After producing Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion “Anomalisa” feature, Rosa Tran couldn’t resist overseeing the brief, hand-drawn excursions for his surreal road trip movie, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” They consisted of the creepy black-and-white Tulsey Town ice cream commercial (a stand in for the retro Dairy Queen ’60s spot, which Kaufman couldn’t license) and the painterly-looking, glowing pig (voiced by Oliver Platt) that follows a naked high school janitor (Guy Boyd) during a live-action sequence.
Good thing Tran had plenty of context and reference material to draw on: she didn’t have time to read Kaufman’s mind-bending script (freely adapted from Iain Reid’s provocative 2016 novel). Tran was glad she had a baseline for how to work with Kaufman. “He talked about this naked janitor and what he was going through as he was hallucinating,” said Tran, who is currently working on Season 3 of the 2D-animated “Final Space” series for TBS and prepping Seth Rogen’s stop-motion “Santa Inc.” for HBO Max. “And he already had the jingle recorded and the design done and printed on napkins. And when he sent us the Dairy Queen commercial, he pointed out that it was a little terrifying for children and ice cream.”
Tran and co-producer Duke Johnson (who co-directed “Anomalisa”) assembled a small indie team of six artists, led by Simon Wilches and Mollie Ong, working last year from April to December. Kaufman met briefly with them in L.A. and pulled references for female clowns from the ’30s, pointing out one in particular that he found sexy. Wilches worked on the Tulsey Town section with live-action dancing reference for the clown (also courtesy of Kaufman).
The animation designs were done in Photoshop with oil brush plug-ins to get the retro look, and then put through After Effects to animate with coloring. “Simon pitched me on having her skirt melting because she’s doing so much…and it’s ice cream,” added Tran. “There was also an iteration that almost got past us, where Simon put skulls in the background, but Duke caught it.”
Originally, Kaufman wanted an actual pig to accompany the naked janitor, but that was a non-starter after auditioning a few animals. Pigs not only can’t turn their heads but are also unable to walk on wet floors. When it was decided to animate them (again, using Photoshop and After Effects), the initial design turned out to be too cartoony, which didn’t work well in matching with the live action.
“Charlie is a big fan of fine art and will give references,” Tran said. “He’d talk about Roycroft [the reformist movement in late 19th century New York], and Mollie referenced Andrew Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World,” and that became the basis for the [fully animated] intro with the pig and the farm.”
Ong, who specializes in watercolors, painted her rendition of the pig on paper as a series of layered shapes, which Kaufman liked except for wanting more blue to tone down the pink. After painting the base layers, Ong did the face and then the blood drops. These were then composited together. However, after reviewing a test shot, Kaufman requested more of a glowing presence.
“But there’s a naked man standing [there], so if you have a transparent pig, you’re going to see his bits behind him,” added Tran. “It took some troubleshooting between Molly, VFX [Shade VFX], and the [Company 3] post house in NY to figure out how you get a blur in that spot and also maintain the transparency of the pig with that glow.”
But what about hiding her own symbolism inside the pig? “I would’ve put little heart shapes in, if I wanted to sneak something in,” Tran said. Skulls and hearts. That pretty much sums up Kaufman’s vision for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”