With Amazon Prime Video’s “Undone,” TV has its own version of “A Scanner Darkly” and “Waking Life,” but its a work that is far more advanced in its use of rotoscope animation for trippy storytelling. The latest series from “BoJack Horseman” producers Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg examines perception, reality, and existence in a fantastical journey through space and time.
In “Undone,” an auto accident upends the life of Alma (Rosa Salazar), who begins questioning reality when she’s visited by the spirit of her late father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), who asks her to help solve the mystery of his death with her mind-bending abilities. Funny thing, though: the series wasn’t supposed to be animated until Dutch animator Hisko Hulsing signed on to direct. Hulsing was a rotoscope expert, dabbling with the technique of tracing over live-action footage frame-by-frame on his award-winning shorts “Junkyard,” “Seventeen,” and HBO’s Emmy-nominated documentary, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.”
“I was actually on the verge of quitting animation because it’s so laborious and I’m so uninterested in family entertainment,” Hulsing said. “But it’s a golden era for me in the streaming era to create content for adults on a reasonable budget. And the ambiguity was the thing that drew me in. It’s based on Kate’s life and it was about a confused woman, who’s probably schizophrenic, or it’s really a fantastical story about somebody traveling through time to meet her father. And when I read the script, I realized it could only be done with rotoscoping.”
That’s because rotoscoping was the perfect technique for capturing the strange nuances of Alma’s hyper-real experience with a look that was both dreamlike and messy. The animation embraced the uncanny but not to the point of disrupting the performances. The director crucially drew on his own psychotic and hallucinogenic experiences for inspiration. But first Hulsing had to convince showrunners Purdy and Bob-Waksberg that he was on the right track, so he showed them the surreal dream sequence from “Rosemary’s Baby.”
“I realized that it could only be a point-of-view kind of film,” he said. “Not literally, but we’re on a trip with Alma all the time. And it’s a fever dream in ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ We don’t know if she’s being raped by the devil or not. But she believes it and we, as an audience, go on a trip with her.”
The unique workflow consisted of shooting the live action in a black box studio in West Hollywood with two cameras and no sets. The setup was so minimal that they depicted Alma floating in space by shooting a stuntgirl jumping off a trampoline at a very low angle and landing on a mattress, while Salazar was photographed separately on a spinning stool.
Then the rotoscoping was done at Minnow Mountain in Austin, using TVPaint software to create the line animation layers, with the aid of a custom drawing tool the director customized for the series. Minnow Mountain not only rotoscoped the bodies, but also lines on the actors faces to help bring out the emotion of their performances.
Then computer animators at Submarine in Amsterdam completed the coloring and rendering, first creating rough versions of the environments, while another team of artists made oil paintings designed by Hulsing, serving as production designer, to use as backdrops for the eight episodes. Some appeared in whole, while others were chopped into separate parts and layers for some of the trippier moments, such as the sequence in Episode 2 when Alma drifts through space while running through the hospital corridor after encountering the past version of herself in an elevator.
“This was one of the first key visuals that I drew two years before we got greenlit by Amazon,” the director said. Although it was meticulously storyboarded, Salazar had to imagine how it would look because the producers insisted on not showing any animation to the actors until after the season was completed. Fortunately, the actress had previous experience shooting the performance-captured “Alita: Battle Angel” with the help of Weta Digital’s cutting edge animation.
“It’s all based on the rhythm of her acting and her timing because the cameraman and lighting men are all following her,” added Hulsing. “And I think maybe because of the ‘Alita’ experience, which made her aware of how she was going to be translated, made her perfect for playing Alma. She knows exactly where the camera is and what’s expected of her, and she has very raw talent and is very expressive. And that’s perfect for animation.”
Meanwhile, the lockdown occurred while Season 2 was being storyboarded. This meant that the workflow had to be tweaked once more. “I think we’re in a better place than most live-action productions, apart from how horrible it is for many people,” Hulsing said. “But limitations push you to find solutions. In a way, I expected Season 2 to be way easier because we already have a pipeline and we know what we’re doing. And now I’m forced to do it all again in different ways. But I think that’s a good thing not to repeat yourself and to find new ways of being creatively innovative.”