Stop-Mo­tion For the Soul

Animation Magazine - - Front Page - By Tom McLean.

COs­car-win­ning screen­writer Char­lie Kauf­man’s first foray into an­i­ma­tion yields the in­ti­mate and chal­leng­ing

har­lie Kauf­man is lauded as one of the most cre­ative writ­ers in the movie busi­ness, and he has cred­its such as Be­ing John Malkovich, Adap­ta­tion and Eter­nal Sun­shine of the Spot­less Mind and an Os­car to prove it.

De­fy­ing Hol­ly­wood’s con­ven­tional wis­dom, Kauf­man’s new­est project takes him to an­other unique place with Ano­ma­l­isa, a stop-mo­tion an­i­mated fea­ture Kauf­man wrote and co-di­rected with Duke John­son, and pro­duced at Star­burns In­dus­tries.

The movie first screened in Septem­ber at the Telluride Film Fes­ti­val and then won the grand jury prize at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val be­fore go­ing on to Toronto, where Para­mount picked up dis­tri­bu­tion rights for the United States and plans a Dec. 30 release to qual­ify for Os­cars. Cur­zon Ar­ti­fi­cial Eye picked up U.K. rights.

Ano­ma­l­isa has its ori­gins as a “sound play” Kauf­man wrote about a mid­dle-age cus­tomer ser­vice con­sul­tant named Michael Stone who, on a busi­ness trip to Cincin­nati, tries to re­con­nect with an old flame and fails, lead­ing him on a des­per­ate path to con­nect with any­one and find­ing it in a shy and slightly awk­ward young woman named Lisa. The play was writ­ten for three ac­tors to per­form like a ta­ble read — stand­ing on a stage and read­ing their di­a­logue from scripts.

The play was only per­formed a few times and fea­tured David Thewlis as Michael and Jen­nifer Ja­son Leigh as Lisa, with Tom Noonan play­ing all the other parts. Ev­ery­one moved on and the project seemed to be for­got­ten un­til about three years ago when Star­burns needed a project and part­ner Dino Stam­atopou­los men­tioned he had a copy of the script and sug­gested making it into a stop-mo­tion an­i­mated fea­ture.

Di­rec­tor Duke John­son, a fan of Kauf­man’s work, loved the idea even though it was an ad­mit­tedly un­usual project for stop-mo­tion.

“Dino has al­ways had the ap­proach with stop­mo­tion, it’s kind of been his dream, to take stop mo­tion into the realm of what’s not typ­i­cally ex­pected for an­i­ma­tion,” says John­son, cit­ing the evo­lu­tion of Stam­atopou­los’ se­ries Morel Orel. “It got kind of dark, deal­ing with re­la­tion­ship stuff and fam­ily stuff. And to him that just makes sense and that seemed to work for him to ex­plore dark or adult or ma­ture themes through stop mo­tion.”

Get­ting a Green Light Then they ap­proached Kauf­man, who was open to the idea and said that if Star­burns could raise the money for it, they could do it.

“My is­sue wasn’t any­thing to do with whether it was stop mo­tion or live ac­tion, it was sim­ply that this was ini­tially de­signed to not be seen,” says Kauf­man. “I didn’t have any reser­va­tion about stop mo­tion at the time, it was just what was be­ing of­fered be­cause that’s what they do at this com­pany.”

When a Kick­starter cam­paign proved a roar­ing suc­cess, rais­ing more than $406,000 — the rest of the bud­get was funded in­de­pen­dently — the project so­lid­i­fied and Kauf­man agreed to come on board as co-di­rec­tor.

“As we raised the money and started to work on it and Duke and I started to talk about it, and it started to come to­gether as an an­i­mated thing, I think we both started to feel like this was the form in which it should ex­ist,” says Kauf­man. “I feel to a cer­tain ex­tent that it was through the ex­plo­ration of the medium that we came to that. It just seemed to lend it­self to this story and the tone we were look­ing to ac­com­plish.”

John­son says the way stop-mo­tion ex­ists in a real space and the hand­made na­ture of each frame fit well with the themes of the script. “(Stop-mo­tion) lends it­self to a sort of soul­ful­ness and oth­er­worldly qual­ity that we really liked and felt matched the per­for­mances as well as the tone and the themes of the piece.”

Es­tab­lish­ing a look for the movie was John­son and Kauf­man’s first task. “We wanted to find a dif­fer­ent way of do­ing stop mo­tion than is con­ven­tion­ally done, some­thing that felt nat­u­ral­is­tic,” says Kauf­man. “There were a lot of starts and stops as we tried to es­tab­lish the style and then the sets.”

One of the big­gest chal­lenges was en­sur­ing the pup­pets were de­tailed enough for the an­i­ma­tors to get out of them the kind of emo­tion­ally hon­est per­for­mances the story de­manded. At the same time, the direc­tors de­cided not to dig­i­tally re­move the seams in the pup­pets’ faces where the 3D-printed ex­pres­sions fit to­gether.

“There were a lot of peo­ple work­ing around us dur­ing pro­duc­tion who didn’t think it was the right thing to do, but we felt very clearly it was the way to keep that hand­made qual­ity,” says Kauf­man. “And as we were work­ing and we knew the seams were go­ing to be in there, we started to put in mo­ments that re­fer to it so it be­comes self­con­scious in that way, and I think it makes the pup­pets feel like the world is not really in their con­trol with­out really hav­ing to say that. It creates an op­pres­sive qual­ity.”

A Chal­lenge to An­i­mate An­i­ma­tion su­per­vi­sor Dan Driscoll, who pre­vi­ously worked with John­son on Mary Shel­ley’s Franken­hole, says he found the ma­te­rial both in­spir­ing and dif­fi­cult to an­i­mate.

“The source ma­te­rial is amaz­ing and you just won­der how can we take some­thing that was al­ready so good and make it worth ev­ery­one’s time to want to see it again or hear it in a new way,” says Driscoll.

Time and money were — as on most movies — fac­tors that drove ev­ery de­ci­sion.

“We started out and ended up as a very low bud­get in­de­pen­dent fea­ture,” says Driscoll. “The an­i­ma­tors had time to prep for in­di­vid­ual shots but never had any kind of boot camp or any­thing like that to get ev­ery­one work­ing in the same style im­me­di­ately. So it was a lot of very care­ful di­rect­ing and craft­ing of how this is go­ing to look.”

In all, 34 an­i­ma­tors worked on the movie, but at any given time the num­ber was be­tween nine and 13, Driscoll said, with the length of the pro­duc­tion see­ing an­i­ma­tors turn over to re­turn to their reg­u­lar jobs.

Many of the an­i­ma­tors came to Ano­ma­l­isa from stop-mo­tion TV shows that use a much more car­toony form of an­i­ma­tion. “To dial it down, to get the sub­tlety – it was a chal­lenge even for me ... to fig­ure out how much you do — or do not — have to an­i­mate to make hu­man­is­tic emo­tions,” says Driscoll.

The movie was made at Star­burns’ stop-mo­tion stage in Bur­bank, where the stu­dio pre­vi­ously shot Franken­hole and the Com­mu­nity Christ­mas spe­cial.

The orig­i­nal goal was for an­i­ma­tors to pro­duce be­tween two and four sec­onds per day, but the com­plex­i­ties of the project played havoc with any at­tempts to meet a sched­ule.

“There were days when all the an­i­ma­tors com­bined pro­duced two sec­onds and other

In­ti­mate Mo­ments The most talked-about scene in the movie is when Michael and Lisa have sex in his ho­tel room.

“That scene was ex­cep­tion­ally dif­fi­cult,” says Driscoll, who adds it took about six months to shoot. “We had a sheet, and a com­forter, pil­lows — all th­ese fab­ric el­e­ments — and all their clothes were an­i­mat­able. ... Th­ese pup­pets were spe­cially built, they were all ball and socket to the get the anatomy a lit­tle more ac­cu­rate com­pared to wire. But you still had sil­i­cone on sil­i­cone and it could be very dense, so there was a lot of mod­i­fi­ca­tions and hol­low­ing out the pup­pets and cre­at­ing th­ese spa­ces where the stom­ach could com­press.”

“We were try­ing to cre­ate a scene that was not a joke, that was a real in­ter­ac­tion be­tween th­ese two char­ac­ters,” says Kauf­man. “We first showed it to a friends and fam­ily screen­ing and there was just si­lence dur­ing that scene and I was wor­ried that it was bor­ing to peo­ple. And af­ter­ward peo­ple would come up to us and say that it was such an in­cred­i­ble scene and the si­lence I think came from them be­ing trans­fixed by it as op­posed to them be­ing bored by it. It was cer­tainly a re­lief but I think that peo­ple say­ing it was the most re­al­is­tic sex that they’d seen in a movie — which has been said to us on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions — it’s very re­ward­ing to hear that but it’s also very sur­pris­ing.”

Kauf­man says he learned a lot work­ing in an­i­ma­tion and he’s open to more work in the medium. “It was kind of an ed­u­ca­tion for me and I ap­pre­ci­ated and en­joyed that about it,” he says. “I would like to do it again and I would like to do it again with Duke, if he’s in­ter­ested. I en­joyed it.” [

great go­ing back to that, es­pe­cially at my age.”

The bud­get re­in­forced Bak­shi’s de­ci­sion, as it wasn’t ro­bust enough for him to be able to hire on ex­tra an­i­ma­tors — es­pe­cially once the film ex­panded past its orig­i­nal five minute plan. Tech­no­log­i­cal

As­sis­tance All of which doesn’t mean that Bak­shi com­pletely es­chewed tech­nol­ogy, as Toon Boom was used for pen­cil tests and col­or­ing, as was Pho­to­shop. The re­sult is a film that Bak­shi says ex­ceeds the qual­ity of work he has done in the past with a full crew at his back.

“The qual­ity level on this film is bet­ter than any­thing I did in my day, in my stu­dio on Traf­fic and Fritz and Coon­skin,” he says. “With four peo­ple and the com­puter! It’s kind of mar­velous.”

Hav­ing fin­ished the movie, Bak­shi says he’s very sat­is­fied with it, even though he has a hard time ac­cept­ing in his head that he really did all the work. “The back­grounds I know I did for some rea­son, but the an­i­ma­tion, it’s in­ter­est­ing, I can’t get it in my head that I did it, even though I know that I did.”

He’s also ex­cited to see how the movie will do on Vimeo, where for $3.99 fans can rent the movie for 72 hours.

“If that works, all you have to do is make a small profit and I’ll be do­ing an­other film, but this time I’ll hire other an­i­ma­tors,” he says, adding that that film would be Wizards 2, for which he’s al­ready writ­ten the script. “It’s a great, great way, fi­nally — and I spoke about this many years ago — that we can make our own films and be our own dis­trib­u­tors. I think it’s ma­jor.”

Bak­shi says he hopes this kind of free­dom al­lows an­i­ma­tion to spread its wings and tell new kinds of sto­ries in­stead of con­tin­u­ing to mine the same vein of fairy tales and fam­ily en­ter­tain­ment.

“It puts you in a straight­jacket, so all you can do is get bet­ter and bet­ter in the draw­ing as an ac­com­plish­ment, and that’s not as im­por­tant as the ideas you’re an­i­mat­ing,” he says. “A movie is not about the an­i­ma­tion, it’s about what are you an­i­mat­ing and you don’t want to get in the way of what you’re an­i­mat­ing. It’s a fine line there.” [

An­i­ma­tors prep pup­pets and sets for shoot­ing the stop-mo­tion an­i­mated fea­ture at Star­burns In­dus­tries.

David Thewlis voices Michael Stone, a cus­tomer-ser­vice guru fac­ing an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis on a rou­tine busi­ness trip to Cincin­nati.

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