Hisko Hulsing Delivers Magnificent Adaptation of A Thousand Cats’ Dream
After the huge success of its series premiere at the beginning of August, The sand man surprised fans by releasing a bonus episode two weeks after its launch. The first story in the episode is “A Tale of a Thousand Cats”, adapting the comic book story of the same name by Neil Gaiman and Kelley and Malcolm Jones. Adapted in a hybrid of animation styles by director Hisko Hulsing, the tale follows cats banding together to dream of a day when they can call upon Morpheus to rule the world.
In an exclusive interview with CBR, Hulsing explained the various techniques he and the production team used to bring “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” to life, revealed the trickiest aspects of production, and shared how the production marked its anniversary in a decidedly unique way. way.
CBR: The animation on “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” is beautiful, with the 3D cats on oil painted backgrounds. What was it like composing the two styles together?
Hisko Hulsing: I ran a show called Fact for Prime Video, and we also used oil paint for the backgrounds, with flat characters but based on real people. With “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” we were at a studio called Untold in London that made these beautiful realistic cats. You can’t just put them in painted backgrounds because they were way too realistic, you’d see all that hair, and it just wouldn’t match the background at all.
What we did was rotoscope all the cats — they were all traced, it’s like two different types of animation. The first was 3D cats. Then everything was traced and painted, with all shading based on 3D cats and stylized. You need to simplify and stylize it to make it work with these painted backgrounds because oil paintings are realistic but not as realistic as a photo. That’s how we had to put it together, and with “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” I think it worked really well and feels a lot like a world.
The movement of the cats is so naturalistic. Did you use motion capture or are you sticking entirely to reference material?
No, I did a Kurt Cobain movie called Heck edit, and there was a scene that I scripted where the camera had to follow cats jumping on a table. It took me two days to film, so I know cats don’t listen. That’s what “The Dream of a Thousand Cats” is about. People from Warner Bros. approached Untold Studios. They had worked on the remake of The Lion Kingthey were therefore already accustomed to very high-level entertainment.
My big point, and also from showrunner Allan Heinberg and Neil Gaiman, was that they had to be real cats: no anthropomorphic, human-like behavior. Usually, when animals are animated, they look like animals but behave like humans. Here, all the interest is that they are cats and that they communicate by telepathy. It was a risk, not to have lively lips. I was still worried about it until this morning [when the episode premiered]. [laughs] It was so risky to have all these conversations without moving your lips.
My assistant would collect all kinds of reference material, like a cat jumping on a tree, send it to the studio in London, and they would use it as a reference. The game had to look like a cat, but you couldn’t let the audience hear its voice and have no connection to cats. They acted, but as cats would act with very subtle head and tail movements. The tail is very important. We didn’t do any motion capture. Everything was animated, but the animators consulted a lot of reference material and their own chats. It was always that fine line, that she had to look like a cat and that she also had to look like she was communicating. It’s a difficult thing, and I think we got it right.
One of the craziest sequences in the episode is the prehistoric world ruled by gigantic cats, with humans petting them and being chased by them.
I went to London, and there were two film crews working simultaneously on The sand man on these huge film sets. In “A Dream of a Thousand Cats”, all humans are rotoscoped. So we filmed them on one of these sound stages with a huge crew that was like a well-oiled machine because they had already done ten episodes of The sand man. It was the big thing. It took us three days to film the human beings.
I had the weirdest 50th birthday ever because I didn’t tell anyone it was my birthday, and I had to manage 30 naked people who acted like they were painting cats. Someone told them it was my birthday, so suddenly all these people, including naked people, started singing “Happy Birthday” to me. It was great. [laughs] It was a Barbarelle kind of vibe, with naked girls and guys stroking fur on huge boxes. Before doing the live action, we designed everything in 2D and 3D, so all the measurements had to be correct. If they act like they’re on cats, they should be as high as that, with the cat being animated later.
Between the mix of animation and live action styles, what was the most technically involved aspect of bringing “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” to life?
Because there was Untold Studios in London, which did a really good job, and the studio here in Amsterdam where the rest was done, with storyboards and all that. The communication between the studios was a little hard because it was very technical, with a moving preview. Also, the situation during the pandemic was difficult, and I was leading Fact at the same time and do production design. [laughs] It was a bit difficult for me personally.
What was it like having Kelly and Malcolm Jones’ artwork in the comic?
When I read the comic, I read it twice and absolutely loved it, but I immediately felt that it was not suitable for cinema the way it was told. A comic is just a really different way of telling a story. You can get away with more which in the movie would be more confusing. I read it, loved it, and then I had a script by Allan Heinberg that was very close to the comics but compressed, and went from there. I went through the script on the right side and on the left side I drew my thumbnails doing it completely out of imagination.
In my comic, I had notes from Neil Gaiman to Kelley Jones and went from the script, because I have my own directing style, but I read all of Neil’s comments. I’ve been honest to them, some I didn’t think would lead to the best results [for television]and I think a lot of people think it’s really true to the comics because I’ve seen it. [laughs]
Developed for TV by Neil Gaiman, David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg, The Sandman is available to stream on Netflix.