‘Anomalisa’: The Big Challenges of Re-Creating Life on a Small Scale

The sets, costumes and props in “Anomalisa” are recognizable as everyday things — but since the film is stop-motion, every item had to be created from scratch. The film centers on motivational speaker Michael, who finds romance with another hotel guest, Lisa. There were 18 Michaels and six Lisas created. And the simplest gesture required hard work: For example, there were a dozen nearly-identical martini glasses in which the amount of “liquid” changes when Michael takes a drink. The two directors, Charlie Kaufman (at left in the photo) and Duke Johnson, talked with Variety about the intricacies of re-creating everyday life at one-sixth its size and their colleagues’ contributions.

Production design, John Joyce, Huy Vu

Johnson: Every single thing you see on screen was fabricated. There’s a challenge in that, but also a freedom, because you get to create an entire world. Even the pictures hanging on the walls in Michael’s house, they’re all original paintings and shrunken down. The photo on the wall over the hotel-room minibar is a snapshot I took when I was studying abroad in Prague.

Kaufman: We think that works to the benefit of the film in a lot of ways. Michael spends a lot of time alone in his room doing mundane things. But you’re interested because you know that there were decisions made every time he moves. As an audience, you get fascinated with the choices made, and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I’ve always loved everything to do with sets and artifice, even life-sized. But there is something about small sets that really appeals to me. And the people who do it are amazing. I am blown away when I see these sets.

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Johnson: I hate to say it, but the design team got fascinated with the sex shop. They had to make a bunch of tiny leather masks, little magazines, DVD’s, lingerie, lubes. There are fertility statues and they had to sculpt these things out of either foam or Sculpey and then bake them. Even the little dildos are handmade pieces of art.

Costume design, Susan Donym

Kaufman: The costumes have to be animate-able. They’re not just little costumes, which is hard enough. But they’ve all got wires that allow them to be posed in different position, so it looks like the fabric is fluttering when the characters move, for example. You also have to find fabrics that look like Lisa’s sweater material; it’s not real sweater material, but looks like it for someone who’s that size. She has little flower designs, and they’re all hand-stitched. There are many Lisas, and all had to be hand-stitched.

Johnson. And buttons. They don’t make buttons that small. They sculpt and bake and shape and paint them. The belt buckles all had to work. That concept applies to everything. Everything has to function as well as look good. All the sets are modular because you have to access the puppets. A lot of the sets have hinged doors; the dresser and lamp will be attached to the wall, so when you move the wall for certain shots and then return it, the furniture remains exactly in place.

Cinematography, Joe Passarelli

Johnson: We told Joe to approach it like a live-action film. Typically (with stop motion) you put the lights up or you bounce them and it gets more of a broad lighting. To light it like live action, you ask: “Where is the key light, the back light? How do you get the lights reflected in the characters’ eyes?” You want to put a 2K here, but what’s a 2K translate to, in one-sixth scale? So a lot of times they were making lights. They shrunk everything down. Also, the lamps onscreen are made to be hollow, so a wire goes through desk, then you drill a hole in the set, wired underneath and plugged in. They even put diffusion over those bulbs.

Kaufman: I think it was crazy-making for the cinematographer and the animators. It’s usually lit so that the animators have complete access to the set. This is lit like a regular movie, which is not what they usually do; we had lighting grids. But everybody recognized that it looks gorgeous.

Sound design, Christopher S. Aud, Aaron Glascock

Kaufman: We recorded the three actors together and that set the tone for the production. Often in animation, the actors work separately, but we did it as if it were a play, in linear fashion, with the actors overlapping each other and interacting. We also have the odd conceit of Tom Noonan doing so many characters; that was a twist and makes it a bigger job, but it’s a cleaner job you can pick and choose. We had our Tom voices, which we had to layer and multiply for the background in the airport and the bar, for example. We recorded a lot of Tom Noonan having conversations.

Johnson: I think it’s basically the same as live-action, because some of the ambient sound, you want it to articulate the characters’ experience, as you would in live action.

Kaufman: We also had stylized, foreboding sounds, but they’re based in practical ideas — like a very foreboding air-conditioning system. So it’s not realistic. There’s no practical sound in an animated movie; everything is created. When you’re finished with production, everything is created in that session and that was fun, you starting to see it come to life and making all those sound choices. It was exciting.

The entire team

Johnson: There are many specialized craftsmen/fabricators who work in this medium consistently. They study fine-art, then get into animation, then fall in love with stop-motion and start making little things. Typically, an animated film will take five years, but that’s partly because they do two years of research and development. We didn’t have that luxury because of budget, so we kind of hit the ground running. We did six weeks of R&D, which is unheard-of. We found a million things a day that we needed to do better. So the whole movie, from the beginning to the very end, we were improving things.

Kaufman: If this were a live-action movie, we could have shot it in a week. As opposed to two years. I think this is the best form of collaboration. All movies are collaborative, but here, there are so many people creating a performance — the actors, of course, but also the designers, animators, people who put hair in. And it results in a person that moves because of all this, and there is something very exciting about seeing all these artisans come together.

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