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The A-List: ‘Anomalisa’ directors Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson

By Iain Blair

Maybe it was just a matter of time before director/writer/producer and Oscar-winner Charlie Kaufman — from whose quirky sensibility sprang such films as Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Synecdoche, New York and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — turned his attention to an animated project.

Teaming up with director/producer Duke Johnson, whose previous credits include the Adult Swim shows Moral Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, the result is Anomalisa, another quirky dreamscape that this time uses stop-motion and puppets to tell its story.

Based on Kaufman’s 2005 “sound play” called Theater of the New Ear, Paramount’s Anomalisa follows the mundane life of Michael Stone, a depressed service rep whose life and attitude is changed dramatically after meeting an unusual stranger. But the making of the film was anything but mundane.

ANOMALISA

L-R: Directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson.

After the stage script was given to Dino Stamatopoulos, co-founder of Starburns Industries, and Dan Harmon, creator of NBC’s Community, Anomalisa began its transition to the screen. Its journey was helped by a Kickstarter campaign and took shape as Kaufman’s first animated film.

It was also Starburns’ own initial foray outside television. Launched in 2010, Starburns is a production studio specializing in stop-motion and traditional 2D animation. They won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Character Animation for “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” an episode of Community filmed entirely in stop-motion animation and directed by Johnson.

I recently checked in with Kaufman and Johnson as the Oscar races were heating up.

How did you guys originally team up?
Kaufman: After Dino saw the play, he went on to found Starburns, where Duke worked as a director. They were looking for a project, so we met up that way.

Once a film uses animation and puppets, people assume it’s a kiddie film, but it’s not, is it?
Kaufman: No, it’s an R-rated movie for adults.

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What were the main technical challenges of making this?
Kaufman: It’s pretty close to the play in terms of all the dialogue. The big challenge was taking that play, which wasn’t visual — in that it was just read by actors on stage — and turn it into a film. So we had to design the puppets, record the actors, do an animatic and figure out all the shots and how it would play in realtime… and design and build the sets and actually shoot it.

How did you co-direct this?
Johnson: We did it all together. The unique approach that animation takes versus live action is that a lot of the traditional post work is all done in advance. It’s very front-loaded. You start by editing an animatic — a version of the whole film — and it’s the voice records and storyboards edited together with temp sound, and that’s your blueprint. Then you take that guideline and try to animate it as closely as possible to that, with regards to the frame count. So all the blocking and figuring out the emotional beats of the characters and the shots — along with all the creative work of costume, set and production design — happen well in advance. So Charlie and I worked very closely on all that.

ANOMALISAIn a sense, animation is like one big post process?
Johnson: Yeah, because you’re always doing post. You start with ADR and storyboards, and you edit that together. Then as a shot is completed and you cut that into the animatic, so editing happens over the entire film, unlike with a live-action film.

What did DP Joe Passarelli bring to the project, apart from patience?
Johnson: We went to AFI together and he  had done a lot of live action, and then he did stop motion with me on Season 2 of Frankenhole. When we began this, we all wanted it to look different from the traditional stop-motion stuff where it’s broadly lit with a lot of bounce light. We wanted a very cinematic look, and Joe shot with a Canon 7D, with Nikon lenses and zooms, and lit it like a live-action film. He even built his own little lights for it, and eye lights were very important for us and the characters.

The film was edited by Garret Elkins. Tell us about the editing process.
Johnson: He was there from day one, and he essentially edited it twice — and the main editing is for the animatic. He did Frankenhole and Moral Orel with me, and an editor who specializes in stop motion he has some skill sets that are unique. He’s able to, at times, manipulate some of the frames as animation is a series of 24fps, creating the illusion of movement.  If a shot was problematic, he could rework things, use double frames or re-edit and adjust.

Tell us about the VFX. Aren’t they used a bit differently in stop motion?
Kaufman: Right. There’s a lot of clean-up and dust-busting. We shot on 18 stages with black curtains, and we used a lot of greenscreen where walls are missing so the animators had access. Those were done with visual effects and ceilings, and stuff like the cigarette smoke was all VFX. A lot of different houses worked on it, including Gentle Giant, Boundary VFX and Digikore.

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There’s a lot of correcting for stuff in stop motion because of just how long it takes to shoot it. There are set shifts, as they’re made out of wood, and temperature changes affect them, and then lights burn out and the new bulb may be slightly different color-wise. So VFX is less about enhancing the animation and far more about painting away and correcting stuff. But we wanted it to keep that handmade and organic look.

Charlie, you’ve worked a lot with composer Carter Burwell. He told me that to score for the “vulnerable, normal” puppets, and to help the audience “open their hearts to them,” he used a cabaret-style approach.
Kaufman: That really suited this and is an integral part of the film. Initially, the music was written for the play and was a very big part of it, but of course we had to change quite a bit because of the timing, and we added things and took stuff away.

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Where did you do all the post and mixing?
Johnson: Everything was done at Starburns, and then we did all the sound mixing on the lot at Warners.

How long did this take from start to finish?
Kaufman: Three years. I think we spent 21 months on the shoot. It makes a live-action film look very fast.

Charlie, you won an Oscar for Eternal Sunshine. How important are awards for a film like this?
Kaufman: Very important for a small movie like this, and obviously it benefits from the positive attention, which is what nominations and awards are.

Where do you keep your Oscar?
Kaufman: (Laughs) It’s actually in storage.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.