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ECONOMY OF SCALE: Six Things I Learned From Working On "Anomalisa"

Posted By James A. Fino, Thursday, January 28, 2016

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 storytelling. Anomalisa’s recent Oscar 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 usual.


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.

Something 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.


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.

Dan 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 as an 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.


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.

Duke 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.

It 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 pledging donations.

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.

Clearly, 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.


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.

However 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 today.)

While 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.


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.

It’s 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.


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 moment.

After 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 is stunning.”

Thank you, Mama Fino. And thank you, Duke, Charlie and Starburns Industries.

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