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Anomalisa and the Art of Subtle Exaggeration

Anomalisa and the Art of Subtle Exaggeration

The
following is an excerpt from the full interview which will be included in the
upcoming book by authors Ellen Besen and Aubry Mintz  “Theory of Integrated Storytelling” (working
title)  – Michael Wiese Productions (pub
2017)

On
Feb 5, 2016 we sat down with the directors of Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, to discuss their
collaboration on this fascinating new film. This is Kaufman’s first foray into
animation and while Johnson is also a live action director, he has worked
extensively as a stop motion animation director.

Their collaboration began when
Johnson and Starburns Industries approached Kaufman with the idea of turning Anomalisa, which began as a staged audio play, into a stop-motion animation film, distributed by Paramount.

Screenwriter/director
Kaufman is known for such films as Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
and Being
John Malkovich
, while director/producer
Johnson is known for such work as Mary
Shelley’s
Frankenhole and the
animated episode of Community

Together
they bring a fresh sensibility to the making of an animated feature, one that
even presents a bit of a challenge to established animation thinking. One big
question in particular which this film raises is in regard to the role of
exaggeration.

Frequently used to make a clear delineation
between the real world and the animated one, exaggeration is one of the keys
which open the door to animation’s potential for magic, satire, high comedy and
wonderment.  But regardless of where we
apply it- whether to concept, design or performance- we all tend to use exaggeration
towards one main goal: to make things bigger.

This idea is so engrained that many people
(ourselves included) assumed that this Kaufman/ Johnson collaboration would
follow suit.

What a surprise then, that Anomalisa turns out to be quite the
opposite.
Rather than grabbing the overt bending of reality seen in such films as Being John Malkovich and going to town
with it, Anomalisa is decidedly
understated and apparently grounded in the real world.  

But is that what’s really happening here?
While it’s true that Anomalisa doesn’t
give up its secrets so easily, what comes to light in conversation with its
creators is an eye opener.  In fact, on
closer examination, we see that what it offers is a new perspective on the
whole issue of exaggeration and where and how it can be used effectively.  Let’s begin.

INTERVIEWER
(INT)
:

When
we think about animation, we expect a certain level of exaggeration, so it was
somewhat surprising to see it is downplayed in Anomalisa. Overall it was a lot subtler than anticipated- though,
of course, very effective. Was that a conscious decision?

CHARLIE
KAUFMAN (CK)

That’s something I’ve always been interested in because I do
fantastic stories but with the intent of making them feel believable. Or making
sure that the style isn’t competing with or throwing off the gravity of the
idea. Duke and I were also very cognizant that this was a story for adults, not
children. 

 

I think larger than life, exaggerated fantasy is generally
geared to children, not adults and we were trying to match the style of the of
the visuals and voices to the script which led us tonally to an understanding
of what the film would look like.

 

But I feel that first and foremost, we were trying to tell a
small story and a nuanced story. And that it was interesting to us to try to do
that with small and nuanced animation.

 

INT:

The subtle approach does have the
odd effect of sometimes blurring the line between animated movement and
something that almost looks like live action. Were you aware of this and if so,
what effect did you hope it would have?

CK: 

I think we expected that there was a certain surreal quality
that we would get with this type of animation, especially given the near
realistic design of the puppets. I don’t think we discussed the blurring of
real and animated movement but we felt pleased when people told us that they
just forgot it was animated- not that they couldn’t tell but just that they got
immersed in it.

 

DUKE
JOHNSON (DJ):
 

There are
specific moments where we draw attention to the fact that it’s animated,
literally showing how the puppets function– when Michael is investigating the
seam on his face and when his face falls off.

 

Other
moments, it’s specifically about the characters’ emotional experience. Here we
were trying to be as honest and authentic as possible and I think that’s how
the audience sometimes forgets it’s animated. Just as Charlie said, it’s a side
effect of them being drawn in.

 

CK:

In fact, we
made a decision early on, when we started with the replacement animation
technique, that we were not going to paint out the seams on the puppets faces.
So in every moment you can see that the characters are artificial.  We always want people to know that they are
watching stop motion animation. It was very important to us from the beginning.

INT:

Charlie,
you seem to have a capacity for finding magic in ordinary things such as the
half floor in Being John Malkovich. One
of the wonderful consequences of this approach is the physical impact it has on
the storytelling. Here we’re wondering how the hotel manager’s huge office
affects story.    

CK:

In 2005 I did this as a staged radio play and
part of what I was trying to do was think about things that could be imagined
by the audience. I guess I tend toward things like that, half floors and giant
rooms… For Anomalisa I thought it
would be funny to have this guy sounding very far away in this awful sounding
room where there’s a sunken meeting area and you have to drive around in a golf
cart. But I imagined it impossibly big, which it almost is in the movie.

INT:

So
now you’re going from a radio play to a movie where the room becomes a
physicalized thing. It obviously creates some wonderful performance but how did
you manage the staging in this gigantic space without losing the pace?
Especially since just getting the characters across the room becomes a story
point.

DJ: 

Yeah, that was a factor in a lot
of scenes. The radio play was just dialogue- you didn’t have to account for a
character crossing from the bed to the desk to make a phone call. In my
experience with animation, you always try to factor this in at the animatic
stage but then there’s the practical stuff that you can only figure out when
you’re executing it. Somehow, it always ends up taking longer than you planned.
There are places where we had to speed up Michael’s walk – because he always ends
up looking like he’s moving a little slower. But that plays into his character
as well and finding that pace was interesting.

INT:

Something in the film that actually stands
out for us is the pacing. You guys are so daring, keeping in what a lot of filmmakers
leave out- like walking down the hallway and showing everything Michael is
doing so literally. The way you take us through these long stretches, it’s
almost as if you’re pushing the audience to be as disengaged as Michael is.

CK:

I think we
were trying to create Michael’s world and experience in real time- we did that
throughout the movie.  One of the things
people respond to is the sex scene. We analyzed why and I think it’s because it
is complete.  You see everything from the
moment they enter the hotel room- through their awkward interaction, the
foreplay, the sex- until it’s over. 
There is no turning away from it. And that’s consistent with him coming
into the room, going to the bathroom, walking to the window, etc.

We thought
there was something inherently more interesting about a puppet doing this
mundane stuff, than a human actor doing it. 
It’s because there is the idea in the audience’s mind that this was choreographed,
so there are no off-the-cuff movements. If the guy is tapping his finger
against his leg, that was decided on and a great deal of time and attention was
spent on it. And it’s interesting – because it’s a puppet.

This was our
hope and it goes back to the choice of making the animation small and nuanced
as opposed to big and fanciful.  Trying
to create the experience of this very mundane life- a particular experience
that people have when they’re travelling and staying in anonymous hotel rooms.

In addition, there is the
surreal element that everybody’s got the same face and the same voice. That’s a
very big stylistic conceit that has to be grounded in something in order for it
to sell and not just be silly.

 

INT:

We’ve talked about this being so
realistic but of course it isn’t because of the voices and faces. It’s right in
front of us and it’s a huge surrealistic element and yet we accept it as
reality… within 5 minutes  you had us
completely.

CK:

People talk about what this
would have been like in live action. One of the things that Duke and I have
discussed is that if this had been live action, you would have known
immediately that something was really distractingly wrong because everybody would
have had the same face- it would have been conspicuous.

But because there is an
expectation, in animation generally and specifically in stop motion, that the
faces are going to have a similarity, people don’t necessarily even catch that
it’s the same face – sometimes not for a while, sometimes not ever. It sort of
slips up on them. I feel making it animated was a gift.

INT:

What
was the inspiration for having Michael play out his story in the field of
customer service? Did you consider other possible situations for him or was
this just an intuitive leap?

CK: 

It seemed natural. I made Michael a writer about customer service because I thought it was funny that there would
be such a person. To me it’s like the 7th and-a-half floor– that
somebody would be a celebrity in that world.

INT:

Well,
we love how the actual low ceiling in BJM translates into the idea of a low
ceiling here, in that Michael is a celebrity but only in a tiny world that no
one else cares about. And how his fans are people who spend their days making phone calls. The way the whole context is
downgraded- filled with jobs that have no meaning- supports Michael’s fears
that nothing has any meaning.

CK: 

Yeah and that customer
service interaction is not real interaction. The conversations that Lisa and
Emily have with the customers are the same conversations that Michael has with
the employees of the hotel. Nobody wants to be there – everybody is doing their
job or asking for something – there is nothing human about it.

INT:

When
Michael is with Lisa, we see that he thinks she’s beautiful. Objectively she
seems plain yet he is charmed and it’s clear that he is layering stuff on her
that is not necessarily within her. In total, we feel like we are seeing her
through his eyes – was that deliberate?

 

DJ:

Except for the last shot, the
film is all from Michael’s POV.  There’s
the obvious fact that everybody has the same face but we also paid great
attention to how the film is lit, how the camera is positioned and to the depth
of field. All this came about through discussions involving POV and Michael’s
emotional state.

INT:

How about when he’s losing Lisa–
at the end of breakfast where he suddenly shifts from idealizing her to
disliking her. Then the light begins to block out her face in an awkward way.
Is that POV-driven too?

DJ:

We wanted the audience to feel Michael squinting to see Lisa’s
face- to have the same experience. Then you start hearing the voice change and
now you can’t really see her clearly and you wonder if that’s changed as well.
All directly putting you in his experience.

CK: 

In the radio play, the letter from Lisa that Michael is reading
at the end is in Tom Noonan’s voice. For the movie, we had Jennifer Jason Leigh
do it and we felt it was so beautiful. But then I was worried because of my
sense that this needed to be from Michael’s POV. And I wondered if it was selling
out to make this Lisa’s voice?  

Eventually Duke and I decided that we just loved Jennifer’s
voice. It does change the ending of the movie because suddenly we are outside
of Michael’s POV. And can see Lisa’s actual face.

I think it was the right decision. It does allow some sort
of hope that I don’t think would have been there if Lisa were trapped forever
with Michael’s hallucinated face and voice. And it doesn’t soft sell Michael’s situation,
which is the important thing – but it allows Lisa to escape.

INT:

It’s
basically the first time we can breathe in the whole film.

CK: 

Yeah

INT:

And
its amazing because in animation we tend to lean towards making things bigger.
But this gives a different model for storytelling- it’s really a more subtle
use of exaggeration. So we might not be able to see it on the first viewing but
it’s there.

CK: 

I came away with from this experience understanding how
interesting a process animation is and how exciting it is to be able to
choreograph and block and make the tiniest decisions – its kind of a thrill.

INT:

It seems like a perfect fit
for the way your minds works! You guys go as far as you need to go – down to the tiniest detail.  

CK:    

Although
it’s very time consuming and expensive, if we ever get another opportunity, we
would love to do it again!

INT:

Here’s hoping!

As a final
thought, it’s worth noting how much exaggeration there really is in Anomalisa
involving character design, settings, lighting- some of it subtle but some
also quite broad. It just isn’t the kind of exaggeration you expect and it
isn’t where you expect it to be. In fact, even the filmmakers’ overall subtle
approach is so extreme it becomes a kind of exaggeration in its own right- a
pretty neat trick in the end. 

 

It
makes us think about the traditional relationship between animation and
exaggeration. We tend to push animation towards bigness, in part simply because
it isn’t live action- simply because it can go big in ways that live action
cannot. And this approach has become so entrenched, we rarely question it.

Then
along comes Anomalisa and turns this tradition on its head, reminding us
that animation can also distinguish itself from live action by being less.
Which is to say, there is a level of subtlety that only animation can reach,
which in the right context can be as effective and legitimate as any other kind
of exaggeration. Who would have guessed this film would reveal such a gift?

Author Bios:

Aubry Mintz has worked as a feature animator at Industrial Light and Magic and as
an award winning freelance animation director for television and the Internet
whose clients include: MuchMusic, Smirnoff, McDonalds and General Mills. Mintz
has produced many animated projects including the animated pilot Airship
Dracula (music by Canadian rock band The Sadies with voices by Paul Sorvino and
Alan Tudyk) and directed the short animated film Nothing to Say (narrated by
Danny Aiello). Mintz is a Professor and Head of Animation at California State
University Long Beach and serves on the board of directors for ASIFA-Hollywood.
Mintz is also an author (Ideas for the Animated Short 2nd Edition for Focal Press)
and is currently writing a book with co-author Ellen Besen for MWP “Theory of
Integrated Storytelling”.

Ellen Besen has worked for many years in a range of media including animation,
television and the internet. She has directed award winning films (NFB and
independent) which have been shown at such institutions as MoMA, taught at top
animation schools such as Sheridan College and worked as a broadcast journalist
for CBC Radio. She has spent many years analyzing the true nature of our
relationship with media in general and animation in particular. Her most recent
projects include two books on applied theory for animation storytelling –
Animation Unleashed (2008) and Theory of Integrated Storytelling (a work in
progress with co-author Aubry Mintz) both for MWP.

Authors, educators and animation filmmakers Aubry Mintz and Ellen
Besen
have presented their storytelling findings at film festivals to
packed audiences throughout the US and Canada and frequently do presentations
on integrated storytelling, most recently at CTNX, Walt Disney Feature
Animation, Blue Sky Studios and DreamWorks Animation. Together they are
currently writing a book for Michael Wiese Productions called “Theory of
Integrated Storytelling”.

In a collective 45 years of filmmaking and teaching script, cinematic
storytelling and animation, they have never found a more reliable set of
principles for setting a story on the road to success, for creating films that
truly connect to their audience. 

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