Have you ever wondered how some of history’s most infamous dictators rose to power? How To Become A Tyrant, on Netflix, is here to provide the playbook. The series is adapted from The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, and is narrated by Peter Dinklage. By analyzing the regimes of some of the all-time least-loved world leaders, the show’s producers — Citizen Jones and L.A. animation studio Six Point Harness — deliver a prescient warning of what can happen when history is allowed to repeat itself.
The show is centred around accounts from life under dictatorship, and gives interpretations of events from experts in history, politics and human psychology. While the tone of How To Become A Tyrant is refreshingly light, the human tragedy it touches on is very real. We are given a sense of this in the show’s compelling animated sequences, created by Six Point Harness and animation director Ron Myrick.
We spoke with Ron to learn how these stylish animated sequences were made. He talks us through some of the deep historical research that influenced the art direction, and the key stylistic choices they made. We learn how Toon Boom Harmony enabled collaboration among the teams involved, with multiple studios working together across storyboard, animation, VFX and live action. Wisely, Ron tells us that it’s teamwork, not dictatorship, that gets results!
Hi Ron! For our readers who don’t know, please introduce yourself…
I’m a seasoned veteran in animation. I’ve been working for the last 48 to 49 years in the business. Having done series from as cartoony as Looney Tunes, Tiny Tunes, The Smurfs and Scooby Doo to as realistic as Star Trek, The Avengers, the Invincible series on Amazon, and of course, How To Become a Tyrant.
How did the relationship with you and Netflix come about and how did you come to direct the animation for How To Become a Tyrant?
I happen to be the third director on the series. There were two prior directors that moved on to other projects, so the associate producer, Vera Hourani, was able to bring me on board. She and I had worked together on that previous series, and we had a good relationship. With my experience and knowledge of animation, she knew that I would be a good fit to pick up the ball and keep it going. And so from there, I found myself in the middle of dictators…
Has this been enjoyable source material?
Well, the material was very interesting — it was enjoyable working with the team and Six Point Harness. They were a very professional and excellent group of people who know the business of animation — seasoned veterans, and very supportive. So I did enjoy the experience of directing the show.
The animated sequences touch on some heavy stuff. Is it one of the most serious projects you’ve worked on?
Honestly, it’s the most unique in that respect. I am a student of history. I do enjoy history and was familiar with the careers and dictatorship of many of these individuals. Of course, Adolf Hitler, more or less speaks for himself, and we never want to forget how he came to power and the end results. Joseph Stalin, I was a little less knowledgeable about, but each one had his own character of fascinating material that we dove right into. The client, Citizen Jones, provided us with a number of materials, and they were responsible for the live action portions. So that dictated and directed us as to what sequences we would animate, and the approach we would take to do that.
Interesting, and was there a particular kind of visual style that you wanted to capture in these sequences?
Yes, the style was on two levels. We wanted to be true to the look of the characters — a realistic look. We stylized it so that it was realistic enough so that there was no doubt as to who we were portraying. Same with the backgrounds and the world itself.
We took a stylized point-of-view with the art direction and the color palette, and the things of that nature. A conscious decision we took was to not move the characters a great deal. So that it didn’t appear to be too cartoony or as if we were trying to entertain. We wanted it to just get across the impact of the event or the situation that had occurred. The animation is somewhat limited, but we feel that it’s more effective that way.
What are your personal inspirations as an animator, and what have been your most enjoyable projects to work on up until this point?
I take inspiration from a number of sources. I love telling stories, first and foremost. In a pursuit to continue educating myself, I’m a great attendee of the arts, theater, musicals, as well as movies, and animation. I quite enjoy a variety of genres, from our typical cartoony animation here in the US to what’s done on a more international basis. Like a great many viewers, I enjoy anime. I find a lot of French animation to be quite insightful and inspiring.
I don’t limit myself to one particular genre of animation or storytelling, I like to stay as wide open as possible. It’s helped me to flow between the different styles of animation storytelling, leading me up to this one, which again, was the most realistic, historical piece that I’ve done. But because of my interest in all these other things, it was a natural fit.
You mentioned the sort of more static approach to the animated sequences. How did that play out in the storyboarding process?
It worked very well, because the storyboards really provided the template and guidance for the animation. The animation studio stuck very closely to the storyboards. For our process to assemble the boards, stories and the animatics: I would work with the art director, a very talented gentleman, Sah Tantivaranyoo, to do personal research, looking for visuals on the world and the time period of the particular dictator that we’re talking about. The storyboard artists, Samantha Sylvers and Alex Hobbs, and I would collaborate on that. We might do thumbnail drawings, just roughing out the sequence. Then they go to Storyboard Pro, to formally storyboard the sequence, and we build the animatic and go from there. Storyboard Pro was very instrumental in the whole process.
So you and the team were quite aware that you’re dealing with something which is still in living memory for certain audiences?
Yes. And we were sensitive to that, and how to depict it. A lot of our guidance, as I said earlier, came from our clients, Citizen Jones. So we would have a meeting about a script of a historical event, and the different parts that we were animating. We would talk about how graphic to make the event, the violence, and so on — how to handle it, for that very purpose.
Some of it just couldn’t be avoided, to keep it factual and authentic to the truth. We found a way to make it tasteful enough and get the point across. Honestly, these were very egotistical, maniacal, unkind people that were running countries and people into the ground. It was horrific.
It’s interesting to understand how you went about collecting historical reference material, and then bringing that through and workshopping it into the end result…
Yeah. It’s often amazing how much work goes into any animated project. For the viewing audience to take a look at a scene that lasts seconds, or a few minutes, and throw it away, as though it only took you five minutes or less to draw. But no, a great deal of research, work and trial and error goes into just about every piece of animation. If you knew all that, then it would take the magic away and the audience wouldn’t care as much. We just know it’s a process.
With the actual animation part being quite reserved. Were there any techniques, which you leaned on to capture the style?
We had a studio, BOXEL, out of Mexico, who are quite adept at doing special effects. So we relied on their effects to help carry scenes and moods and the atmosphere. Again, because we were limiting the movement, we had to look at the whole picture at large to keep it alive and keep it interesting. They were able to do that quite successfully. They were enjoyable to work with and they put a lot of hard work into it. There was a lot of going back and forth as a result. Retakes and things of that nature.
It’s interesting how, in animation, when choosing color palettes, you can convey the feeling of a different continent or a different country with the color palettes used. Were you considering that in this process?
I can’t remember each one specifically. But with the Idi Amin account, the color palette was green, a lot of green. With Saddam Hussein, it was a lot of ochre. With Gaddafi, there was a combination of ochre and green. Stalin, there were greys and red. With Kim Il Sung, we used a grey, gold and red palette. Again, I credit our art director at being successful at pulling those things out. We would collaborate on how to balance it all.
Speaking of these tyrants and bogeymen, some of those on the show have been enemies of Western powers. Do you think that the show had a political overtone?
That’s a good question. I don’t think we had a political agenda per se. We were actually looking at history and the evils of individuals who have exploited and taken advantage of their countries and populace at large. We showed how these individuals came about. We felt like there are lessons to be learned. We were showing that some of these lessons and behavioral patterns are still being emulated today. Hopefully, it’s a wake up call to not only those who experienced those things, but to the young people, the audience that we’ve gathered to also learn from this, and to put a stop these kinds of maniacal, evil individuals — people who can take over.
For those of us who are more progressive in thinking and in our desires more humanitarian, we’re looking to break these patterns and make a positive change, for the good of all. One of the powers of this medium of film and animation is to show what has been done, and what can be done to change the negative and bad influences that we’ve suffered.
Dictatorships aside, what’s your advice for managing a team on a major feature like this one?
The best advice I can give is for a director, or producer, is to listen to their team and collaborate with them. While one person does need a vision and a point of view, it’s a collaborative group effort. I’m pleased to say that we have a diverse group, and they all made a positive contribution to the project.
I would welcome their input, and at the end of the day, as the leader and director of the series, it was my job to make a final decision which would be presented to our clients at Citizen Jones — and there, another level of collaboration took place. So it’s important, on a creative level, and as well as on a political level or in any business endeavor, to have the best team around you and listening and working with that team.
How did Toon Boom Harmony help the team collaborate on the project?
Using Harmony was instrumental, and most helpful when we had to pass off a project from one artist to another. It was very important that they were working in the same core program. Harmony proved really useful here and made the process of working together enjoyable.
Would you like to shout out any contributors to the project?
There’s quite a number, but a few that stand out: there was Greg Franklin, Creative Director; Sah Tantivaranyoo, who was our art director; Vera Hourani, who was our associate producer; James Neville Rolstone, production coordinator; Julia Lee, production assistant. And the outstanding board artists, Alex Hobbs and Samantha Sylvers. I’d like to acknowledge Adan Contreras in props; character designer, Eunbeal Cho; Kelsey Suan in backgrounds, and editor Tony Christopherson. But again, it was a great collaboration with everyone involved.
For anyone who might be reading our blog looking for inspiration, are there any other words of wisdom that you might want to leave us with?
I feel like today, there are so many opportunities for expression in animation and the arts. The streaming platforms have come about, superseding television and now even movie theaters, since they had to close during the pandemic — but are slowly opening back up. The beauty of all of these sad things we’ve experienced is people have continued creating and expressing themselves. In pain and pleasure — finding pleasure in the pain you might even say. That is one of the amazing things of this contemporary world we’re in now. When I started in animation, it was a much narrower window to force self-expression and creativity through. Now, it’s so broad, and growing even more. It’s really exciting, and I want to encourage young people across the board, you’re never too old or too young, to express yourself. Just hopefully in a positive way!
How To Become A Tyrant is available to watch on Netflix. Also be sure to discover more award-winning work from Six Point Harness, and learn more about the work of artists in the animation industry on Toon Boom’s blog.