his behind-the-scenes tutorial.
Most of the feedback Strange gets on his films is positive. But even when he hears from 3D artists who don’t like his animated fantasy approach, they always say how much they love the atmosphere he creates. Most assume he uses global illumination, but in truth he lights everything by hand because he likes the control and artistic freedom that approach allows.
Strange used BodyPaint 3D to paint the foster mom’s clothes and face for this scene. Multi-pass render gave the lanterns in this scene their warm glow.
For I Am Nightmare, Strange used C4D’s visible and volumetric lights because “I could render must faster and make more fantasy-looking stuff,” he recalls. Depth of field blur was done in After Effects to cut down on render times. And when you see what looks like dust in the atmosphere, it really is dust from Strange’s studio that he filmed and comped in post. And the fantastic, glittery sky? It’s real-life glitter that Strange sprinkled onto a black cloth on the floor. “And then I just waves a flashlight across it and shot it so when you look at it, it looks like stars blinking in space,” he says. And it does.
The House of Nightmares looms before the film’s mysterious hero in this scene that Strange created using C4D and After Effects.
Asked what’s next, Strange says that next year, in addition to a film, he plans to release his first game. He’s always liked game,s and an awful lot of people have been saying, “Hey, where is your game? Make a game!” So he’s going to create one based on his animated comedy series, Badassery, for which he’s already made eight episodes. (http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLFC6422FE0A67ECB5).
“The world of indie gaming is a very exciting space that I’d like to enter, and since Unity 3D works nicely with Cinema 4D, it’s a smooth transition as far as making all the assets goes,” he says. As for his next film, he’s got a script for a sci-fi feature ready to go. But because that project will require life-like human models, Strange is thinking he might make another animated fantasy doll movie, instead. He also plans to launch his own online animation school in 2014. “Where I’ll teach everything I’ve learned making my three animated features to whoever wants to learn.”
Meleah Maynard is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis.