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How Animated Series ‘Undone’ Used a Mix of Techniques to Tell the Mind-Bending Tale

When Kate Purdy wanted to tell a story about the nature of reality, she knew she wanted to play with perception and time, fade in and out of memories and give voice to visions that only her main character could see. And it wasn’t long before the executive producer and co-creator of Amazon’s new series, “Undone,” realized that only animation could make the kinds of leaps and bounds her story needed. 

“In 2012, I had a nervous breakdown, and I was struggling with depression, and anxiety and I didn’t know what to do about it,” says Purdy, who wants the series, which debuts Sept. 13, to convey what she experienced. Executive produced by “BoJack Horseman” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show stars Rosa Salazar (“Alita: Battle Angel”) as Alma, a woman who discovers after an accident that she has an unusual relationship with time, which she uses to unravel the mystery of her dead father, played by Bob Odenkirk. “There’s a history of mental illness in my family, and I always had fears about losing my mind,” Purdy says.

The writer partnered with helmer Hisko Hulsing, who leads a team of artists in Amsterdam; executive producer Tommy Pallotta; and Craig Staggs and Steph Swope, who founded the Austin, Texas, boutique animation house Minnow Mountain. Together they settled on a style that would involve rotoscoping, animation, motion capture of live actors and hand-painted backgrounds. Essentially, just about any technique in popular use in animation today was part of the process. 

Despite the deadlines and pressures of TV, they knew it was right for the project. The overall look bears a resemblance to Richard Linklater’s 2006 feature “A Scanner Darkly,” and involves related methods, but “Undone” shows advances made over time and more subtle emotion.

The show also uses careful transitions and fades that take the viewer from the world only the main character knows into the world she shares with family and friends. “My style has always been very realistic,” says Hulsing. “But when I read the script, there was so much dialogue that was so intelligent, we were discussing how to make the distinction between psychosis and reality, and we wanted to take the viewer into the experience. I thought it would be better presented this way because it’s never really real.”

Pallotta appreciates the methods the crew undertook. “I think if I’d told someone at Pixar what we were going to do, they might have said we were crazy,” he says. “But when you have actors like Bob Odenkirk in your show, you want to use everything they can give you, so we worked carefully with their performances.”

Once the performances of other actors were captured, a team of about 20 animators used TVPaint, a 2D animation software package, to adapt them to the rotoscoped style. 

“Great animators have to also be great performers,” Staggs says. “They have to understand the emotions of their characters. What we’re doing now is more emotional, and we’re able to go further than in the past. We’ve also got these performances and this material that made our process so much easier when you’re pushing boundaries.” 

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