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Talking 'Anomalisa,' Animation, and Puppet Fuckin' with Charlie Kaufman

We spoke with the screenwriter-turned-auteur about 'Anomalisa' and just how hard it is to shoot a stop-motion animated scene of two puppets doing it.
January 15, 2016, 3:00pm
Photos courtesy of Paramount

The weird thing about Charlie Kaufman's poignant, anxiety- and dread-driven fantasies is that they can usually be called comedies. In 1999, the screenwriter-turned-auteur probed identity, fame, gender, and a certain actor's noggin in Being John Malkovich. In 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , he showed that trying to erase our memories of love and loss is a delirious impossibility. His 2008 directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, spanned wildly imaginative decades in the twilight zone of a playwright who cannot separate his own life from art, suffering, and decay.


Kaufman's haunting and witty new feature, however, may be his masterpiece. Set largely in an upscale yet banal Cincinnati hotel, Anomalisa immerses us into an oddly comic dark night of the soul, as played by stop-motion animated puppets. Co-directed by Duke Johnson (an animation veteran whose credits include Adult Swim's Moral Orel), the film focuses on the isolation and depression of middle-aged Michael Stone, a customer-service guru on a lecture tour for his book How May I Help You Help Them? In this surreal every-world, Michael is voiced by David Thewlis, but almost every other character he interacts with—from a chatty cabbie to Michael's wife, to his spurned ex-girlfriend, even his son—sounds the same to him (voiced by the great Tom Noonan). Our narcissistic non-hero is in crisis, no doubt, but there's an odd flicker of hope after he meets a shy, sweetly naïve woman with a minor disfigurement who happens to be the only other person in Michael's universe with a unique voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Later in the evening, the two star in one of the most awkward, hilariously sad, unmistakably honest sex scenes in the history of cinema.

I recently spoke with Kaufman about my favorite film of the past year, along with the challenges and intricacies of telling an audacious, beautifully grown-up story one painstaking frame at a time.

VICE: I've read varying reports about how Anomalisa evolved from an audio-only stage experience to an animated film drama, and that you had reservations about the adaptation. Could you set the record straight?
Charlie Kaufman: It was designed as part of a series of staged radio plays, with three actors—actually, the same actors who are in the movie—Carter Burwell, who wrote the music and conducted it on stage, and a Foley artist [a person who creates or recreates sounds for movies]. It was written so that some of the information was ambiguous, so that the imagery would be created in the minds of the audience. In 2005, a friend of mine named Dino Stamatopolous was in the audience, and he's a writer whom I'd worked with on a TV show called The Dana Carvey Show in the 90s. He really liked this play, and over the years asked me for a copy of the script to read.


My reticence, if there was any, was of this thing being non-visualized, and, "What am I left with?" and, "Do I want to do that?" It wasn't much of an issue. I told them if they could raise money, we could go ahead and make it.

We didn't want this to look like a children's movie. We wanted the look of the characters to represent the feeling of the piece and the [actors'] recordings.

You and Duke Johnson come from dissimilar artistic backgrounds. How did the collaboration work?
Going into it, we didn't know each other. I've been trying to direct since Synecdoche, so if someone is going to do my work, I want to be involved. I don't want to give up control. Fortunately, Duke and I have very similar sensibilities, and we had a harmonious relationship.

Animation is different than live action for a few reasons. It's extremely front-loaded in terms of conceptualization, figuring out what it is. In a low-budget animation like this, you don't have the option of multiple takes on the set, so you do something called an animatic. You record the actors' voices first and put them to a storyboard in real time. That's what the movie's going to look like, how it'll be timed out, what the shots are, in the form of drawings. Over the course of production, you have less and less drawings, and more and more actual animation.

It's not like you go into post-production with a whole lot of footage, figure out what to use, mix and match—you don't have that option. You have one take, perfectly timed out, and make some small adjustments, because of the limitations of the form. The stuff that wasn't in the sound play, like visual gags—that's what we figured out together.

What creative decisions went into the character designs, from their realistic human expressions to the odd seams across their faces that underscore their inhuman qualities?
We didn't want this to look like a children's movie. We wanted the look of the characters to represent the feeling of the piece and the [actors'] recordings. People who have experience in this type of character design have built-in characteristics that they employ, and it was hard for people to move away from them. You know, they were slightly elfin-looking or had big eyes. It's simpler to animate large features, and they have those concerns because that's part of the process. But that wasn't working.

We started to look for real people that we could model these characters on. We were not really finding what we were looking for online. Duke happened to see a picture of his ex-brother-in-law on Facebook, he thought it was a good possibility for the character of Michael, and I agreed. Then the Lisa character was somebody that our producer, Rosa Tran, spotted at Little Dom's in Los Feliz. It turns out she's an actress, and agreed to be the model for Lisa. So, we photographed these people. Then we had a sculptor named Carol Koch come in and sculpt a representation out of clay, we settled on what these people would look like, and they were molded. The faces are 3-D printed.


I can't think of another film that looks quite like Anomalisa.
It's called "replacement animation." It's a fairly common stop-motion technique—you'll see it in a movie like Coraline. But what happens with this type of animation is, you've got a forehead piece, a lower face piece, and there are many versions of each. You replace them, in stop motion, to create the feeling of an emotional change in the character, to have the mouth move along with the dialogue.

The puppeteers are unseen but still sort of present, like observing angels.
We felt there was a kind of soulfulness and a brokenness that came with the decision to leave these seams in. We worked them into the story, so we were looking for puppets that were not cartoony. The Michael puppet is the biggest at 12 inches, so you can imagine how small his eyes are. We couldn't even find glass eyes for dolls that small. One of the side effects of choosing this detailed eye thing, and the very small hands, is that it's much harder to animate. That's complicated by the fact that this isn't a presentational stop-motion animation, where the characters move theatrically. We wanted the movements to be nuanced.

So it was difficult for the animators, and time-consuming. They were trying to do about two seconds a day, per animator. That goal was very rarely reached. In comparison to other stuff that Duke has worked on, like Moral Orel and Frankenhole, they would do about ten seconds a day. So it's a much slower, more exacting process. And all that was in service of creating this small, adult, hopefully emotionally authentic story.

VICE Talks Film with Gaspar Noé:

This reminds me of the sci-fi movie Westworld, about the malfunctioning robots that start killing the patrons of a theme park. Have you seen it ?
Not since I was a child, but yeah, I saw Westworld. Yul Brynner.

Exactly. There's a bit from Westworld, in which people can only tell the robot creations from the real humans because the inventors were unable to craft their hands accurately. In directing or observing the animators, what was most challenging to get right?
It's weird. Walking is hard, when you see the full body. That's very hard to do. Those puppets are screwed into the floor. You're doing tiny little increments, and they've gotta be stable while they're in a position where one leg is up. You've got two places on each foot where they can be screwed, so that the foot, as it moves, you can screw them into the heel, and then you can screw them into the ball of the foot. That's part of the walking process. You're drilling holes constantly in the set.


Then you're filling in the holes, as you move along. Very complicated stuff, and you're trying to make it look like people won't notice it. There are some modern tools to it now, but it's a very old process. It's almost as old as filmmaking, stop-motion, and few people use it anymore because it's cumbersome. And now there are computers, and those movies seem to be very appealing to people. So there's not a lot of point to doing stop-motion, except that it looks good, it's happening in real space, it's really lit, and they're real figures being moved by hand. The whole process is imperfect in a way that computer animation can only be by faking imperfection.

There's a quality of imperfection to it that we find heartbreaking, touching, and beautiful.

If walking is hard, I can't even imagine the ordeal of two puppets having sex.
The sex scene was enormously difficult to do for a myriad of reasons. You know, puppets' bodies do not want to interact that way. They had to be specially made with soft bellies, so that they could compress. Then you've got problems of—in addition to trying to get at the emotional resonance of the activity that they're engaged in—you also have the physics of trying to show how fabric moves, how someone takes off a shirt, how a bedspread is pushed back, and how shoes come off.

Those things look like they're just happening, and that's what you're hoping for, but there are rigs all over the place. When he's taking off his shirt, you've got wires on the back of the part that you're seeing because you can't double the fabric; it'll look too thick. It needs to look like a shirt. When he turns it around, you replace that shirt with a shirt that has wires on the other side. All of this without messing up the puppets. There's rigging within the bed, so that the bed compresses with body weight. All that has to be animated frame by frame by frame, and it's a very complicated scene.

As you said, the effort is worth it. Just as you can tell the difference between CGI-generated action and stunt work, or even film grain compared to digital photography, there's a texture and feeling that sets this film apart.
I think so, too, and that's what we love about it. You can literally see the residue of the animators' work constantly. They're miracle workers, but they're human, and there are limitations to the things you can do with these puppets. So there's a quality of imperfection to it that we find heartbreaking, touching, and beautiful.

It must be flattering to hear someone else's work described as "Kaufmanesque." Because self-reflexivity has been a frequent dynamic of your writing, I'm curious if outside reactions—positive or negative—have consciously influenced your creation process?
I try not to let it. That's number one on my list of job requirements. I can let it influence if I want to talk about it. I wrote a screenplay about internet anger and viciousness, which was a result of my experience of reading stuff online about myself and other people. That was a way to use it. But I wouldn't try to change what I do, how I do it, or the things I'm interested in to conform to somebody who doesn't like me—or even somebody who does like me—to what their expectations or disappointments are with my work. That's not my job.

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Anomalisa is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and opens nationwide this month.