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July 01
2020

ISSUE

Summer 2020

Fracturing Reality in UNDONE

By TREVOR HOGG

A prevailing question in Amazon Studios’ first original animated series Undone is whether Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar) has the ability to travel through space and time to prevent the untimely death of her father Jacob (Bob Odenkirk) or if she is suffering from mental illness. In order to seamlessly integrate the fractures in reality, creators Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg (BoJack Horseman) collaborated with director Hisko Hulsing (Montage of Heck) to produce a hybrid style that combines live-action performances, oil painting backgrounds, rotoscoped characters and 3D animation.

“I used comparable techniques for Montage of Heck and Junkyard,” states Hulsing, who recruited animation artists from Submarine in Amsterdam and Minnow Mountain in Austin, and live-action crew from Lightbox in Los Angeles. “We incorporated all of those elements using projection mapping to make sure that everything seems from the same universe.”

Director Hisko Hulsing. (Photo: Jaroslav Repta) (Images courtesy of Amazon Studios.)

Rosa Salazar portrays Alma Winograd-Diaz in Amazon Studios’ first original animated series Undone.

While serving as a jury member at the GLAS Animation Festival in Berkeley, California, Hulsing was approached by Noel Bright and Steven Cohen from The Tornante Company about the project and subsequently flew to Los Angeles to meet with Purdy and Bob-Waksberg. “The scripts were sophisticated with a lot of depth and the dialog was adult and realistic. I realized that the dialog was too subtle to hand off to animators and then have the actors do their acting. Most animation nowadays is family entertainment, and the majority of animated acting is physical. I proposed rotoscoping so we could get all of the micro expressions of the actors. In the beginning there was a discussion about treating the hallucinations, dreams and flashbacks in a different way than the realistic scenes. I pitched the idea that it should all look the same, as it would enable the audience to go on a trip with Alma and have them as confused as her about what is real and what is not real.”

A critical aspect was being able to convey Alma’s state of mind without trivializing mental illness. “It was my biggest challenge,” admits Hulsing. “In my opinion the whole emotional core of the series is the possibility that Alma is mentally ill. But at the same time, the other perspective of her mental state is that she is actually capable of bending the rules of the universe and traveling back in time. In the series it remains ambiguous as to which of those truths is the real one. Personally, I had a psychosis when I was 17, so it was important to take the audience on a journey with Alma so they could experience how it was to be mentally unstable.”

Even though he has a career spanning 20 years in animation, Hulsing draws inspiration from live-action cinema. “My favorite film of all-time is The Tenant by Roman Polanski, which I’ve seen over 25 times and is about somebody losing his mind.” For Hulsing, it was important when there are fractures in reality that they did not distract from the storytelling. “One of our biggest concerns at the beginning with this technique was that we would get into the uncanny valley where the reality is hidden behind a filter,” he remarks. “I wanted to make sure that people would get used to the visual language and be completely transported by the story.”

Undone

Bob Odenkirk portrays Jacob Winograd, the deceased father of Alma who appears to her in visions.

The fractures in reality were precisely storyboarded with a team of visual effects designers. “We didn’t have much of a budget or stage, so we always used smart solutions to film it in a way that can be used for the animation. For instance, if Alma is floating in space we would put Rosa on a stool and rotate her, and that would be enough because we had already envisioned how it would be transported to animation.”

Around 3,000 shots were storyboarded for the entire first season, which consisted of eight episodes with each having a run time of 22 minutes. “The right angle, perspective, focal length of the lens, and the lighting were described in the storyboards,” states Hulsing. “Not only did we storyboard every single shot, but we also designed the floor plans for the sets before filming began. We had a stage but not an actual set. What we did was tape all of the measurements on the ground and there were some props, like tables. The actors had to trust me if I told them that they’re in a church or that the cross on the wall is a pyramid. I went back and forth about seven times between Amsterdam and Los Angeles to direct the cast on set with Kate and Raphael.” The live-action footage was edited to the exact length of the episode and served as the basis of the animation. “In Undone only the actors are traced because there is no set.”

Backgrounds were created utilizing the oil painting techniques of 17th century Dutch painters. “The reason why I started doing that is because I like the old Disney films, such as Bambi,” explains Hulsing. “I enjoy that warm artistic look in contrast with modern animation films being made in Hollywood, which are good entertainment but feel sterile because they’re from a computer.

“For Undone,” he continues, “we recruited a whole team of classically trained painters who then had to be trained to paint in the same style.” The lighting schemes were also influenced by famous 17th century Dutch painters. “Often we used dramatic lighting. For instance, a Rembrandt has a strong light source with a lot of dark spots. The other thing is that the series is situated in San Antonio, Texas, where I have never been. However, Kate grew up there and compiled references of places that exist in the city. The art designers used those photos loosely to create a whole world that was more dream-like and beautifully painted.”

Projection mapping allowed the characters to move through the 2D backgrounds as if they were in a 3D space. We didn’t have many moving cameras but we would motion track them,” notes Hulsing. “The space was completely built in 3D and treated the various props as separate elements. For instance, if there was a couch in a room, certain aspects of it would be painted and projected into 3D. That way we could not only make strange special effects where an oil-painted room would suddenly collapse or blow up but still look painted. Also, if there was a location that would come back frequently, like Alma’s house, we could completely projection map it with oil paintings and use different angles in that space as backgrounds and it would still look painted.”

Looking after the cinematography was Nick Ferreiro (Truth or Dare). “If I wanted to communicate to the audience that we’re seeing a vision from Alma I often used a wide lens, like 50mm, to exaggerate the point of view. Normal dialog scenes were filmed with 50mm or 70mm lenses.”

Compositing was instrumental in combining the different elements into a unified aesthetic. “Not only did we have 3D and 2D animation, rotoscoping and oil paintings, but our group of painters each had a slightly different style, so the compositing turned out to be important for color grading as well as merging those various techniques into one believable world,” states Hulsing. “The characters also feel painterly as they consist of the same materials that are in the backgrounds. There were a lot of methods that the compositors used, like adding light effects and contrast, and grading all of the colors.”

The most stressful aspect was the nine-hour time difference between Amsterdam and Los Angeles. “We had Skype and conference calls,” remarks Hulsing. “The only way we could get this done was through the online platform Shotgun. Everyone was connected to Shotgun, which had every single shot, storyboard and design. It meant that the end of every day I would get a playlist with a 100 rotoscoped shots done in Texas that I will have to review, approve or give notes.”

Undone attempts to unravel the question of Alma Winograd-Diaz’s sanity: Can she actually travel through space and time to save her father, or is she suffering from mental illness?

Rosa Salazar was placed on a stool and rotated to capture a sense of floating in space for the animators.

Undone

A team of visual effects designers storyboarded the details of the fractures in reality.

Undone

The artistry of 17th century Dutch painters inspired the warm, classic look of the oil-painted backgrounds.

“The reason why I started [utilizing the oil painting techniques of 17th century Dutch painters] is because I like the old Disney films, such as Bambi. I enjoy that warm artistic look in contrast with modern animation films being made in Hollywood, which are good entertainment but feel sterile because they’re from a computer. For Undone, we recruited a whole team of classically trained painters who then had to be trained to paint in the same style.”

—Hisko Hulsing, Director

Undone

Art designers referenced photos of places in San Antonio, Texas to create an ethereal, painted world.

Undone

Undone blends live-action footage, oil paintings, rotoscoping and 2D and 3D animation to create an aesthetic that is surreal but grounded by the performances of the cast.

Undone

Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay) and Alma travel through 2D environments as if they were in 3D, enabled by projection mapping.

Amazon Studios took a major risk with Undone, which is currently in production on a second season. “It was fantastic that they gave us a chance and Undone turned out to be successful. The hard thing was that we didn’t have any pre-production time. I always use the analogy of driving a car while you’re still building it. We had to train the painters while we were already in production. It was a tight schedule. We had to do three hours of high-end animation in one and a half years. It’s easier [now though]. We’re working on the second season as the painters on Season 1 were thoroughly trained to work in this style.”

Co-existing with the visuals is the score by composer Amie Doherty (Legion). “The series has a lot of dream-like psychedelic things, and Amie was able to make that more accessible by creating orchestral psychedelic sounds,” states Hulsing.

“There is one scene that I’m extremely proud of, and that’s in Episode 4 where we’re transported through all kinds of happenings in the past of Alma, but also in the past of her ancestors. It was done like one continuous shot through different times like the 1930s in Europe. Everyone was amazed when the shot was finished because it was so fluid and strange. Things are moving without you noticing them. It starts off with Alma floating in space with her father, who is explaining how she can deal with her emotions, and then she is transported to all of these past memories sewn together seamlessly.”


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