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Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson Talk 'Anomalisa'

Co-directors of the critically acclaimed stop-motion feature share insights on using a supposedly 'kid-friendly' animation technique for a decidedly adult film.

When you watch a movie, particularly a feature, within the context of a visual entertainment medium, you’re asked to suspend your belief and immerse yourself in an artificial world of someone else’s making. A good film captures your attention in ways unlike those of other mediums. Unfortunately, however, as is too often the case, creative decisions regarding the medium itself – such an extensive use of visual effects or odd facial animation – overwhelm, distract or otherwise pull your attention away from the story, usually to the point of dissatisfaction with much or all of a film.

With directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, in their new critically acclaimed animated feature film Anomalisa, they chose a medium, stop-motion animation, specifically because of its ability to materially impact audience’s contextual understanding of the story in a way that other forms of animation, as well as live-action, could not achieve. Their use of stop-motion was a creative decision made specifically to impart the feeling with audiences that the characters in the story were overtly being controlled by forces they were unaware of. That the mundane existence they suffered through was best visualized through the inherent “deliberate” nature of the stop-motion medium itself. No CG removal of joints and facial components. Minimal sets, closeups and small scale action. Frame by frame manipulation of every aspect of the characters and their interactions with the world around them, used to show they were helpless in their fight to gain control of their lives.

Considering most people think of animation as “cartoons” made for kids, or occasionally, for families, Anomalisa is anything but kid-friendly. Nor is it a cartoon. Based on Kaufman’s sound play from a decade ago, spoken onstage by actors backed by a live chamber ensemble, Anomalisa is a unique film, quite different from the large-scale stop-motion features audiences have seen the last few years from Aardman, Laika and Tim Burton.

I recently spoke to Kaufman and Johnson about the film, their creative decision making choices and the idea of using a supposedly “kid-friendly” medium to make a decidedly adult film.

Dan Sarto: One of the biggest questions I have is probably one of the most obvious ones that I’d bet you’ve been asked countless times. Given the history of the source material, why choose to animate this film and why choose stop-motion? What in your original thoughts of making this story into a film were hoping to achieve with this particular choice of medium?

Charlie Kaufman: I feel like there are two answers to that question. The first, which I'll answer as if it was a choice that we made, is why not? We think of animation and specifically stop-motion as a genre, but it's just a form of endeavor in which you can explore different things. There's no reason to not choose it. Once you choose...this is sort of the same thing that I could say about the play that it was based on. You have to figure out why and how to use the medium that you're using to its best effect. That's the general answer to the question.

The specific answer to the question is that it wasn't chosen. It was given. I was approached by people who make stop-motion films. That's what they do at Starburns Industries, which is where this was produced. Where Duke [co-director Duke Johnson] worked at the time and still does. They wanted to make a movie and that's [stop-motion animation] what they did there. They were interested in expanding the form and doing something more adult and more nuanced than is traditionally done in stop-motion, at least in this country, which is where it's more of less something for children.

Initially it was agreed upon that we would do it in stop-motion because that's what they did at Starburns and they wanted to make this into a movie. Does that make any sense?

DS: Absolutely. With the benefit of hindsight, what did the medium of stop-motion provide you guys as filmmakers, with this story in particular, that you wouldn't have been able to capture in any other medium, whether animation or live-action?

CK: I think there are several things that happen with stop-motion. One is that it can and does in particular cases exist in a little bit of a dream world. It feels a little bit surreal. I think that comes with the territory and it comes with the way...the smallness of the performances, the nuance of the performances and the very cinematic way it was lit and shot.

Another thing that happens with animation, and I think maybe specifically with stop-motion, is that there's an awareness [of the medium] on some level, on the part of people watching it. That everything they're watching has been chosen. Every movement, every motion is calculated by definition. That's not the feeling you get when you're watching a live-action feed. Because so much of this takes place in a hotel room where...the story is about a guy who is struggling with a very mundane existence. There are very small moments we feel the audience can focus on in a way that, because they know that it's chosen, they wouldn't be focusing on if this were live-action.

In addition to that, because we did it in a way where it's conspicuously stop-motion, we didn't try to conceal it as stop-motion often does, by painting out scenes and cleaning up chatter. We've got a feeling of these people being manipulated by outside forces. We've got a feeling of fragility and brokenness in the characters that comes with the way they look within the existence of these scenes. I feel like there are several scenes in the story that stop-motion specifically speaks to, so it serves that purpose. Duke, anything else that I'm missing here?

Duke Johnson: I think you touched on all the good stuff.

DS: I’ve witnessed an interesting divide with this film. Even though I'm been publishing in the animation space for 20 years, I'm not an animator. I often look at things a little differently than the artists themselves do from within the working medium. There seems to be a divide among the critical community of the folks I consider mainstream film press and folks that are more in the animation press and artistic community. I think your film has divided people. I know many people in the animation space that feel your film is almost a misuse of animation, because they don't quite understand your creative decision-making and use of stop-motion for what seems like a stage play. They feel that people in the mainstream press don't necessarily understand the medium enough and they don't understand the seemingly over-eager embrace of the film. Do you think that it's unfair for people in the animation space to hold on to this idea of what's an appropriate use of stop-motion? Have you seen some of that critical response?

CK: It's funny you say that because that has not been my...and I think our experience at all.

DJ: Not at all.

CK: We've had a lot of contact and interaction with the animation community and they come up to us and say, "I've worked in animation for 30 years, thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for doing this. Finally, somebody did what we've always wanted to do. Finally, we've had an opportunity to see this. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Then, “How'd you do that? How did you do it?”

DJ: We go to places like Blue Sky and Pixar and show the film there and have Q & As afterwards and it's never been anything but, "How did you do this? This is amazing."

CK: DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Pixar and obviously ASIFA, which nominated us for many awards…the head of ASIFA is championing the film in a huge way.

DJ: Not to mention Henry Sellick, who is like the modern father of stop-motion animation, has called this a masterpiece. Not sure where the things you're hearing are coming from, because we're not having that experience.

DS: That's interesting, because people that' I've communicated with, I've heard it quite a bit. In different spaces than just the big studios. It's interesting that you haven’t heard that, because that's telling in itself. My whole point is that, sometimes people that I routinely deal with hold onto certain tenants and constructs of the context of how these things “should” be done. Like, “What is animation? Motion-capture is not animation.” These are philosophical debates about creative choices within the medium.

CK: This isn't motion-capture.

DS: I understand, of course. I’m just making a point about issues of philosophical debate within the animation industry.

CK: By definition this is animation and it's very, very difficult animation. We have a lot of animators on this movie who have a lot of experience working for big, big studios like Laika and other places. They're professional animators, it's what they do. This was, first of all, really challenging for them and they were very excited to be there as long as they could stay and work on it.

DS: Of course...

CK: I know sometimes not as long as they wanted, because we couldn't pay them what Laika could pay them.

DS: I just brought in motion-capture as an example of something that can become a philosophical topic of discussion with many of the people I deal with. I agree with you.

CK: I just want to say that...that “isn’t” a philosophical topic of discussion, because motion-capture isn't animation. It's not what it is. There's no philosophical discussion here. The philosophical discussion here could simply be, should animation be used for something that isn't a kid's movie? Which seems to me to be kind of a dumb conversation, because of course it should.

DJ: And historically it has been just not in America.

DS: I understand and I'm not disagreeing. But to me in my world there has been some division. I was just curious your perspective on that.

DJ: When people are complaining about this or saying this isn't a movie that should be animated, what are their reasons? What are the reasons that they're arguing?

DS: The reasons are more from a story standpoint and the creative decision to use stop-motion to tell a story that doesn’t really take advantage of or make good use of the medium. It's really strictly from a story standpoint. Not about making stop-motion films for adults.

CK: I have a philosophical position on that. Which is that animation is a form and it's not a genre. There's absolutely no reason in the world that different genres or different ideas or different levels of sophistication should not be explored. I'd argue that with anybody. I'm not an animator. I feel very solid in that opinion.

DS: We don't have a whole lot of time, though I’d love to talk at greater length about the film. Tell me a little bit about your co-directing dynamic. Charlie, as you say, you're not an animator…

CK: Neither is Duke. Duke's not an animator either.

DS: But at least he’s coming from the animation production background. Did you just divide and conquer, handling separate things based on expediency, or did you both handle the same sets of tasks across the production?

DJ: We did everything together. We just did everything together.

CK: It was a collaboration. Certainly, coming into this thing not having experience working on professional animation, I was relying on Duke to help me in that regard. But very quickly, that just sort of fell away into conversations about what is this and what can we do here and how do we make this feel like this. There were aesthetic decisions that were being made, theatrical decisions that were being made, cinematic decisions that were being made. All of them, the things that directors do, we did them together.

Because it's animated and because the process of production is so long, it's not like being on a live-action production where decisions have to be made in the moment, in split seconds where everyone's running around. We had actual time to discuss things and make decisions and plan things out throughout the process of animation.

DS: Looking back now, I know there were funding issues at times, and the production was quite long, is this the film that you set out to make? Did you end up where you thought you would be and where you hoped you would be with the final film?

CK: My experience with making anything is that nothing is ever what you planned it to be and I think that's a good thing. When you set out to do something, when you set out to write something, to make a film, or do a painting, or whatever it is you do, you are at the beginning of the process of exploring something. You don't know yet and you shouldn't know yet, because you're at the beginning and the process is the exploration. During the exploration you discover things. Things become what they become over time.

To further answer that question, I have no idea anymore and this is the case on anything I've ever worked on. I've no idea what it was to begin with, because it's been replaced in my brain by what it is. I write characters for scripts and I have an idea in my head of what they look like, but now I can't tell you what Joel looked like in Being John Malkovich because it's always John Cusack in my head now. It just is. It's what’s there. It's almost an impossible question to answer for that reason, but I think that the other part is it should change and it does.

DJ: I agree with what Charlie. I didn't really have any expectations. If we're talking about the critical response to the film or how well it's doing or how people are responding to it, I try not to think about any of that, except in a general, "I hope people like this" kind of sense. We made this film in a very small way with a small group of people away from the outside world. Nobody really knew what we were doing. We were just very focused on a moment to moment basis trying to tell this story. That was my intention, just really trying to do right by this story and make the best film that we could by our standards.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

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