We talk to the animation supervisor behind Anomalisa, the Oscar-nominated stop motion drama from director Charlie Kaufman
Anomalisa, the stop motion drama from Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, defies any expectation an audience might hold for an animated feature. The film does not elicit any chorus of ‘Aw!’; the landscape is a bleak palette of grey and beige, and the R-rating confirms that this is a film for adults only. It’s a world away from the sweet, but moralistic, Pixar canon.
The film follows a day in the life of Michael Stone, an unmotivated motivational speaker who lands in Cincinnati to deliver a speech on customer service. The majority of the action unfolds on an airplane, a taxi, a fancy hotel, and in a car. Within these transient settings, Stone experiences a series of disappointments as he fails to connect with everyone he meets: from an overeager taxi driver, to the ex-girlfriend he had left heartbroken.
The lack of meaning in these interactions, and Michael’s increasing desperation, is emphasised by the fact that everyone he comes into contact with is voiced, by actor Tom Noonan, in the same robotic manner. Luckily, Lisa enters, a character whose singsong voice erupts in irresistible idiosyncrasy, and Michael’s hunt for connection reaches a pinnacle.
The real star here, however, is the animation: the slightly off-kilter masks; the incredible softness of expression; each wince and crinkle of Michael’s beer belly; and the way Lisa trips and falls in a hotel corridor. The film is a reflection of craft – from the cotton-woven clouds outside an airplane window, to the many faces of the puppets. But it’s not just the physical detail that required accuracy. For example, in one scene a nervous-drinking Michael downs a Martini, which was the result of days of work by the animation team.
No CGI was used in the making of Anomolisa, instead, a form of stop motion animation – defined as the physical manipulation of an object that appears to move on its own – is used throughout. Specifically, the team used a notoriously time-consuming technique called replacement animation. Each of the characters’ faces was manipulated on a computer, 3d-printed, and physically swapped out by an animator for each frame. Twenty-four frames equals one second of film. The animators had a goal of two-and-a-half seconds per day. The final film is 90 minutes – or 5,400 seconds overall.
Ahead of the 88th Academy Awards, PORT speaks to Anomolisa supervising animator Dan Driscoll about his role in creating one of the most unusual films of the year.
How were you first pitched the idea of Anomalisa?
The pitch for Anomalisa was always: ‘We will make something beautiful. We will make something no one has ever seen before. It will be the most difficult thing we will ever attempt’. Charlie Kaufman would never directly say what he thought the film was about. I believe that for him, one of the most important things is that the audience reaches conclusions on their own.
What do you think is the different effect achieved by animation as opposed to live action?
I think Anomalisa is atmospheric in a way many live action movies are not. The textures of the puppets and sets, lighting, and the way the actors are represented (as puppets) requires a certain investment from the audience. There is always some suspension of disbelief when watching a movie, and possibly more so in an animated film. Combined with a very emotional piece of art, like a Charlie Kaufman script, I believe that the audience was sucked into Anomalisa as a stop motion film more than if it would have a live action movie.
What were the hardest actions to animate and how did you make them realistic?
One of the challenges when animating Anomalisa was finding a balance between animations that were too subtle, and stiff – which risked falling into the uncanny valley – and over-animating, resulting in the actions becoming too cartoony. It was one of my main responsibilities to maintain consistency between shots, but all the animators are extraordinary artists and it is their experience and talent you see on the screen.
What new technology has changed animation and stop motion?
In the last decade, stop motion animation has grown because of advancements in 3D printing and image capturing software, such as Dragon Frame. Being able to build and print multiple props and dozens of faces at one time is an amazing time and cost saver. Shooting digitally using DSLRs and Dragon Frame helps streamline the process too.
What other animators have influenced your work?
Like a lot of people, I grew up with the Rankin Bass Christmas specials, and loved the stop motion in the Star Wars movies. I’ve always been a fan of the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer, I’ve enjoyed the textures and worlds they’ve created. Jiri Trinka is amazing. As a kid it seemed like King Kong was on television a lot, so Willis O’Brien, even though I was too young to know it at the time. Without question Ray Harryhousen’s films are very impressive. MTV also had a lot of stop motion station IDs in their early days which were always fun and odd. I am also continually amazed by the work my friends do. It’s an amazing opportunity to work with so many talented people, producing amazing work.