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Rotoscope animation is a rare technique on television, and a rare one to see used as well as it is in Prime Video’s “Undone.”

Created by Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the series is shot in live-action on green screen soundstages, with the footage animated by the companies Submarine and Minnow Mountain. The result is a formally inventive series that uses dreamlike, hazy animated imagery to tell the slippery story of Alma (Rosa Salazar) as she confronts her memories of her father’s death by leaping through time to prevent it.

For the show’s recent second season, the animation of “Undone” gets even more ambitious, as the narrative sees Alma and her sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) travel into the memories and traumatic pasts of their father Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), mother Camila (Constance Marie) and eventually their grandmother Geraldine (Holley Fain). The further they travel through time, the more the animation distorts reality, playing with the audience’s perception of what’s real or not.

Hisko Hulsing serves as both director and production designer of the show. In this role, he makes initial sketches of the 3,000 or so shots that go into the season, and coordinates and reviews the work of the background artists, compositors, special effects artists and other animation crew members. In season one, the Dutch Hulsing worked on set with the actors in LA, but due to the COVID pandemic, he was forced to work remotely while the actors shot with a skeleton crew of only five people.

“Season 1, it felt like we were driving a car while building it,” Hulsing says. “We were still developing so it’s like ‘Oh shit, there’s no steering wheel, we have to get a wheel in.’ And the end of the it felt like a well oiled machine and at the start of Season 2, I felt ‘I’m going to drive Season 2 as a Maserati on cruise control. And then Corona came.”

In Season 2 of “Undone,” Alma and Becca travel — both in real life and in memories — from San Antonio to Mexico City to a Jewish shtetl in Poland. According to Hulsing, none of the designers have ever been to San Antonio, which is where the showrunner Purdy grew up.

While designing the backgrounds, the artists relied on Google Maps and Google Street View to create accurate architecture for the city. The process was repeated for the scenes set in Mexico City, many of which were designed by Spanish artist Ramon Louro. For certain locations, such as a pivotal yellow house the two first see in a painting, the artists took inspiration from the works of Frida Kahlo.

 

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‘Undone’ Season 2 Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

The Polish shtetl was created by having the designers read the script and look for references of 1930’s Poland, and having a historian fact check their work. Sometimes, the design team eschewed realism in favor of trying to create a mood; after decorating the home of Geraldine and her family with wallpaper, the historian informed the team that they wouldn’t have had wallpaper, but they ultimately decided to keep the designs in.

“It is a Polish shtetl, but it’s questionable if it’s in her imagination or not, so we can get away with some wallpaper,” Hulsing says.

Season 2 changes the aesthetics of how Alma time travels, which now requires her to join forces with her sister Becca. During failed attempts to leap through time, the two fall through a deep chasm of fog representing the impenetrability of memories. When they succeed in viewing someone’s past, the screen and their surrounding dissolves into multicolored effects and designs based on the tone of the memory. Craig Matthew Staggs, who serves as the rotoscope animation unit director of the show, says the vast majority of the moments are taken from the script and developed by the animators and effects artists. While rotoscoping these scenes, Staggs focused on capturing the emotions and wonder of the character, in order to ground these extremely trippy sequences in a sense of reality.

“It’s like the shark in ‘Jaws,’ the shark is not super impressive, what’s impressive is how afraid the people are in the face of the sharks,” Staggs says. “So we always want to have that wonder in the character’s face when they’re experiencing something that is huge and surrealistic, and epic and painful and a lot of the times in unknown you never just get the wonder it’s always like that emotion underneath it that you’ve really got to tie in to.”

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‘Undone’ Season 2 Courtesy of Prime Video

Throughout the series, reality often shifts and falls apart in mysterious ways throughout Alma’s journey. One of the standout moments of the season comes in the finale, when Alma sees her mother, dancing in the kitchen, suddenly decompose into a skeleton and grow back into a baby. According to Staggs, sequences like that required collaboration from multiple departments. Marie devised the pop-and-lock dance Camila performs, which was then captured by the rotoscope team, with the team at Submarine designing the special effects of the decomposition and the time lapse event that occurs in Alma’s head.

Eventually, as Alma and her family dive through memories, they arrive in Geraldine’s memories of Poland. When they delve into Geraldine’s memories, it leads to the major set-piece of the season: a collage of notable locations and moments from her life arranged in a tangled web.

Hulsing admits when he first received the script for the season that he told Purdy the set-piece seemed very “silly.” However, by working with concept artist Robin Boer, he eventually was able to understand the possibilities of the set piece, taking inspiration from the works of MC Escher to design it as a hulking hive-like maze. Hulsing and his artists emphasized the size and the constant movement of the hive, in order to represent the vast size of the human mind.

“It feels very large, like almost as large as the cosmos we can think about the cosmos and it’s in our head, and everything we see is actually created by our brains based on the electromagnetic impulses coming in,” Hulsing says.”

According to Staggs, the scene was shot very simply, with Fain acting as all of the various Geraldines on a green screen stage. the rotoscope artists then traced over the footage and folded it together so the various Geraldines were in the same shot. The background artists then developed the surroundings around Fain. In spite of the lo-fi nature of the sequence, Staggs is hugely proud of it, describing it as something that’s never quite been seen in animation before.

“I don’t want to brag, but I think it’s one of the best looking animated sequences ever produced for television,” Staggs says with a laugh. “I mean, that’s all it is.”