Anomalisa: Inside the studio behind this year’s unlikeliest Oscar contender

Story highlights

'Anomalisa' is nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards

The stop motion film tells the story of disillusioned businessman Michael Stone, voiced by David Thewlis

Written by Charlie Kaufman and co-directed by Duke Johnson, animation supervisor Dan Driscoll supervised the film's two-year shoot

CNN  — 

Filming a sex scene is usually a nervy affair on set. Most of the crew will be shut out, the heating turned up, and bath robes are always close to hand.

The stars of “Anomalisa” received no such treatment – and theirs lasted a grueling four months.

Eleven inches high and made from silicon, Michael Stone and Lisa Hesselman are the center of what might just be this year’s unlikeliest contender for Academy Awards glory. Nominated for Best Animated Feature, “Anomalisa” enters the fray as winner of The Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival – remarkable considering it was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign.

Or perhaps not, considering the wattage behind the stop-motion film’s cast and crew. Written by Charlie Kaufman (“Synecdoche, New York”, “Being John Malkovich”) and co-directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson (“Frankenhole”), it enlisted David Thewlis and the Oscar-nominated Jennifer Jason Leigh on voice acting duties.

However, arguably the real heroes of this surprise hit are its animators: the tinkerers, the teasers, the artists who after a ten-hour day would walk away with two and a half seconds of useable footage. An animated feature with a distinctly adult tilt, they had to negotiate boobs, bums and detachable penises, whilst remaining true to Kaufman’s tender and touching vision.

CNN Style sat down with animation supervisor Dan Driscoll to discover how they created this year’s most heartfelt film.

Beyond the frame

Michael Stone, a successful service sector guru, is the disillusioned and chronically lonely pairs of eyes through which we see the world of “Anomalisa.” His is a life of business class flights and stops in bland, nondescript hotels. He preaches that the customer is an individual, but to Michael everyone appears the same; an amorphous mob he’s forced to negotiate in the lobby and face in conference halls. That is, until he meets Lisa.

Animators construct Cincinnati Airport at Starburns Industries.

Turning that into reality was not always straightforward for Driscoll and his team.

“I try and tell people that there were no easy shots,” he says. “The thing with stop motion is that it’s a very tactile medium. Anything you can see on the screen is real, nothing is digitally enhanced.”

Everything from the twist in a martini glass to a stream of Michael’s urine had to be made and animated (the latter from “fishing line, silicone, some KY Jelly and paint,” if you’re interested).

“Even a shot when there’s a reflection of Lisa in Michael’s eye – that was an actual reflection in an eyeball that was less than a quarter of an inch thick.”

“It’s not always easy,” Driscoll admits, “there’s definitely times when you’re cursing those puppets.”

The production became an all-encompassing affair for the team at Starburns Industries, who spent two years animating the 90 minute feature. It was quite a departure making what Driscoll labels “a serious movie.”

“We were stumbling in the dark,” he says, laughing. “We had no idea that it was going to be huge, a kind of cult classic.”

Before shooting began Kaufman, Johnson and Driscoll sat down with an animatic, and for two weeks watched a storyboard artist’s version of the movie, trying to figure out how to translate it into stop motion. Time was an obvious constraint and the solution was a logistical headache: according the film’s official Tumblr account the team worked across 15 stages simultaneously during the shoot.

The many faces of Michael Stone.

One model present on nearly all those stages is the blank-faced apparatchik seen everywhere by Michael. Driscoll reveals that every time it appears on screen “you’re actually seeing a chunk of the crew.”

“We walked around the studio with a camera, and I think there might have been about a dozen or 20 people… We photographed them all, scanned all the faces into Photoshop, and blended them together until we had one.”

Immortalized in part, they’re amongst approximately 2,000 created for the film. The art department utilized 3D printing machines – “becoming the norm” in the industry according to Driscoll – and would have them running 24 hours a day churning out every conceivable facial expression.

For Michael and Lisa the models required something more textured, lifelike, whilst steering clear of what’s known in the industry as the “uncanny valley” – when animation drifts too close to real life.

“It was definitely a concern for us,” Driscoll says, referencing various motion capture techniques. “Trying to be that real with animation, it can look…” he breaks off diplomatically. “We didn’t want to turn into that.”

Working in ‘twos’ – shooting at 12 frames per second – and ‘ones’ – 24 frames per second – was also a factor the animator says allowed them to “change up the style” and “helped pull us away from the uncanny valley.”

More human than human

To borrow the maxim of The Tyrell Corporation, android manufacturer in “Blade Runner,” what “Anomalisa” has done to such high praise is create a film “more human than human.” Its sincere tone was particularly important in the film’s most talked about scene, when Michael and Lisa share a bed.

Michael and Lisa, the minature stars of "Anomalisa".

“It was one of the things early on we knew would be very hard to make sure that it wasn’t just ‘Oh look, it’s two puppets having sex, isn’t that funny?’,” Driscoll explains. In other words, “Team America” this was not.

“We wanted this tender, loving moment between two as close as you can approximate human beings.” To get that right, the animator of the shot, Kim Blanchette, spent two months just trying to figure out how the sheets and covers were going to come off, and how the puppets would put weight on the model bed. It took months just to prepare for the shot, and then it took an extra three or four months just to shoot it.

“There were days when they’d only get 12 frames. Everyone knew it had to be right – there was a lot riding on it for us.”

Puppets of Michael and Lisa, part of a four month shoot for a single scene.

The result is a scene largely made up of a single shot, as intense as it is touching. That this scene and the wider film has been so well received speaks to a medium Driscoll argues is “maturing.”

“Coming to this project, which was so emotionally heavy, it was quite a challenge to wrap our brains around how we were going to accomplish this thing,” he says. “For people to respond as they are, it’s really humbling.”

On February 28 the team will find out if they’ve won an Academy Award for their efforts. Driscoll refuses to contemplate the possibility, remaining diplomatic to the end.

“It’s so amazing that people love it as much as they do. I can’t ask for anything more, and I’m sure Duke and Charlie would agree to that.”

This story was originally published on Feb. 24, 2016.