Anamolisa and stop-motion: weirdly close to human
Anamolisa’s directors (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson), animators and producers (Starburns Industries) make great use of stop-motion. Far from being limited to the commercial successes of films such as LAIKA’s Paranorman or Aardman’s The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists!, the technique is widely used to craft strange worlds, such as those of Adam Elliot’s claymations, or Daisy Jacobs’ BAFTA winning life-size stop-motion short The Bigger Picture (2014). In Anamolisa the technique adds visual richness to the story of a man who struggles to hear, see, and engage with individuals in the crowded house of humanity.
Michael Stone, Anamolisa’s central character, is a middle-aged British man living in LA and visiting Cincinnati where he is to attend a conference as its keynote speaker. We see him arrive at the airport, get a taxi to the hotel, check in, go to his room and so on. These early sequences not only introduce us to Michael, a man with ‘dashed expectations,’ they also show how effectively the animators have used stop-motion to give substance to the world Michael finds so perplexing.
Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman under the pseudonym of Francis Fregoli, Anamolisa was first performed as a sound play at The Theatre of the New Ear in Los Angeles. The three actors spoke their dialogue sitting simply on stools in front of an orchestra, accompanied by a foley artist who created all the necessary sounds. The animated version closely follows the original script and is voiced by the same actors (David Thewlis as Michael, Jennifer Jason Lee as Lisa, and Tom Noonan as everyone else). By separating dialogue from action, and demonstrating the mechanics of sound production, the sound play evoked the dislocation felt by Michael.
A sense of dislocation is conjured too through the technique of stop-motion animation. In Michael’s world (he may have a condition known as Fregoli delusion), everybody looks and sounds alike, regardless of gender, age, race and ethnicity. Aside from those of Michael and Lisa, all the puppets have the same face and are voiced by a single actor.
Beyond this device, Anamolisa makes the most of stop-motion’s ability to show us a world with familiar physics and dimensions, though one always askew. Sets are built to the same dimensional order of the world we inhabit, but scaled to match the foot-high puppets. Another layer of familiarity lies in puppets that walk or run through recognizable spaces, airports, hotels, along corridors, or up or down stairs, in the same way we do. And familiarity is further enhanced by the puppet design. The silicon puppets look almost anatomically correct, which we know because we see Michael exiting his shower, and both he and Lisa are naked during the sex scene. Despite these layers of familiarity, there are disjunctive and confounding connections too. Stop-motion movement inevitably reveals its artifice and so is never quite human enough. The puppets have larger than scale heads, and through the technique of rapid prototyping 3D printing, their faces are visibly constructed parts of a whole.
Rapid prototyping 3D printing was first developed at the LAIKA Studio for Coraline (2009), and later Paranorman (2012) and The Boxtrolls (2014). The technique involves first generating the cheek and mouth shapes necessary for lip-sync, and also expressive changes around the eyes and forehead, as digital models. These digital models are printed out as 3D resin shapes, and placed on each puppet’s face on a shot-by-shot basis to create mobile and expressive faces. Side-effects of 3D printing include visible seams between the different facial parts and flaws from the printing process: colour deviations between print runs and striation patterns from the horizontal layering of resin. In Anamolisa, retaining these flaws and showing the imperfect joins across the eyes and around the hair and jaw line reveal the mechanics behind the stop-motion technique, and keep the puppets only, though weirdly, close to human.
Not surprisingly, given Anamolisa’s origin as a sound play, dialogue is important too. In a game with customer service platitudes (Michael has achieved national success as a customer service guru), there’s an over abundance of meaningless words when Michael consistently fails to engage with the taxi driver, hotel receptionist, bell hop, and room service. Even in more personal conversations with his wife and ex-girlfriend, he seems given to a bewilderment that finally collapses into impatience, distraction, or indecision. In a lovely sequence that blurs the boundaries between technique and story-world, Michael is shaken by a profoundly destablising moment in which a revelation of the mechanics of sound and stop-motion coincide. Looking at his face in the bathroom mirror, he glitches. The different moving parts of his face cease to co-ordinate and instead distort as the lip-sync fails, while his voice becomes warped and mechanical. Here, Michael is caught between puppet and character, a dilemma resonating with his experience of life.
In Anamolisa, stop-motion’s facility to shift its audience between the registers of strangeness and familiarity is well suited to the story told by Charlie Kaufman. Given the enthusiastic reviews the animation has received, it will be interesting to see whether makers of stop-motion shorts and features will have more opportunities to step-out of the niche of family entertainment, and take on the challenge the technique is so very suited to meet.