Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson Talk Anomalisa

With the Oscar-contending Anomalisa (Dec. 30), Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson take stop-motion in a deeply personal and provocative adult direction. Inspirational speaker Michael Stone (David Thewlis) suffers a nervous breakdown while preparing for a lecture in a strange hotel in Cincinnati. That is, until he meets homely Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with a heavenly voice and has a glimmer of hope.

When Kaufman was first approached by producer/friend Dino Stamatopoulos to adapt his “sound play” as a vehicle for his new stop-motion studio, Starburns Industries, Kaufman agreed only if he could get the financing. After a successful Kickstarter campaign ($406,237) attracted the rest of the budget (a reported $8 million), Anomalisa came to life. Like the best of Kaufman’s works (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), it concerns trying to escape the mundane and the difficulty connecting with people.

The animation brilliantly makes use of 3D printing for face replacement and Kaufman and co-director Johnson embrace reality as well as artifice. There were more than a dozen puppets of Michael and Lisa, 18 stages, about 100 feet of hallway, 10 motion control rigs and around 30 animators total throughout the two-year production.

Bill Desowitz: Charlie, how did you approach this for stop-motion?

Charlie Kaufman: There was obviously figuring out the visual components, which Duke and I did, and what the puppets were going to look like and how they moved and that sort of thing. That led to an animatic where we plotted out the movements. We did the voice records first [Tom Noonan did the rest of the characters].

BD: In terms of the look, you went for naturalism but still showed the seams on the faces.

CK: Yeah, once we decided to use that replacement animation, and the seams are a function of that animation, and other movies paint those out, we decided we wanted to keep the presence of the animation and the type of animation that it was rather than make it look polished. It created a kind of vulnerability, I think.

BD: I’ve enjoyed how your work explores overcoming solipsism and trying to connect with people.

CK: Yeah, we’re all subjective beings and trapped in our own realities and our own biographical stories and physical bodies and our histories — and that’s the only way we can experience the world. Certainly the argument for a solipsistic position philosophy is that there really is nothing else you can know except what you experience from inside your body. So it’s hard to know if anything else is real, but obviously people need to connect and there’s a struggle to do that and I’m interested in that struggle.

BD: What fascinated you about Michael and Lisa coming together?

CK:  These two people seemed to come out of that conversation I was having with myself about the struggle to connect.

BD: Duke, tell us about the challenge of animating this.

Duke Johnson: Just the overall challenge of trying to create an animated experience that felt subtle and nuanced and authentic to the emotional experience that the characters were having in the film.  It was a big challenge because we were limited financially, first of all, with how we could manufacture the puppets and we had to get as much of the mood and the tone as we could out of the lighting and the atmosphere.

And focus the attention on the puppets, like on the eyes, to get the performances. Specifically, the sex scene was challenging because we were aware of the possibility that it could go too comical just from the sense that it was puppets having sex. And that wasn’t the story… it was the natural progression of these two people being in his hotel room. It took a long time to discuss and figure that out technically.

BD: Right, you spent six months on this alone. But how did you problem solve it?

DJ: Really, it was just having the characters remain themselves throughout that interaction. How would Lisa and Michael be moving and feeling during this moment? And how would they be interacting in a way that’s consistent with the scene leading up to it? And also from a technical standpoint, how do bodies move, how do you fill their silences between the dialogue?

BD: What’s remarkable is that we forget we’re watching puppets. And Leigh singing ”Girl’s Just Wanna Have Fun” is incredibly moving.

CK: I think so much of that finds its origin in the voice records that we did. It informed everything in terms of the puppet performances and so we got the actors and did this thing, which inspired us, and then went on to inspire everyone else working in production. They were all there, all the time, sitting in the recording studio together. It was pretty similar to the way the play was done but a lot more intimate setting without the theatrical presentation.

Read the rest at Animation Scoop/Indiewire.

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Animation, Below the Line, Crafts, Movies, Music, Oscar, stop-motion, Tech, Trailers, VFX, Virtual Production

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