Anomalisa: hand-crafted visual effects

Few animated films perhaps feel as real as Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Oscar-nominated Anomalisa. That’s despite the film being realized, by Starburns Industries, via stop-motion with silicone puppets and replacement animation of 3D printed faces. Helping to maintain the hand-crafted feel and bring the story to life was a team of visual effects artists, led by visual effects supervisor Derek Smith. You might be surprised about what exactly their VFX work involved. fxguide finds out in this Q&A.

fxg: Some people might think it’s unusual to hear there’s a visual effects supervisor on a stop-motion animated film. Could you talk a little about that your role involves?

Derek Smith: The biggest challenge was making sure the effects were invisible. That’s the main goal of everything we were doing. Some of the things are more obvious – matte paintings, set extension, CG smoke and clouds. People still might be surprised at the shear amount of clean-up that needs to be done on a stop-motion film. But everything we do, we just need to make sure it’s invisible, especially in a story like this. It’s very intimate and personal, so you don’t want those effects to jump out and scream, ‘This is an effect!’.


fxg: Let’s talk about that clean-up work. There’s still a very hand-made feel and you can even see the seams in the puppets, but what were some of the challenges of clean-up?

Smith: Well, since you mentioned the seams on the face, that was actually a decision early on by the directors to seed them to the underlying themes of the movie. But there still ended up being a lot of clean-up because of the inconsistencies in the puppets and the way the faces were swapped out with replacement animation. Sometimes the gap was too big, sometimes the gap was too small so there was clean-up to create a standardized true seam distance. Even though we weren’t completely removing the seam, a lot of work had to be done to make sure the seams were consistent across all the shots.

One of the other big clean-up tasks we spent time on was, with the early puppets the blink cycles were different than the puppets that came later. So we had artists sitting there for weeks at a time hand-painting frame by frame new blinks to match the more updated puppets that came later. Production took over two years on the animation and during that time things evolved, so part of it was taking stuff that got shot earlier and updating it to match more closely to the stuff that was shot later.


fxg: There’s such nice cinematic lighting and the shots often seem quite long – was there any need to do lighting clean-up?

Smith: There was a lot of flickering. The film utilizes a lot of really long shots, some of them have motion control, some of them are static. When you’re shooting a stop motion film, some of those longer shots can take weeks if not months to finish. Over the course of that time you’re dealing with temperature changes, humidity changes, things get bumped, lights burn out. There’s just so much that can change over the course of that one shot. Sometimes the animator might not catch it for a few frames so you have to paint the light back in a little bit. For some of the shots we would have to almost completely roto the character out frame by frame, and then replace it with a clean plate for the background because there was so much light change or the set had been bumped or the wall would warp. Almost every shot had at least some level of that kind of work done to it.


fxg: I heard you talk previously about some of the characters being shot against greenscreen cards – can you talk about that process?

Smith: One of the huge advantages of stop-motion is, you can do things that would never be possible in live action. The animator will move the character for that frame, they’ll take their photo, and then before they move on to the next frame they can slide in a green piece of cardboard or something to separate that character from the background and take another frame and move on from there. What you’re left with is the main animation pass, and then you also have basically a matte pass. Probably about half way through production we were able to scrounge up enough money to start using electroluminescent panels instead of green cardboard, which really helped with being able to pull those keys. Since everything’s so small you basically get a fully self-lit greenscreen back there which is a dream – that’s the kind of thing you dream about in live action.


fxg: What about cigarette smoke and other similar effects, how challenging are those?

Smith: We worked hard with the directors to keep them at a level that didn’t scream ‘CG’. One of the bigger challenges with that is something that’s specific to stop-motion. The motion of the characters can be something erratic, because of the nature of stop-motion. So a lot of our traditional tracking methods just weren’t working which meant it was easier to match-move frame by frame some of those shots.

fxg: How was that opening sequence with the plane and the clouds achieved?

Smith: The art department created this incredibly beautiful cloud bank that was set on a deep V-shape on plexiglass that was lit from underneath and above. We took a plate of that and we composited the airplane into that. We were going to use just straight CG clouds to augment the shot for the foreground. We did a first pass of that and the directors thought it looked too realistic. So in order to keep it within that hand-made look, I ended up having to take the CG clouds that were the shape that the director liked and then project photographs of the cotton texture onto those CG clouds to get that hybrid look.


fxg: How were you handling set extensions?

Smith: Some of the sets were actually fairly large (for a miniature). We worked closely with the art department and the puppet department to determine how best to let the animators access the set. One of the intrinsic problems of stop motion of course is, how do you get a full-sized human in there with enough dexterity to move these puppets around. So a lot of the sets had swinging or removable walls. That’s where a lot of the set jittering and motion would come from, which means we’d go in and replace that with a clean pass. Every ceiling was in CG – that way they could light it however they wanted and the animator could at least get in through the top. For the hallway, say, it was a set to a point and then we extended it with a CG version. All the cityscapes were flat elements created by the art department that we would cut apart and apply atmospherics and lighting for the mood of the shot.


fxg: Sometimes it seemed like shots between the hotel room, into the corridor, down the lift and elsewhere were like ‘oners’. Were they captured that way and did you have to seam any plates or takes together?

Smith: There’s at least one long shot at the beginning where he’s first checking into the hotel where it follows him from the check-in desk all the way up to his room. That’s one of the benefits of stop-motion – you can bring the camera to a certain point and then the puppets are standing there still. For example they’re standing in the elevator and you can literally just leave them in that pose while you shuffle things around. That particular shot was several plates stitched together.