It’s not uncommon to have a morbid fascination with cults. Perhaps we wonder what could make someone leave their life behind to follow a charismatic leader. Or one might imagine what it would be like to have a legion of dedicated followers. If so, then you will find plenty of practical advice (with a healthy amount of tongue-in-cheek) in How To Become a Cult Leader, now showing on Netflix.
The show is an enlightening exploration through some of history’s most infamous instances of cult behavior. Episodes feature stories from people who lived through those troubled times, and in many cases knew their cult leaders first-hand. The series draws depth and richness from a series of animated vignettes that serve to bring scenes from cult histories to life.
These vivid scenes were created by 6 Point Harness and DeeDee Animation, and their input to this live-action animated documentary is a masterclass in animation and compositing. We interviewed Ron Myrick (director at 6 Point Harness), Sah Tantivaranyoo (art director at 6 Point Harness), and Ha Huy Hoang (animation supervisor at DeeDee Animation), to learn their perspectives on the project. They discuss the big considerations that they took to do the subject justice. These artists also share how Harmony played a pivotal role in their workflow, in both rigging and cut-out animation, to give cult leaders like Charles Manson and Reverend Moon their distinct character.
Ron: I was the director on Season 2 of How to Become a Cult Leader. My role was to create the style and look of animation for each episode with the collaboration of the clients.
Sah: I was the art director on Season 2 of How to Become a Cult Leader. My role was to create the color scheme and main designs of each of the cult leaders for each episode.
Hoang: I worked as Animation Supervisor and Character Artist at DeeDee Animation Studio during the making of How To Become A Cult Leader.
Ron: The considerations are how graphic to make the depictions. For example, putting his followers through extreme deprivation. Or having to put yourself ‘temporarily’ in the mindset of the cult leader to really get into how to depict their nefarious acts. So much is conveyed in the scripts, but not enough information. Between the StoryBoard artists and myself, we chose the most artistic way to depict these moments. Nobody captured the most nefarious moments.
We took great care to depict their history of cultism. In the case of Jaime, we wanted to portray how his followers catered to his every need. Anything and everything he wanted; his narcissism, how he manipulated them to love him as much as he loved himself. That’s all part of the attraction.
Sah: Yes, the style of each changed to suit each cult leader. The first three were the most clear-cut: Manson, Jones, Applewhite were so far out. Charles Manson with the psychedelic 60’s and Applewhite with his alien beliefs. For Jim Jones, we chose a sepia color palette to make us feel like we were capturing the deterioration of a VHS tape. We wanted to capture a retro look. We wanted to make the audience feel the extreme temperatures of Guyana.
Similarly, with Manson, we wanted to capture the psychedelic ambience, and chose to go super psychedelic to capture the essence of being on an LSD trip.
Sah: We were Inspired by the real-life stories and images of their environment and the people who lived through that brainwashing period. It was our goal to attempt to capture the truth from the people who were part of each cult and give the audience a visual representation of what they lived through.
Sah: Yes, we chose the technique best suited to tell the story. For Manson, we chose very psychedelic colors. For Reverend Moon, we opted for a lot of ray and celestial imagery to convey his followers’ beliefs that he was the messiah. Same with Marshall Applewhite with the space alien imagery.
Ron: We wanted to keep it very moody, so we wanted to use light to shape the viewer’s experience. And lighting had to be very dramatic in the animation we created. The Asahara episode, we had a lot of fun showing how his two disciples made him appear as though he was floating. The other sequence that had fun FX was the one in which the brain waves that he supposedly “emitted”.
For Manson, the trippy sequence of bending shapes and creating the out-of-body-experience, during his time in prison, was also a creative collaboration with our animation team.
Hoang: To depict the scenes with psychedelic effects, we combined several different techniques, from using the beautiful illustrations provided by 6PH and strategically layout them over each other; while applying some duplicating, overlaying images, rotating and deforming effects. We had to be very careful to pick the right moment for these effects, so that we don’t overdo it all the time during the sequences and make sure they are appropriate with the situations. It’s a matter of respect when we’re dealing with historical characters.
Hoang: During compositing, we were enhancing the animation by choosing the appropriate elements within a certain scene and giving it flare with glows and blur effects. As well as giving it a vignette to bring them into focus. As for the animation style, we took the character layouts provided by 6PH, as well as drawings that we did ourselves and cut them out into different elements so that we could animate them, just like traditional paper cut-out animation. Just with the tools from Toon Boom.
Ron: They were all dictated within the script. That was all designated in the script. Some of the graphic imagery helped convey more linear information in a more interesting way. It allowed us to show more action than we would have been able to otherwise. The Moon sequence where we showed the hierarchy of kids could have only been conveyed in that infographic way. The Godzilla sequence in Asahara was also a fun one to animate in that style.
Hoang: All of the tools in Toon Boom Harmony played essential parts in our process of animating the sequences from this show. But for the animation to work, we used mostly the rigging tools within the program to animate the existing character layouts without having to draw too many excessive frames as in hand-drawn animation — while still giving the character limited but convincing movements.
Ron: That has always been a fine balance. The script gave us a lot of guidance, but this is where my experience as a director as well as collaborating with our clients comes into play.
With the serious subject matter that was covered, depicting the violence in the Asahara episode, we would depict some of the imagery offstage. Depicting the family being killed, we opted to contrast the warmth of the family against the darkness of the villains. We chose to display the consequences of the result of their actions versus the harsh depiction of their actions.
Hoang: We mostly tried to keep the movements of the characters subtle and limited instead of the exaggerated styles in other cartoons or anime. We made sure they move in a manner closer to reality and avoid extravagant actions to keep the characters believable as real people who existed in history.
Sah: First come up with an original name: We just came up with “Rah” combining Ron and Sah! Believe in your convictions and keep your skills fresh! Always have an open mind to share your knowledge.
Hoang: Maybe don’t take anything from the show literally? Learn the fundamentals of animation and drawing, put in the hard work, and utilize the tools from programs like Toon Boom Harmony to help make your work more efficient.
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