Over the past three
years, I’ve had the great fortune to be part of the team that produced Anomalisa
, the stop-motion
animated film written by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Charlie and Duke Johnson,
produced out of our company, Starburns Industries, and distributed by
Paramount. Over the course of that time, I’ve had a ringside seat to the design
and creation of a truly unique and singular achievement in animated
nomination is only the best and most recent affirmation that sometimes, taking
big creative risks can yield even larger rewards.
Every producer knows that you can expect
to be challenged with a wide variety of problems with each new project. But
with something as unique as Anomalisa, you can expect to learn more than
THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR INDEPENDENCE
I was part of the group
that founded Starburns Industries in 2010 with fellow producer and PGA member Joe
Russo II, Dino Stamatopoulos, and Dan Harmon. The idea behind the company was
to create an environment that aimed to nurture fresh new voices and talents,
giving artists a home and giving them space to take creative risks. There’s a
strong independent streak among nearly every animation artist I’ve ever met or
worked with, even if it’s not usually on display in the work of the established
animation studios. Everyone understands why studio animation is risk averse …
highly-animated features can easily cost upwards of $80 million and take four
years to make.
Starburns was designed to
cut artists loose from that and give them the tools to push their creative
visions as far as they could go. Dino and Dan are widely recognized as writers
and producers with a history of pushing the envelope themselves. Alone and
together, they’ve got credits like Community, Mr. Show, Rick and Morty and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole. Creative freedom means
everything to them, and when they talk about Starburns as a place to support
it, they’ve got total credibility.
as weird and as beautiful as Anomalisa doesn’t happen often in Hollywood. But in
this case, the project got its start because Starburns is truly committed to
unique and independent creativity. We’re only glad that we got the chance to
live up to that commitment with our first feature.
A GOOD STORY CAN COME FROM ANYWHERE
Starburns had produced
popular content from the very beginning like the stop-motion Community Christmas special, as well as Season 2 of Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, Rick and Morty, and a 2D animated G.I. Jeff special, but we were also searching for
something that could serve as a major project for us—not even necessarily a
feature film, but a signature piece of animation that could demonstrate the
best work our studio could produce.
and Dino remembered attending Carter Burwell’s Theater of the New Ear at Royce Hall at UCLA
back in 2005, and seeing—or hearing, rather—a performance of Anomalisa that Charlie Kaufman had created as a "sound
play”; the piece was about 60 minutes. They had thought it was really powerful
and had remembered it years later. Dino was friends with Charlie from their
time on the writing staff of The Dana Carvey Show, and approached him to see if he’d be
interested in adapting Anomalisa
animated film. Charlie was initailly hesitant to embrace a visual adaptation of
something he’d originally created as a non-visual experience, but based on his
respect and affection for Dino, he agreed to develop it further with us and see
where we could take it.
It just goes to show that
a great idea doesn’t have to come from a comic book or videogame or bestseller
or news article. Sometimes it might come from an avant-garde "sound play” your
friend and colleague remembers seeing five or 10 years ago.
KICKSTARTER IS FOR REAL
As soon as we started to explore an animated
adaptation of the story, our director Duke Johnson immediately started
developing visual treatments for the world of Anomalisa while fellow PGA member Rosa Tran began
assembling a potential schedule, crew roster and budget. We needed start-up
capital to begin making it a reality. We looked into potential partnerships
with studios and streaming platforms, but none of them was ready to commit to
Charlie and Duke’s distinctive vision for the story and its production.
It was at that time that
I suggested to our group that we consider Kickstarter as a way for Starburns to
raise funding that would be free of such creative limitations. This was 2012;
the platform had just started to become popular, had never been used for very
big projects yet, especially films. I figured that with Dan, Dino, and
Charlie’s fan base, we’d have no problem attracting attention for our project
and reach our funding goal to get development underway. Kickstarter also seemed
like a low-risk test; if we didn’t meet our numbers, we could always go back to
the conventional approach and continue looking for individual investors who
would support our team’s approach.
and Rosa took the reins and submitted our proposal to Kickstarter and we got an
immediate and enthusiastic response. We found out immediately that Charlie, Dan
and Dino do have a strong community of fans out there—including a lot of key
people at Kickstarter. They were instrumental in showing us the ropes to help
make sure our campaign succeeded.
was nearing the weekend of San Diego Comic-Con, so we planned to print hundreds
of postcards we could hand out on the convention floor to give our Kickstarter
launch the biggest push we could with the hardcore fans. The morning of July
11, 2012, we all jumped in our cars to drive down to San Diego. Rosa and Duke
flipped our campaign LIVE and we immediately started getting hits from fans
It was unbelievable how
fast our Kickstarter project started to accelerate. Not even halfway through
that first day of Comic-Con, people were spotting our Anomalisa postcards, and rushing to tell us how
excited they were about it. Before I could even hand them a postcard, they’d be
telling me how they had already pledged to support it. Within nine days we had
reached our initial funding goal, and by the time we completed our 60-day
window, we had become the most funded Kickstarter film project to date.
Kickstarter isn’t a solution for every movie, but for our purposes, and at that
stage of production, it worked perfectly. To give us a piece of funding right
off the bat, with no creative conditions attached, was invaluable.
IT’S OKAY IF THE LINES SHOW
The puppets we used for Anomalisa are the most advanced that Starburns has
worked with to date. For the Community Christmas Special, we created latex bodies
on wire-based armature. The heads were cast in resin, just enough to create a
stylized likeness of the actors. So as not to deal with the difficulty of hair,
separate hairdos for each character were cast in resin as well. For Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, we also used wire
armatures sandwiched between two layers of foam with basic resin heads and
hinged jaws, wrapped in paper printouts of the characters’ faces. These puppets
had a slight "origami” look and when beautifully lit on the German
expressionist-styled sets, the Frankenhole world came to life in a
very magical storybook way.
for Anomalisa, we needed our
characters to look and feel very realistic. Duke and Charlie wanted to make
sure that the puppets had convincing human proportions and textures and not
have the stylized overtones we sometimes see in other animated feature designs.
Our fabrication team worked closely with Charlie and Duke and developed the
approach of printing the Anomalisa character heads (two face-plates each, an
upper brow area and a lower mouth area) with our 3D printer, giving us complete
control over expressions when different combinations were replaced and shot
frame by frame. (The increased use of digital tools to realize practical
effects is one of the ironic developments in stop-motion animation production
some of our Anomalisa
puppets were built on
very expensive ball-and-socket armatures, some puppets were later customized
with hybrid ball-and-socket and wire armatures based on the specific animation
required for certain scenes. The molds for our main characters, Michael and
Lisa, were cast from full-body clay figures rendered by a sculptor. The
realistic character bodies were then crafted from Dragonskin, a very soft and
realistic skin-like material developed for use with prosthetic makeup. And
because of the nature of the story, in which we see both characters in partial
or complete nudity, the puppets are probably the most anatomically correct cast
members in the history of stop-motion animation. Just ask the MPAA.
Anomalisa’s main characters each
had thousands of key expressions, each of which was printed with individual top
and bottom faceplates from powdered gypsum and simultaneously painted in our 3D
printer. This meant that the seams where the faceplates meet would be visible
on the characters’ faces. Recent
stop-motion animated features typically erase those lines digitally, but that
was not our choice for Anomalisa. Rather than a distracting element, the seams
serve as subtle and persistent signs of the incredible artistry on display in
the film. The first time I saw the
footage ona big screen, during an early seventeen-minute sequence of various
animated shots, my eyes initially went to the lines for the first few seconds.
But as soon as the characters begin speaking and relating to each other, the
lines seemed to fade away, leaving only the nuanced performances of the puppets.
The seams, for me, have
come to represent the truly unique, lovingly hand-crafted nature of our film,
which you can see in every frame. Without those
distinctive lines, it just wouldn’t be Anomalisa.
PRECISION IS A FAIR SUBSTITUTE FOR SIZE
The nature of stop-motion
animation means that you’re always working on a small scale. But I’ve had
people who saw the movie come up to me asking about the "life size” puppets.
Honestly, their confusion is a great compliment. But when we see a shot that’s
a close-up of "human” skin, with the individual hairs of a puppet’s arm
catching the light, it’s not hard to be fooled.
a tribute to Charlie and Duke Johnson, absolute geniuses when it comes to
expressing characters’ emotions and energy through animation, and their
collaboration with our DP and lighting designer Joe Passarelli. It took all of
their ingenuity and skill to realize this story in a set of environments that,
on film, are virtually indistinguishable from reality. People will talk about
shots like a close-up of Michael’s eye, in which we can see the reflection of
Lisa, and assume that we had to have composed it digitally. Not even a little.
That shot (and virtually every other shot in Anomalisa) is 100% practical effects.
WATCHING A SEX SCENE WITH YOUR MOM IN THE ROOM IS NO EASIER WHEN IT’S
This past holiday season, my mother flew out
to visit and together we watched a few of our PGA screeners. When I asked her
the next movie she would like to watch, she looked at me with an eager expression
and said, "How about we finally watch your movie?”
Anomalisa is an R-rated movie, and
with good reason. Things get intimate. Now my mom has always had trouble
getting through "bad language” in movies, but I really wanted her to see what
my studio had been working on for the last three years, so I just gulped and
said, "Sure, Mom. Anomalisa it is.” We sat there and
watched. I turned 50 this year and I’ll tell you, it doesn’t matter how old you
get or how good the movie is, watching a sex scene while sitting next to your
mom is not an easy thing to do. I’m not sure whose opinion I was more nervous
about, Charlie’s initial reaction to the face plates or my mom’s at that
Michael and Lisa finished their scene, my mother looked over at me with such
bright eyes and said with great joy, "Your studio has done an amazing job. It
Thank you, Mama Fino. And thank you, Duke,
Charlie and Starburns Industries.