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Human at the Seams: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson Make Yearning Tangible in Anomalisa

Human at the Seams: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson Make Yearning Tangible in Anomalisa

Directing

In Anomalisa, a delicately melancholic observation on loneliness and the flawed human condition, acclaimed writer-director Charlie Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson use stop-motion animation to tell a story of small proportions and big ideas. These ideas include our fears, failures, insecurities and our desperate need to be loved by someone who can look pass our conspicuous scars.

Hiding any visible trace of the artifice of moviemaking is one of the craft’s greatest priorities: “Don’t show them how the magic is created because it would break the spell.”

We tend to favor images that seamlessly connect the real world with the world of the story at hand. But when the opposite approach is taken in a certain manner, the reminder that what’s on screen is artificial sometimes ends up imbuing the artwork with even more profoundly real, human qualities.

In Anomalisa, a delicately melancholic observation on loneliness and the flawed human condition, acclaimed writer-director Charlie Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson use stop-motion animation to tell a story of small proportions and big ideas. These ideas include our fears, failures, insecurities and our desperate need to be loved by someone who can look pass our conspicuous scars.

Charlie Kaufman, Co-Director, writer, producer and Duke Johnson Co-Director, producer. Photograph by Todd Williamson

Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson on the Anomalisa set. The pair co-directed and co-produced Kaufman’s script. Photograph by Todd Williamson

Kaufman and Johnson let the seams that bind the moving parts of their elegantly designed puppets become the visual identity of the film, a unique way of breaking the fourth wall. The manmade quality of their characters doesn’t diminish in the slightest the emotional impact of their foibles. Instead, their seams make Michael (David Thewlis), a respected customer-service expert and author, and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a self-conscious sales representative, the protagonists of this animated marvel, just what they should be: imperfect, isolated creatures trying to belong.

We chatted with Kaufman and Johnson (who previously directed episodes of Community and the Adult Swim series Moral Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole) about bringing the story of Anomalisa from its radio play iteration into stop-motion for this incredibly moving adult-oriented animated feature.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I understand Anomalisa was first a radio play [in 2005, as a component of composer Carter Burwell‘s Theater of a New Ear project]. How difficult was it to translate it into the very specific medium of animation?

Charlie Kaufman (CK): The play was kind of a radio play. It was on stage, but it was a radio play, so it was designed for there to be a disconnect between what you heard the actors doing on stage and what you saw—which was nothing, just them sitting there. That was the design of the piece and there were a lot of jokes that were part of that disconnect and that had to go away. I didn’t know what it would be without that. I liked that about it. That was what I wrote it to be.

The difficulty came in saying goodbye to that and then figuring out what it was in a visual form. It was just a matter of a lot of discussions between the two of us, and production design people, and the sculptor sculpting the characters. A lot of it was informed by the voice recording that we did with the actors, which is the first thing we did. The tape was really helpful to us in deciding the tone and deciding what the characters would look like.

Tom Noonan voices Emily and Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Lisa in Anomalisa

Tom Noonan voices Emily and Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Lisa in Anomalisa. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

MM: Charlie, at what point did you decide that stop-motion was the right medium?

CK: I didn’t. They came to me—this company came to me wanting to do stop-motion. I was just like, “Well, I like stop-motion and it’s as good a way to do it as any other way.” It kind of sounded interesting to me to do it that way, but in the end I think it turned out to be the right form for reasons that I feel were discovered along the way. I think there is a dreamlike quality that comes from it that suits the material. I think it allows you to pay attention to small details that are animated more than you would if there were just actors doing them in a hotel room. I think the audience seems to be more willing to watch Michael alone in his room doing little things because they know it’s an animated thing than they would if it was just an actor.

MM: Duke, you’ve done stop-motion before, but this seems to be different in the sense that the faces are designed to resemble human expressions more realisitically. How does the experience of working on Anomalisa compare to what you’ve done previously in the medium?

Duke Johnson (DJ): It’s a higher level of detail in the performances and a higher level of articulation. For example, when we did “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” the Community Christmas special, characters had clay eyelids and clay brows that you could sculpt for the expressions but only 16 different mouth replacements. Michael and Lisa have more than 150 different mouths each, so there is a much wider range of emotion that you can get, which gives you many more options and allows for a greater level of detail and articulation. With something like “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” you are doing very broad, kind of archetypal movements. It’s broad comedy. To try to get more subtle, nuanced human emotional performances is very difficult in this medium. Figuring out how to fabricate puppets that can achieve that as well as find the right animators and make the right choices in doing that was a discovery process for all of us.

Michael's mouths. Photograph by Chris "Toots" Tootell

Michael’s mouths. Photograph by Chris “Toots” Tootell

MM: Tell me about the importance of the voices in order to create the world the characters inhabit. What was the process of recording the actors’ performances for Anomalisa like?

DJ: For every stop-motion project that I’ve worked on, voice recordings have been the first thing that we did. The voices are everything; it decides everything. Their vocal performances set the tone for whatever it is that you are doing. In our case, we brought in the same three actors from the stage performance, Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Thewils, and Tom Nooman, recorded them together going linearly through the story, interacting with each other and overlapping each other. We had that performance and that set the tone for what we wanted to do with everything else. It influenced the design, the rhythm of the film, the pacing, the mood, the atmosphere—everything was influenced by that original voice performance.

MM: Charlie, was it strange or challenging for you to enter the world of stop-motion animation with an intimate story like this?

CK: I loved it. It wasn’t difficult for me. In terms of the style of it, I obviously was uneducated in it, but, I mean, that wasn’t really an issue because I wasn’t animating. I wasn’t doing the animation myself or designing or building the puppets. I love stop-motion animation and I love what we did with it. I love the naturalism, the subtlety and the nuance that we arrived at. I find it very evocative, soulful and sort of sad—all things that I like.

MM: Duke, what was your approach in terms of cinematography? How do you light a scene for a stop-motion film? Is it the same approach as in live-action or are there distinct challenges?

DJ: With everything you do in stop-motion, you have to consider its function and how it’s going to interact with the animator. You can’t really put lights all around the sets because the animators have to be able to access the puppet and get into the set. A lot of times what they’ll do is put the lights very high up, which offers kind of a broader lighting scheme—it’s not very “contrasty” or very complex. Another thing they do is bounce light onto bounce boards. It’s all with the intention of getting the lights away from the animators. We wanted to light it like a movie, like you would light a drama. We wanted to be able to influence the mood and the tone of scenes substantially with the lighting. What we ended up doing is making lights so that we could kind of pretend that it was like a mini live-action set. How would you light these characters with key lights and eye lights and back lights, but make the lights small enough so that you can bring them closer, but also not these giant lights that are invading the space of the animators? There were a lot of lights being invented.

Lead animator Drayson Helberg on the set of Anomalisa. Photograph by Chris "Toots" Tootell

Lead animator Drayson Helberg on the set of Anomalisa. Photograph by Chris “Toots” Tootell

One of the things that was super important for us was to always have an eye light for the characters, just like human beings always have an eye light. We really felt like that brought them to life. So they would use these tiny little lights and they would hide them so wherever the characters looked, they would have an eye light. Things like that, which are very meticulous.

MM: [Spoiler] There is a particular scene where we actually see Michael taking off the bottom part of his face. Why was it important for you to show this and make the viewer conscious of the technique?

CK: I think from the beginning, once we decided to use this replacement animation technique, which is almost always painted out in post by computers, we decided to keep those seams because we didn’t want to hide the craft. We didn’t want to hide the fact that it was stop motion. We wanted that to be part of the experience of watching it. It adds a quality to it that we like. Once we decided to keep those seams in, we started to think of ways that [the concept] could be thematically consistent with the story, incorporated into the story. There is a moment when he is looking in the mirror and he notices the seam, actually for the first time, and he is trying to pull it down—then he hears Lisa. It doesn’t really get pulled off there, in his waking life. The place where it falls off is in a nightmare, so technically it didn’t really happen, you know? At least we can say that, if someone calls us on it. Those were things that weren’t in the play because there weren’t puppets in the play. It was stuff that we added because we thought it was interesting in keeping with Michael’s questions of self and identity.

David Thewlis' Michael examines his joints in a hotel mirror. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

David Thewlis’ Michael examines his joints in a hotel mirror. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

MM: There is a misconception that animation is a genre and not a medium and that it’s reserved for children’s stories. Do you feel there is still that stigma? Do you hope the attention Anomalisa has garnered will open doors for more adult-oriented animation stateside?

CK: We are trying to break through. Yeah, we understand that we were trying to do something that was not for children. We knew this was going to be for adults. It’s got sex in it and it’s got a lot of expletives in it and it was not going to be a children’s movie. Our hope is that people are interested enough in this movie that it opens the doors for recognition that animation is a form and not a genre. It’s a form of work and it can be used for anything. It doesn’t have to be just for children’s movies. We’ve met with a lot of animators who’ve come to screenings and have told us how glad they are that this movie got made because if it does well, there might a possibility that they can do the kind of work that they want to do and not make children’s movies. One guy was saying, “I’m not a child. I don’t go to the movies I make. I find it sort of sad that the movies I go to are not the movies that I made.”

Johnson supervises a scene from Anomalisa. Photograph by Chris "Toots" Tootell

Johnson supervises a scene from Anomalisa. Photograph by Chris “Toots” Tootell

MM: Duke, as someone who works in animation, what was your take on this?

DJ: I think people work in a certain type of thing because that’s what you can get jobs in. Myself, Dino Stamatopoulos and others, we’ve often talked about this. In other parts of the world, like in Eastern Europe and Japan with Studio Ghibli, they use animation to tell more adult stories, sometimes. Being able to explore those kinds of stories is something that we’ve always wanted to do and that’s the big mystery of this movie that’s yet to be seen: if a general audience will respond to it. I hope that they do. MM

Anomalisa opens in theaters December 30, 2015, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

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