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.
BD: Duke, the movements are unconventional as well, even for stop-motion.
DJ: Our characters felt more realistic and our story is more adult and the voice performances were like that as well and we attempted to create a physical animated performance that fit all of those things.
BD: Right, the eyes, expressions and movements are very believable. The awkwardness and desperation are very tangible and empathetic.
CK: The biggest thing that I came across, right off the bat, was that you can’t shoot this like a regular movie with multiple takes. You have to, because it’s such a protracted process, break it down to the frame and pretty much get one shot. And so not only do you have to make that work, you can’t really start putting the thing together in any form because some of the shots are very short and obviously many of them take so long, you’re waiting months and months and months before you can see if it’s going to be working emotionally. And then to see the whole movie, you’re pretty much waiting until the end of production. And the major lifting in terms of editing and all that stuff is done before you shoot the movie. That’s an unusual way to work.
BD: The dream must’ve been a tonal challenge in getting even more surreal.
CK: That was built into the play and it was a sound play and not visual to have some sort of excitement and try and create the distinction between [the dream] and the rest of the thing. It was a bit of a technical problem but allowed the character to come to some conclusions based on stuff that isn’t necessarily true.
DJ: It’s interesting because there are action elements in it, more so than the rest of the film, and modulating those to feel like it fits in with the overall scope of the film.
CK: And also the idea of not making it apparent that it’s different from the rest of the film, even though there are visual differences, the audience is supposed to think that they are with him when he wakes up in the morning.
BD: It’s so tactile because of what you can do with this printer.
DJ: And it certainly makes it more cost-effective because you get a higher level of detail in the animation using 3D printing.
BD: You can do something very distinctive that you can’t do in live-action or any other form of animation.
CK: You get a kind of surreal feeling and also it allows you to focus on the things we want you to focus on in a new way — the stuff that’s very small and mundane that happens in a person’s life when they’re in a hotel room. There’s more interest because you’re seeing a puppet do things that you’re very familiar with that you might not notice if it was a human doing it.
BD: At the same time, you’re able to convey a certain frailty because they are puppets.
CK: Yeah, because they’ve got these seams in them and there’s this chatter that lets you know that they’re being manipulated by some unseen forces — by the animators….There’s an energy that comes with things being in real time that you don’t have [until you see it all put together].
DJ: That’s a good point: There’s a certain pacing and cadence and rhythm…
CK: And you’re simulating it…
DJ: One frame at a time…