It’s no secret that we’re big fans of the crew over at RocketJump, so when we heard they were developing a sci-fi anthology TV series, we got more than a little excited. Now, we’re even more excited, as that series, Dimension 404, has finally premiered, with the first three episodes appearing this week on Hulu (wittily timed to April 4, or 4/04). Featuring a cast that includes Joel McHale, Patton Oswalt, Lea Michelle, Robert Buckley, and other television mainstays — not to mention narration by Mark Hamill — the show is a huge leap forward for the team that got its start in web shorts, and a timely treat for fans of speculative storytelling and crafty plot twists. We caught up with RocketJump co-founder and Dimension 404 show runner Dez Dolly on the cusp of the premiere to talk about the development of the show, RocketJump’s first foray into long-form narratives, and why Dimension 404 is definitely not Black Mirror.
Developing an Anthology TV Show
The genesis of Dimension 404 actually goes back years, to when the RocketJump founders were still thinking in terms of creating content for a YouTube audience. “Originally, this was being developed as a web series,” explains Dez. “Then, we thought, ‘We’re really selling ourselves short. People are responding to this material. We’ve got a television series here.’ At the time, we thought this was a half-hour series, like most of the anthologies that we grew up watching, the shows that inspired us to make our own anthology, like Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, Tales From the Crypt, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, all of those classics.”
But while expanding their scope to a 30-minute time slot was a step in the right direction, it turned out it still wasn’t far enough. “In writing a half-hour anthology series, we began to realize we were very hampered with the types of stories we could tell,” Dez recalls. “There’s just not enough screen time to build beyond a twist ending and fully explore dynamic character arcs. So we went back to the drawing board and said, ‘What would this show look like if it were an hour long?’ This was about two years ago now. We scrapped everything, went back to the drawing board, changed the entire format of the show, and started rewriting all of our premises for the one-hour format.”
Behind the scenes on episode 103, “Chronos,” with Matthew Del Negro, Ashley Rickards, and Utkarsh Ambudkar. Photo: Patrick Wymore/Hulu
Finding the Right Tone
Once they had discovered the right format, the next step was nailing the tone. With a slew of predecessors having tackled similar territory over the years — everything from the aforementioned shows from which the creators took inspiration to the recent success of Black Mirror — it was important to Dolly and his team that what they built could stand apart as something unique.
“I personally love Black Mirror,” says Dez. “I was really excited when it was first released, because it let me know that there is a hunger, aside from my own, for anthology television focused around the exciting and terrifying world around us. That being said, when I watch an episode of Black Mirror, I walk away from it hating the world I live in, and sometimes myself. A lot of those episodes are very nihilistic. Dimension 404 is the flip side of that coin. We want to explore the hope of humanity and how folks are capable of navigating the wonders and horrors of this ever-changing digital age.”
Behind the scenes on episode 101, “MatchMaker,” with director Olde Money Boyz and Robert Buckley. Photo: Michael Moriatis/Hulu
“The tone is definitely a combination of both intention and circumstance,” Dolly explains. “We always set out to make something weird — that was the descriptor we had at the top of every script — but the sense of humor really comes from myself and the personalities of the other writers in the room. We’re a gaggle of silly guys. A hero of mine was Sam Raimi. His films are living, breathing comic books. That was something that I hadn’t quite seen in anthology shows, and I felt, at least in what we were seeing on television and in cinema, things were getting a little super serious.”
That was also the reason for including one of Dimension 404‘s key differentiators: a sense of humor. “The casting was certainly intentional,” says Dolly. “We zeroed in on folks with comedic backgrounds. Comedy is a trade; it’s a finely honed craft. In addition to breaking new talent, we wanted to leverage the anthology format, and bring in guest stars for every episode — but specifically with an aim toward bringing in comedic talent, again, to demonstrate that fun, funny, weirdness in tone for the audience.”
Behind the scenes on “MatchMaker” with Lea Michelle. Photo: Michael Moriatis/Hulu
The Challenges of Television Production
“Dimension 404 is certainly the largest production we’ve undertaken,” says Dolly. “Having come from the web and YouTube world, we had a bit of a learning curve. I learned a million ways not to make a TV show before we found the one way to actually do so. We brought in a lot of new crew that we had never worked with before, with television experience, so we could glean lessons to ramp up the level of quality compared to things we’ve done in the past. We took this as an opportunity to really prove to traditional media that RocketJump knows how to put together a TV show.”
Working on a limited budget also meant that they had to work fast. “We filmed the episodes in blocks. Every six days, we would be shooting a new episode, and we’d take two days off,” explains Dez. “We’d give everyone a brief opportunity to catch their breath before we’d go into the next episode. Two days off was certainly not enough, I’ll tell you that. This was a very exhausting production, and no, it never got easier. This was, hands down, the most difficult, brutal thing I’ve ever put myself through. It was a challenge. The whole way through, it felt like sprinting through a 10K, but, yeah, there were lessons learned every single day.”
Behind the scenes on episode 106, “Impulse,” with Lorenza Izzy. Photo: Patrick Wymore/Hulu
Going High-Concept on a Low Budget
“Our prior experience with visual effects wizardry and low-budget DIY filmmaking techniques all factored into producing this show,” says Dolly. “That’s certainly who we are as filmmakers. My partners, Freddie and Matt, and I, basically our first film-school education was off of DVD special features. We grew up learning through other people’s little behind-the-scenes tutorials and whatnot. That’s the way we like to approach filmmaking. It’s a familial environment. If we’re having fun, folks are going to see that on the screen. And from a sheer pragmatic point of view, the only way you can accomplish high-concept cinematic sci-fi on a budget is to employ a lot of those backyard VFX tricks that we learned over the last five years.”
This is also where the team would turn to a service like Pond5 to help achieve their vision for the production. “One episode, ‘Bob,’ features a depressed, sentient computer that works at the heart of the NSA,” reveals Dez. “There’s a moment in the script where hundreds of drones fly out all across the world to deliver goods. We think, ‘Okay, can we shoot that? No. Hell, no. Absolutely not. Of course not,’ so I turn to Pond5 to obtain the footage we wouldn’t otherwise be able to shoot. Then we can incorporate that seamlessly into our VFX pipeline to breathe life into these amazing visions on the page that would otherwise be impossible to create.”
Behind the scenes on episode 105, “Bob,” with Malcolm Barrett. Photo: Patrick Wymore/Hulu
“There were a handful of drone shots, in that episode in particular, that were thorns in our side for some time in the development and pre-production offices. For a lot of the high-concept ideas in the show, by nature of trying to write something that no one’s ever seen before, we were faced with the challenge of finding new ways to produce these visuals that had never been put to film before. We had to come up with really creative solutions to a lot of these interesting challenges. Stock footage, low-budget VFX, and DIY techniques are some of our go-to tricks of the trade.”
As for whether the fully realized version of Dimension 404 reflects the fantastical world Dolly and team originally envisioned, the show runner is quick to point out a truism that will resonate with any filmmaker. “I don’t feel like anything I ever create is exactly a one-to-one recreation of what I see in my mind’s eye,” he says. “There are certainly a lot of compromises in filmmaking, especially in low-budget filmmaking. What I will say is, watching these episodes completed, come to life, is more exciting than what I had ever imagined. It’s certainly humbling, and I just feel honored to see our bizarre written word breathed to life, willed into existence out of the ether. It’s amazing, and it’s exciting, and I can’t wait for people to see what we cooked up.”
Dez, Freddie, Matt, and the rest of the RocketJump crew celebrate the release of Dimension 404.
Dimension 404 is available for streaming on Hulu in the US. Viewers in other countries can see an updated list of info on where to watch the show on the RocketJump blog.
Top image: Behind the scenes on Dimension 404 episode 104, “Polybius” with Ryan Lee and Gabrielle Elyse. Photo: Patrick Wymore/Hulu
Looking for drone footage — or something else — to bring your own vision to life? Explore the full collection on Pond5 »