Rick and Morty is one of the most inventive and darkly humoured programmes on TV. Tricking you into a false sense of security with its Doctor Who, Back to the Future-esque jaunt through time and space, it somehow gets away with grotesque and terrifying creatures and horrific violence that takes you by surprise in hilarious ways. So, what kind of warped mind comes up with this stuff? Led by creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon is a team of illustrators, artists and designers who, over the ten-month production for each season, create an eclectic multiverse of characters and backgrounds through which the adventures can unfold. For seasons one and two, the art team was creatively directed by James McDermott, who ahead of Rick and Morty’s upcoming season three launch, has shared some of his sketchbooks showing the birth of many of the show’s creatures and scenery.
“What I love about Rick and Morty is their dynamic, their friction,” James tells It’s Nice That. “Here you have this 14-year-old impressionable boy, and Rick, this belligerent guy that can’t be bothered and is too smart for his own good, and has seen things no one should have ever seen. He takes Morty into his world, and we see it through Morty’s huge, wide-open eyes. And he’s mortified! Throughout the show, Morty grows and gets his own gumption and crawls out of his shell, but Rick sort of stays the same. They’re fire and ice, they rub off each other, and you get comedy gold out of that every time.”
As art director, James worked closely with Justin particularly to develop the show’s playful yet gruesome visuals. “Justin [Roiland] is a serious moviephile, horror fan and sci-fi fan,” he says. “The library in his head, what he can recall, is amazing. He has very specific ideas of what he wants for the characters.” While working on the show, James and the art team would receive the outline script two weeks ahead of the rest of the crew and work with Justin to develop the art for that episode. He refers to the genesis of the Total Rickall episode, where a parasite manifests itself as dozens of new characters claiming to be part of the family, including the now infamous Mr Poopybutthole.
“The final form for those parasites, when the illusion is over and they’re just stringy alien characters, was based on Justin saying ‘I want him to look like the Beef Jerky guy,’” explains James. “We did 50 drawings before we got to the final look, but that one signifier was a clear way to communicate how that body shape would work. Then we added to it. We also looked up microscopic parasites – they are horrifying! Truly terrifying. If you just look at nature there’s plenty to riff off.”
In some ways Total Rickall exemplifies the spectrum and scale of the show’s approach to character development, with the Smiths’ living room eventually filled with an impressive assortment of beings. “Justin wanted that Where’s Waldo shot, where you pull out and see all those fantastical characters together,” says James.
Once character and planet ideas are born, the team then develops the creatures and their worlds for that episode. Each character needs to fit its own world, James explains, from illustration style to colour palette and shape. “The Rick and Morty worlds can get really detailed and crazy, but everything still has to be cohesive and work together. We try to capture that place and bottle it. Say it was a dog world, then everything in it should be furry or have floppy ears and tails – the cars, the wallpaper, the guns. We texturise the entire world, and it’s the only world that owns these devices.”
Sometimes his sketches are given to other illustrators as a guide to set the tone, which is then up to the individual illustrators to develop and James to review; while other characters might be the creation of a member of the team. In the Mortynight Run episode for example, (where Jerry goes to a day care specifically for all the Jerries) there were eight different worlds for the designers to pick from. “I tackled the ones I really wanted to do, because there was no way I’d be able to do all of them,” James says. “But if someone has an inclination towards one particular space or character, then I say ‘knock yourself out’”. This development is happening before the storyboard team sees it, so often the concepts at this stage can affect the story and script itself. “Storyboard also elaborates on the worlds, adds visual gags, and sometimes creates their own characters or spaces. It’s a push and pull, but it’s all about what’s going to tell the best story. It really takes a village to make it happen.”
As art director, James can jump on a world or character if inspiration takes him, for example the “Space Aids” alien Blim Blam. “I spent a lot of time on that one. We knew it was going to be a slug-type character, but we grappled with how to make it unique and interesting compared to what you’ve seen before,” he says. A successful character drawing, he believes, often comes down to the language between its shapes and how all sections of the character come together to have impact. “A lot of the first drawings were dull to me, so there was a batch of bad drawings before he came to life – they don’t magically appear!” He explains it took 30 drawings to get to the final design. “Other times I’ll have four or five pages like these sketchbooks, and Justin will pick out details that come together to form one baby. It’s a process of baby-making.”
“They need to have something squishy and gross about them, but also familiar.”
Lying heavily throughout Rick and Morty is a theme for retrofuturistic 70s sci-fi, and James is a big fan of the genre. “All 70s sci-fi has a very specific aesthetic. There was a crop of movies made during that time that just wouldn’t get made nowadays! I’m glad they exist because they’re just so bizarre.” He cites John Boorman’s 1974 fantasy film Zardoz, starring Sean Connery, as “incredible”, and the inspiration for Rick and Morty’s Gazorpazorp episode, as well as anything by Roger Corman or Alejandro Jodorowsky. With his alien characters, James wants you to feel their texture. “They need to have something squishy and gross about them, but also familiar.”
In Rick and Morty, elements of these weird alternate universes clash brilliantly with mundanely recognisable scenes and family dynamics, using our common knowledge of the sitcom living room to make the aliens seem all the more strange.
“A strong point of the show is the difference between the familiar and unfamiliar. When we’re in Rick and Morty’s regular suburban life, the look is kind of crappy; it’s not the impressive world, art wise. In our minds it’s mocking every other crappy prime time show. So when Rick takes Morty on an adventure to some crazy alien place, that’s Rick and Morty showing off and letting loose with the artwork.” In some cases, the designers can get carried away. For Mythologue Beth, or “Xenabeth” as James calls her, the drawings coming back from the art team were too detailed to be animated. “When you’re designing you’ve got to consider that someone’s going to have to animate this frame by frame. If you make it too complicated they’re going to hate your guts.”
For backgrounds, the art team heightens familiarity using a blend of two or three architectural styles and Earthly plant life mixed with invented alien visuals, so the worlds feel like they’ve existed for centuries. Sparks for other ideas come from James’ everyday life. "I see patterns in rugs and floors sometimes, like one of those optical illusion posters,” James laughs. "For the Unity episode, there was a candle in my guest bathroom that has this triangulated pattern, that informed the glass walls for the buildings. You never know what’s going to grab you, and I’m always kicking myself when I don’t have a sketchbook with me.”
When the characters and lands have been concepted, developed, storyboarded and fully scripted, an animatic is produced to show it brought to life with rough actions and sound. That is considered a blueprint for the whole team to work off, often the story is rejigged, scenes are rewritten, and characters and backgrounds redesigned, before the storyboard is locked. Then, design combs through the boards to refine every detail, and the scenes go to the colour team, before the whole thing is sent to Bardel animation studio in Vancouver to be animated. Even after that there are tweaks from all teams before the episode is finalised, everyone trying to “get the most comedy bang for your buck,” meaning that the teams can be working on six different episodes at one time.
For James, the overarching feeling is this merge of the naive, the familiar and the friendly, with something macabre, a chemical reaction that has blown the minds of millions of fans. “People just aren’t expecting it. The way the show is drawn, there’s a goofy aspect to it. Even in the darkest and most horrifying places it goes, there’s still a sense of comedy or oddness that makes it less daunting. That’s what I really like about it. I feel like it pulls this trick on people, and they respond to that.”
Since art directing Rick and Morty, James has been working on cartoon series Future-Worm, and another series with Disney. Rick and Morty season three will relaunch on 30 July on Adult Swim, after the first episode’s surprise release in April. The Art of Rick and Morty, a book further exploring the show’s artwork, will be released in September 2017.