How 'Anomalisa' Directors Mastered the Art of Puppetry

"We didn’t want the characters to look cartoony," says Charlie Kaufman of his dark comedy that put a twist on stop-motion animation.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Duke Johnson, co-director of Anomalisa and partner in animation studio Starburn Industries, believes stop-motion animation can be a medium for all ages — and all types of stories.

"Exploring a story that's not specifically intended for stop motion — that deals with adult themes and adult situations — and figuring out how to interpret that through this medium was an exciting challenge," he says of writer and co-director Charlie Kaufman's dark comedy. Anomalisa follows a motivational speaker named Michael (voiced by David Thewlis, best known for playing Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films), who sees everyone in his world as the same until he arrives in Cincinnati for a business trip and meets sales rep Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

"We wanted the story to be told in a subtle and naturalist way in keeping with the script and also the [voice] performances," says Kaufman of the approach. "We didn't want the characters to look cartoony."

There are effectively three characters in the film: Michael, Lisa and everyone else. See, everyone but the two leads has the same "face," to show that Michael sees a world of homogeny, but different bodies — all voiced by Tom Noonan, whether they're men, women or children. "We wanted [uses of the same face] to be subtle and not necessarily immediately recognizable, in the same way that the voice isn't immediately understood by audiences," says Kaufman. "The face, even more so, because with the decorations, the hair, the costumes. … It was a way to visualize the audio conceit."

The technique the filmmakers chose was replacement animation, meaning that they used 3D printing to make many face parts and then replaced them, as the movie is shot one frame at a time, to create the animation. Rather than smooth over that particular rough edge, the filmmakers chose to keep the seams between the face parts. "The option typically is to erase them in VFX, but that was counterintuitive to what we were trying to do with this piece, which was to be honest with the material we were working with," says Kaufman. "We liked the quality — a fragileness and broken quality; we felt like it related to the themes that were in the story."

Adds puppet supervisor Caroline Kastelic of keeping the seams: "It saved time, but conceptually it works with the movie. … The overall puppet designs took a lot of workshopping how to make them look human. The eyes were a big thing; they had to have realistic eyes that reflected the light properly."

The use of the same face underscores Michael's unsettled feeling, which also was supported by the sound team, not just in the voice of Noonan but with the turbulence on the airplane or in the noisy cab ride during which Michael is being interrupted by his driver's chatter. According to Christopher Aud, supervising sound editor and rerecording mixer, "It helps convey that Michael is not in a comfortable place."