Co-creators Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksburg’s groundbreaking, rotoscope animated drama, about a young woman trying to harness her newfound time traveling skills and unravel her father’s murder - with his help – is back with more mind-bending episodes.
Rotoscope - tracing over films footage, frame by frame, to produce realistic action - is a powerful animation tool that storytellers have been using for decades, whether with kid-focused films like Thumbelina and Anastasia, or mature adult content like A Scanner Darkly and, more recently, The Spine of Night and Apollo 10 1/2. It offers filmmakers the chance, in a sense, to have their cake and eat it too, harnessing the abstract, fantastical creative advantages of animation while capturing detailed, believable performances from real actors.
For Undone writers and co-creators Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy, it was really the only option.
“When we were writing the first couple of episodes, we actually didn't know if the series would be live-action or animation,” says Purdy, who was a writer and producer on Bob-Waksberg’s critically acclaimed animated series, BoJack Horseman. “We kept feeling like both ways had limitations. With live-action, when you went to these magical realms or traveled through time, you would feel that shift with the CGI animation. And with traditional animation, you are limited in terms of character expression, or you have to tell the animators exactly how the characters should be moving. You don't even have a performer in there, embodying the space and embodying the character. So, when Hisko Hulsing came in as our director, he suggested rotoscoping. He said, ‘You get the best of both worlds.’”
Premiering its anxiously awaited Season 2 today on Prime Video, Undone stars Alita: Battle Angel’s Rosa Salazar as Alma, a woman badly injured in a car accident who afterward discovers that she can travel through time. But Alma’s newfound ability is more of a weighted responsibility than a fun discovery, as she’s frequently visited by her deceased father (Bob Odenkirk) who aims to train Alma in the ways of time travel so she can discover who murdered him and even save his life. The series also stars Constance Marie as Alma's mother Camila, and Angelique Cabral as Alma’s sister Becca, who, as it is revealed in this new season, can also time travel.
“It was really Noel Bright and Steven Cohen’s idea,” says Bob-Waksberg about the origins of the show. “They were executive producers on BoJack and they said, ‘Uh, how'd you like to do another show with Kate and make us some more money?’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, I can make us some more money.’ But mostly it would be a wonderful creative endeavor. I just think Kate is so brilliant and we really built Undone based on Kate's interests and passions and life experience, as well as my own, and the ways in which those things overlapped or spoke to each other, or sometimes were in conflict with each other.”
“We had a lot of fun walking around philosophizing, talking about how we view life, why things are the way they are, and asking questions,” says Purdy. “That's what the show does. It's an exploration, philosophically, of those big life questions without actually offering answers, but offering a journey through the questioning and exploration of those questions.”
Undone is a wild ride filled with flashbacks, ethereal planes, memory exploration, and other abstract thoughts and feelings that often take up residence between time and space. And, in Season Two, Alma realizes there are deeper mysteries in her family’s past. However, no one in her family is interested in digging up uncomfortable truths with her -- until she finally convinces her sister Becca to help her look. As the sisters search for answers, they unravel a complex network of memories and motivations that have shaped who they are today. They realize by healing this family trauma they can make all their lives better.
“I remember when I read the script for the first two episodes - when Noel Bright from our production team pitched them to me - I was laughing or crying with each other page,” remembers Hulsing. “It was so good. It's so well written and it takes so much stress from my mind because I know the material is good already before we start.”
“And having it in rotoscope animation makes it less heavy somehow and less scary to go to the places that we go to emotionally, dealing with generational trauma, dealing with mental health,” says actor Marie, known for her roles in TV drama series like Switched at Birth. “Some of those things are just super heartbreaking. But then there are also moments of intense humor and levity, and it makes it more palatable to go into. It makes psychology and mental health cool, because you see it in this really cool animated way. I mean, the first time I saw it, I was like, ‘This is a walking masterpiece.’ It was just beautiful.”
While the plan originally was to create the show’s look with clear distinctions between moments of reality, psychosis and flashbacks, Hulsing, known for his animated shorts Junkyard and Seventeen, decided it would serve the mission of the series better to have audiences always guessing if the world they were witnessing was Alma’s reality, her past, or her innermost mind space.
“Everything looks the same,” says Hulsing. “And it all feels realistic because it's all acted very well by our actors in rotoscope. But, at the same time, there's crazy stuff going on. And it's never completely clear if we're watching reality or if it's all part of an imagination from Rosa’s character. And in Season Two, we take that even a step further. I don't think I can give any spoilers, but it's becoming really crazy and the only way you can do something like this is with animation.”
Purdy adds, “You can be in that sort of painted, imagined space where it feels like time and space are more fluid, but you also get the micro expression and nuance. And you get to work with these amazing performers who are bringing the characters to life.”
For Marie and fellow actor Cabral, known for her role in Life in Pieces, this was their first time acting to be rotoscoped, and they said that knowing the show was animated, and knowing their characters would be animated, allowed them to dedicate more of themselves to the role and focus on making the actions and emotions of their respective characters even more authentic.
“Not having to deal with all the other things that don't really matter so much about the storytelling - like hair and makeup and lighting and wrinkles and Spanx, was a wonderful thing,” says Marie. “To let all the rest of the noise fall away and only care about the story, it really pushed me as an actor because I had to use my imagination for everything.”
Cabral adds, “It takes away the distraction so you can just focus on the work. It’s awesome. It’s the experience of a lifetime and it’s such an incredible story to tell. We feel so strongly about this project. It’s just been unbelievable.”
Marie also says Undone has been a fulfilling project not only for her career, but on a personal level as well.
“I love seeing Latinx people in animation,” she says. “It’s not something that you get to see very often. 33 years I've been doing this and now I feel like I'm jumping into a genre that my inner nerd has been waiting to be part of for so long.”
From the scope of production to the visuals, Undone has been a unique experience for most of the team. But, despite all the differences, Bob-Waksberg says the series follows the same “North Star” that’s the guide for all his other projects, including BoJack Horseman.
“From a story perspective, it is not as different in that it comes from a place of honesty,” he explains. “I found a note recently that I'd written to myself on the plane ride to pitch BoJack Horseman for the first time to Netflix back in 2013. And the note just said one thing: ‘A real, grounded character is in a crazy cartoon universe.’”
He continues, “Yes, BoJack is really wacky, and out there. But it's also about real people and real relationships and how you would navigate this crazy cartoon world. And Undone is a crazy cartoon world in a very different way. But, again, the North Star is ‘What would be an actual person's reaction to experiencing all of this for the first time?’ and ‘How do we dimensionalize that?’”
Hulsing says that as the series has progressed into its second season, he, Purdy and Bob-Waksberg have discovered even more layers, connections, and metaphors within the story and dimensions within characters that have surprised them.
“All these layers are in the script, but it's not on the surface yet,” says Hulsing. “Then we start making it and do all the visually weird stuff, then it becomes something that feels very layered to us and very deep. Especially in Episode 7, which is so crazy and so emotional and so visually overwhelming. We go very deep into psyches, into psychology, and into philosophy.”
“There's nothing like this that's ever really been done,” adds Cabral. “It's also so rare to find subject matters like this that tell such important stories in a human way, in a palatable way, in a funny way. It's sweet and touching. And it's dealing with so much. It's so multi-dimensional and so layered. That's my favorite thing about the show. It's so special and there’s so much to unpack.”