Frame-By-Frame, Filmmakers Make The Mundane Miraculous In 'Anomalisa'
Anomalisa, a new film about an emotionally stifled, middle-aged customer service expert, tackles existential questions about what it means to be alive. But unlike other movies that raise similar issues, the characters in Anomalisa are doll-size puppets.
Duke Johnson, who co-directed the film with Charlie Kaufman, explains that everything the characters do in the film — from speaking to showering to having sex — is shot frame-by-frame using stop-motion animation.
"Everything is static," Johnson tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "The puppets are posed in various static positions in a sequence over the course of a series of frames, and when the frames are played back in real time it creates the illusion of movement."
Kaufman, who wrote the film in addition to co-directing it, says that the painstaking filming process he and Johnson used helped heighten the characters' humanity. "There's something about this type of animation that communicates fragility and humanity and brokenness ... because it's all handmade, and because it's an imperfect process," he says.
On making everything at "Barbie scale"
Johnson: We fabricate everything; everything that you see on the screen is made by hand. It's all in one-sixth scale, which is a Barbie's scale, for a frame of reference. So everything — all the locations and sets and cars — it all exists in real three-dimensional space. ...
Basically, we have a big empty warehouse where stages are created, different stages. In our case, we had 18 [stages] that are separated by sheets of ... black fabric that's used in filmmaking because it has no bounce quality for light. ... So you have separate rooms divided by this black fabric, and they're anywhere from 15 feet by 15 feet to 40 feet by 20 feet or something, and there's a set in each one of these stages and there's an animator. ...
The process moves so slowly, it can often take weeks or months to animate a single shot. What happens is we go in and you pose the puppets, you sort of stage it as you would with live action, and then you set the camera angle and you secure it into place, typically with glue — you actually glue the camera into place so it doesn't move, you can't bump it over time — and then the cinematographer lights it, just like you would a live action set, but it's just on a miniature scale. It almost looks like a blueprint or a diagram of a live action set.
On finding real-life models for the puppets
Kaufman: [In] most stop-motion animation the puppets have very large eyes and very big hands and they kind of gesture in very broad ways and there's practical reasons for that. But we [said] we want this to look not like that, we didn't want it to be a kid's movie, we didn't want it to have that cartoonish quality to it. ...
We started to look for real people that could represent the characters, and we looked online at middle-aged men and 30-some-odd-year-old women and weren't really finding anything that jumped out at us. What happened is that Duke thought of his ex-brother-in-law and showed us a picture, and he was perfect for Michael, so he was brought in and he became the model for Michael.
Then Lisa was somebody that our producer ... spotted in a restaurant in Los Angeles and she was approached asked if she would be a model for this character and she agreed. So they were brought in, they were photographed, they were photographed making different facial expressions and different mouth movements and their bodies were changed a bit — Lisa is heavier than this woman. Then once we had these photographs we had a sculptor named Carol Koch come in and interpret them out of clay.
People are really interested in the idea of puppets having sex. But our goal was to follow Michael and Lisa ... and not betray them by making a joke out of this.
On the sex scene
Kaufman: We were aware going into this of Team America and the idea of puppet sex being funny ... and certainly [this] scene has gotten a lot of attention. It has been written about a lot, so people are really interested in the idea of puppets having sex. But our goal was to follow Michael and Lisa from the point that they entered the hotel room ... to the point where the lights go out and the scene is over as one continuous thing and not betray them by making a joke out of this.
So really it was a matter of being very hyperaware of what each of them was thinking at each moment leading up to that scene and through that scene. It all had to be choreographed with the intent of it being true and that if there is humor in this scene it comes out of the moments between them that are organic to the characters — the awkwardness of being with somebody for the first time.
On why animating walking is so difficult
Johnson: Walking in stop-motion animation is probably the most difficult thing you can do. ... The way that they have these puppets connect to the set is they actually drill a hole in the set and they put a threaded rod up through that hole and screw it into the bottom of their foot and that keeps them in place. And then with every step they take they have to lift that foot up and patch that hole and drill another hole. Actually for every step there's two holes that are drilled, because they have a hole in their heel and a hole in the ball of their foot, so that they can have the heel-to-toe movement of an actual footstep. So it's extremely complicated and only a few animators can actually do it really well.
On why they felt stop-motion animation fit their story
Kaufman: We think that it allows people to focus and pay attention to things that are mundane in a way that they might not be able to in live action. You know that everything that you see has been calculated and choreographed, that there's no accident, that if he drums his fingers against his thigh, that was a choice that we made as filmmakers, and it becomes kind of fascinating because of that.
Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.