Imagine it—a therapy clinic that guides you through your dreams to treat all kinds of problems, like addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, smoking, erectile dysfunction and more. That’s the premise of Adult Swim’s Dream Corp LLC, in which Jon Gries (uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite) stars as Dr. Roberts who, along with his bizarre staff, use “patent-pending Dream Walk technology” to cure patients in just one visit.

Early on Brandon Parvini combined Cinema 4D, X-Particles and Houdini to develop endless tubes of neurons that characters would transport through during the show’s dream sequences.

Beyond its unhinged sci-fi plot, what really sets Dream Corp LLC apart from other Adult Swim offerings is a blend of live-action and 3D animation, along with rotoscope animation based on pre-shot footage.

Artbelly Productions handled the roto-animation while Los Angeles-based BEMO used C4D, After Effects, and other software to create the world in which the dreams take place.

I talked with Brandon Hirzel, founder and creative director of BEMO, and lead animator/motion graphics artist Brandon Parvini about how BEMO conceived of and built Dream Corp LLC’s surreal and dreamy environments. Here is what they said.

Why did Dream Corp LLC’s director Daniel Stessen choose BEMO for this project?

Hirzel: We specialize in design-driven visual effects and animation, that’s where our heart is. We like to play more on the surreal end of things, which we’ve been able to do because we cut our teeth in the music video world working with artists Katy Perry, Eminem, TV On the Radio and David Guetta. Daniel first contacted me to talk about his vision for Dream Corp LLC, explaining that he wanted to render a rotoscope animation style but wanted something more complex, a different approach than what’s already been done elsewhere.

BEMO used various renderers, including C4D’s physical renderer to create this scene, which includes grass made with the Cinema 4D’s Hair tool and Dynamics to add a fluidity through out the scene.

Hirzel: Danny suggested roto-animating the characters but doing something different to create the world around them. I used C4D to come up with some preliminary ideas and he really liked them, which was great because with Cinema 4D and After Effects we were able to go deeper into what was already scripted and we could also pivot and create a whole new look and feel if something needed to be changed quickly. Once we were approved for an entire season, I started reaching out to different artists in the motion community, handpicking a senior team to execute this project. William Mendoza and Khellar Crawford worked alongside Parvini and I, and everyone had a very active part in voicing the creative and bringing new techniques to the table. It was family-style VFX at its best.

Can you explain what is meant by rotoscope animated characters?

Hirzel: Roto- animation is so unique because the animation is based on actual footage that was shot for these scenes. Characters look so familiar; the feeling is even more surreal. Artbelly’s Michael Garza, who also worked on The Gold Sparrow and A Scanner Darkly, has created his own proprietary software that helps track the hand-drawn vectors to the footage. Everyone over at Artbelly has truly blown us away with their artistry.

How did your process work once you received the characters and footage?

Hirzel: We started by 3D-tracking and camera solving the live-action footage. Next, Artbelly sent over the animated characters and it was our job to creatively construct and composite the world as a whole.

For the prom scene in episode two, BEMO followed Artbelly’s moody lead and sculpted an “intimate vibe” using inverted Z-depth multi-passes to create atmosphere.

Brandon Parvini shepherded a lot of the creative. He worked with CG animator and compositor William Mendoza to do a lot of creative problem solving. The style evolved and we learned a lot with each episode. I would say that the deeper we got into the process, the more the look started to reveal itself.

How did you turn episodes around quickly when you were getting new elements to work with all the time?

Parvini: We had to be really nimble because we often didn’t receive what we thought we would be getting. But we were always blown away by the quality of what we got. It could be radically different than what we were expecting, so we would have to rip scenes we’d been working on down to the studs and start over again.

When a scene called for phallic-looking jet skis, Parvini took things one step further by using Z-Brush and Cinema 4D to turn the skis into suggestive dolphin characters.

One thing we always kept in mind was that we didn’t want 3D to blow everything else out of the water. We were very aware of the craftsmanship happening all around us as we stitched together the characters, matte paintings and other key elements with the worlds we were creating. It was important to make sure we were acting as a supporting role, completing the story, not altering it.

How did you convey the idea that you’re inside someone’s dream?

Hirzel: Whenever the show goes animated you’re in a dream, and you’ll notice that the style is usually pretty loose and organic. It’s supposed to look a little surreal and fun, so we generally would utilize Random Effectors and Dynamics to get that look. First, we would create the scene true to track and scale and then we would break it all apart until everything was back drifting and flowing in unison.

In a dreamy kitchen scene there are no walls and outside it is both night and day.

Parvini: When we were thinking about scenes we would talk about ways to play off of how uncomfortable dreams can get, or how we actually perceive things while dreaming. There were technical challenges, but we talked a lot about how to make things interesting from a conceptual and artistic standpoint. For the scene where the character is exploring her childhood kitchen, we combined a strong understanding of composites (lots of object buffers) with simple procedural effectors in C4D in order to create a location that existed in multiple moments in time.

It seems like you had a lot of creative freedom. Was that the case?

Parvini: The level of trust we got from the director was pretty incredible. Everything in the show was constantly evolving, scene to scene, episode to episode, and very little called for consistent aesthetics. We needed to keep exploring execution styles while at the same time developing a decisive hand and creative process. Some stuff would stick, and others would get tossed into the ‘maybe later’ pile. For example, Mendoza had the idea early on to do something black and white, and at the time it didn't fit with anything. Later, though, we had an episode with a really peculiar funeral scene that already had a real film-noir feel to it. So it was a perfect spot to employ the look and it quickly informed the whole episode’s style.

For episode four, BEMO animator and creative William Mendoza reinvented the show’s look again, creating a black and white scene unlike any other before it.  

What is BEMO working on now?

Hirzel: We just finished an opening title sequence for Chris Milk’s VR platform, Within. We’re also gearing up for some promo work on a few new Netflix shows and talking with some really talented musicians about building an entire live show experience. We’re always pushing into new realms, and I am extremely thankful to work with such a talented group of artists and get to collaborate with such amazing clients. I only see this getting better as we look into the future.

Meleah Maynard is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.