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'Anomalisa' director explains exacting process behind his amazing stop-motion film

"Anomalisa," directed by Charlie Kaufman, stars characters Michael Stone, voiced by David Thewlis, left, and Lisa Hesselman, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. The film was nominated for an Oscar for best animated picture.

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By MOIRA MACDONALD | The Seattle Times | Published: January 20, 2016

"Anomalisa" began as the opposite of a movie. From the ever-unfolding imagination of screenwriter/filmmaker Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Synecdoche, New York"), it was originally written in 2005 as a radio-style play, with just seated actors, voices and music -- an experiment, Kaufman said, in writing something in a decidedly nonvisual form.

The play was performed as part of "Theater of the New Ear," an evening put together by composer Carter Burwell at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Then, approached by producers interested in making it into an animated film, Kaufman agreed; he says he’d been "struggling to get stuff made" and thought, why not?

A decade later, "Anomalisa" is an Academy Award-nominated, stop-motion animated film and a remarkable visual achievement. Recently, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson spoke about its transformation.

The film is a simple and unexpectedly moving story of isolation and connection. Michael, a successful motivational speaker but a lonely and unhappy man, meets a woman named Lisa at a hotel on a business trip; she is ordinary, yet remarkable. In the film, the characters are played by puppets, captured in stop-motion animation and yet strangely, uncannily realistic. You watch them, knowing they’re puppets but forgetting -- even during a sex scene that’s startlingly intimate -- that they aren’t people.

"We like that -- that you get into it and then you get pulled back and then you get into it," Kaufman said. "I don’t know what it is, but I find it pleasing that people have that response to it, that interaction with it."

The process of creating those characters visually was an intricate one. The puppets are Barbie-sized (the tallest, Michael, is a foot high), with silicon bodies and 3-D-printed heads and faces. (Michael and Lisa’s faces were modeled after, respectively, Johnson’s ex-brother-in-law -- "he’s super excited" -- and a woman spotted by an "Anomalisa" producer in an L.A. restaurant.) Each puppet head has a line dividing the face in two -- which looks, on initial glance, like the frame of a pair of glasses -- at eye level. "That’s how the faces function," Johnson said. "There are 150 different brow pieces, 150 different jaw pieces, and you switch them out."

Using an "Anomalisa" poster in the room as a visual aid, Johnson explained there are about 15 brow expressions -- "furrowed, worried, surprised, neutral, left up, right up, etc." Then there are "the in-betweens"; for example, 25 percent worried/75 percent surprised. The mouth pieces come in shapes for every position used by the mouth when speaking, to synchronize with the dialogue. "Then you can put any brow with any mouth, and there’s literally millions of combinations."

That line between the two pieces could have been erased digitally -- many stop-motion animators do this, for a cleaner look -- but Kaufman and Johnson chose to keep it visible. "We didn’t want to hide that it’s stop-motion," said Kaufman. "We felt like it served a dramatic purpose in terms of supporting a feeling of vulnerability, a fractured quality to the puppets."

Numerous duplicates of the puppets were made, as well as multiple copies of the sets (18 in all, including seven sets of the hotel room alone). This was a necessity, as stop-motion is a painfully slow process. For every frame, the puppets must be drilled into the set, then the holes patched for the next frame. The camera -- and everything on the set -- is glued down, to ensure no unexpected infinitesimal jostling. "You could pick up the set and turn it upside down and shake it," Johnson said.

Shooting multiple scenes simultaneously, on different sets, saved a vast amount of time. "If we’d shot it consecutively, on one set, it would have taken decades," said Johnson. As it was, "Anomalisa" took two years of "nonstop production." Even tiny moments -- for example, the few seconds of a puppetized version of "My Man Godfrey" Michael watches on a hotel television -- took weeks to film.

The end result is, Kaufman said, remarkably like the play -- the dialogue, and the actors, are the same, and the process was very much like crafting any film (except slower). Directing in stop-motion animation, he said, involves "dealing with what the film looks like, dealing with cinematography, dealing with actors, all of the design elements, constructing the tone of the film. You’re literally doing what a director in a live-action movie would do, except you’re instructing puppets to do it."

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