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The careful, hypergranular process behind Amazon’s artful undone

Shot by Justin Wolfson, edited by Jeremy Smolik. Click here to print.

Let’s be the 47th outlet to say it: Nothing else on TV or streaming looks like Undone. Amazon Prime̵

7;s animated time-consuming sci-fi series centers on a woman named Alma (played by Rosa Salazar, by Alita fame) suffering from an accident that changes her relationship with the world. And when Alma handles the ongoing 180, she tries to investigate her father’s mysterious death (played by Bob Odenkirk, Best to call Saul). The story … well, better say less and avoid spoilers for anyone who will soon be a viewer.

Undone s style, however, deserves all the words one can devote to. If you’ve heard of the show, it’s probably because it represents the first major streaming series made entirely in rotoscopes, an animation technique in which artists paint over live actors using different methods and styles. (Maybe you’ve seen campus shoot documentaries Tower or Richard Linkliter’s waking Life; it is rotoscoping in action.) Rotoscopic work can be dreamy, museum-like, nightmare, incoherent or other worldly – sometimes all at once. In other words, it can be the perfect creative visual choice for a show like Undone.

Credit for implementing this vision goes to a trio of production companies behind the scenes: Tornante in Southern California, Submarine Productions in Amsterdam and Minnow Mountain in Austin, Texas. If that kind of worldwide cooperation does not already say so, we will: the process was complicated. But you do not have to take it from us then Undone director and production designer Hisko Hulsing kindly sat down for our latest entertainment episode of “War Stories” and described the laborious process that makes the show seems so simply beautiful for all of us to watch at home.

Worth a thousand words

Rotoscoping on this scale proves to be a twofold challenge. First, it must be meaningful from a narrative perspective – which means that the final images fit the story and things do not fold too close to the unpleasant valley and take the viewers away from the story. Hulsing sa Undone originally started a little too close to the nasty valley (the gray area where things look almost realistic but just different enough to be scrubbed), but the team raised their impressionist instincts and elevated the artificial nature of the show’s world. Making these tweaks eventually came into play Undone s the story, which also reinforces the decision to go with this highly stylized strategy.

“We used rotoscoping first of all because it is a more realistic strategy for animation,” said Hulsing Ars. “Secondly, it’s still ambiguous in the story if Alma is schizophrenic or experiencing some kind of nightmare or flashback. To me, it seemed like using rotoscoping would create a very unrealistic atmosphere while seeming realistic. So for the audience, it is not always clear when she experiences something completely unreal … I think the rotoscoping helps with that. Even the realistic scenes may seem a bit suspicious. “

Eat the elephant one piece at a time

The other big challenge with rotoscoping is all the technology required to perform eight sections. Manufacturing Undone involved everything from directing actors on a sound stage to projection mapping to old-fashioned oil painting. And each step in the process probably reached a more granular level Undone than it would do for another project. Take for example the sound stage.

“Many people think we just shot live action and tracked it, but that’s not how we worked,” said Hulsing. “We filmed actors on a soundtrack in LA, but there is no actual set. There are only a few grids to help us determine perspectives afterwards for our virtual sets. So before we film an episode, we design all the environments that will appear. “every room, house, exterior, we design it. We make floor plans with measurements. So when I’m on set, my assistant Nora uses tape on the ground to show actors where the walls are so they don’t cross the walls while they act.”

In the end, the show took a whole year to produce (with more than 50,000 hours of character animation and 130,000+ hand-drawn frames, according to Deadline). But when the production team encountered problems implementing an ambitious idea or scene, they found solutions by becoming small. “When you want to make things look big, all the little details have to be small,” as Hulsing put it. You can hear the long animator give detailed details in the whole section above, but the results speak for themselves. Amazon renewed the series for a second season with two months of its debut, and some critics even believe that the show deserves a 2020 Emmy nomination for best drama.

“Ten years ago, no distributor thought this could be successful. The whole story is made in a very risky way. There are many genres: it’s comedy, tragedy, drama, science fiction and there are some psychological thriller elements to it. “There is so much, it could have gone so wrong,” said Hulsing. “I always thought Hollywood produced so many formula movies because too many people interfere and then it gets silly. And what I notice with Undone, it is the opposite. When you are in this set you have very good brains and everyone adds to the whole thing. You have a lot more brain power to actually do the right thing. “

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