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Exclusive Interview: Anomalisa Puppet Supervisor Caroline Kastelic

And "making of" clips from the film.

courtesy of Paramount Pictures

On Thursday, the Oscar nominations were released, with the Charlie Kaufman-Duke Johnson directed drama Anomalisa receiving one of the Best Animated Feature Film nominations. The critically acclaimed, adult drama adapts Charlie Kaufman’s play by the same name into using stop motion animation and lifelike puppets to create the world of Michael Stone.

Voiced by David Thewlis, Michael is a withdrawn man with facial blindness to the rest of the world (all other characters are voiced by Tom Noonan) who finally meets someone else when he finds Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Besides being from the mind of writer-director Charlie Kaufman, the film was co-directed by Starburns Industries’ Duke Johnson and produced using hundreds of carefully crafted backgrounds and puppets. Caroline Kastelic, who has previously worked on Adult Swim’s Frankenhole and Crackle’s Supermansion, took on the daunting task of Puppet Supervisor on the film and spoke with us the day the Oscar noms were announced about bringing this film to life (see after the interview for some of her work in a few “making of” clips).

Lesley Coffin (TMS): What initially sparked your interest about getting into stop motion animation?

Caroline Kastelic: I was in film school—and it was an experimental film school, so we were allowed to do pretty much whatever interested us—and I realized that I didn’t really love directing actors or organizing crews. I was more of an introvert, at least in the film world, so I decided it would be easier to just make the characters and everything else on-screen. And I’ve also always been crafty. I was always painting and sculpting, and my mother and grandmother were also artist in the fine arts, as well—painting and sculpting along with basket making and print making. So, it seemed stop motion was a great way to combine all those things I was interested in.

TMS: Besides working on the puppets on other projects, you’ve also written and directed your own films?

Kastelic: Yeah. That is one of the nice things about this area of filmmaking. You have so much control because you can literally write, direct, and craft it to be close to what you pictured in your brain.

TMS: How did the opportunity to work on Anomalisa first come up?

Kastelic: I had worked at Starburns Industries on a show called Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole as an animator. That was actually my first job in Los Angeles as an animator, and I became close with the owners of Starburns, Duke Johnson and Dino Stamatopoulos. So when Anomalisa came up, they had liked my work and said I should be working on this too. Stop motion is such a small field that productions tend to know who they want to work with and who they will get along with. It’s a lot about personality, because we’re often working 10 to 12 hour days. So, if they liked you on one job, they often invite you back to work on more.

TMS: How did Duke and Charlie explain their directorial approach to the material to you?

Kastelic: The first thing I did was read the radio play transcript, but at that point, the film’s approach wasn’t fully formed. They thought it would be a 40-minute movie, and all the background characters would be exactly the same and kind of unfinished. Those characters wouldn’t have had unique clothing, which would have been a lot easier to fabricate, but once we got in there and really started planning, things changed, and they wanted everything to be pretty realistic. The initial character designs were more stylized, but when those changed and they wanted all the characters to look a bit more realistic and different, we went to 3D printing to build the puppets, which I also had to figure out.

TMS: Was this the first time you had to work with a 3D printer?

Kastelic: I’m pretty sure I had worked with one before, but this was definitely the first time I had to get involved in the actual process. For example, I’m pretty sure I’ve cleaned up pieces that had been created on a 3D printer, but never worked on the design and technical aspects I had to on this film. This time, I had to figure out how to work with the printer to get the designs to print out correctly and perfect the colors, so I would definitely call this this my first major 3D printing job.

TMS: Do you have any idea how many puppets were made for the film?

Kastelic: We had about 20 of the main character of Michael created. So with the character of Michael, there were actually a lot of different versions of him created for the film. He had the most costumes so there were puppet of him in the grey suit or his blazer or naked, and with Lisa, we had about 14 different puppets. As for the background characters, we came to a somewhere around 150 individual puppets, and like I said, that wasn’t the original plan, but when those plans changed and we started to add more stages and scenes, we had to have more puppets. We would re-use as many as we could in scenes, but for a scene like the one in the bar, there are at least 20 characters that needed to look distinctive, so they just started to add up.

TMS: I understand that there were steps taken to make sure the two main characters would always stand out from the other characters?

Kastelic: Yeah, the decision was made to pretty much give all the other characters the same face, so the audience would see them the way Michael saw them. He can’t differentiate between people, it seems both because he doesn’t want to but also because he has a facial blindness disorder. So they decided, rather than make the extra characters all the exact same, it would be more interesting to put them in different outfits and body types, but keep the same face for all of them. So we had a short female, tall female, short male, tall male, average male, and a child, and the faces were always the same but scaled to one of those puppet styles. There was also a lot of talk about the hair for Lisa, because it had to be pretty specific to cover the scar on her face. That meant she had to have a bang which covered part of her face, which you pretty much never do in stop motion because that is very challenging for the animator to show movement and facial expression. But that did make Lisa’s character very distinct. And Michael is always a little bit bigger than the other characters, scaled up just a little to make him stand out a bit. And Michael and Lisa’s skin tone also has more detail than the other characters, whose skin tones are just a flat, flesh-toned color. With Lisa, we actually painted on lip gloss on all her faces which was a lot of work, but does give her that little bit of that extra detail we wanted.

TMS: I think the really interesting aspect of that is, both Michael and Lisa would be described as very ordinary and even plain looking people in the film, so adding details to make them stand out seems like it would be even more complicated.

Kastelic: Ordinarily, you wouldn’t use such subtle details to make characters stand out in stop motion animation. Usually characters are so stylized it isn’t necessary. And in this case, we needed Michael or Lisa to look like people you might run into on the street or hotel hallway.

TMS: Did the character’s change at all when you heard the actor’s voices?

Kastelic: Well, by the time we started designing the characters, we had heard the voices, so not really. But I do think we changed the mannerisms slightly. Jennifer Jason Leigh has a shy, cute voice and channeled a shy, young woman who was very unsure of herself. And think having the hair in front of her face and hiding the side of her face with the scar came out of hearing her performance. And Bella (a Tom Noonan character), who is Michael’s ex-girlfriend, is very nervous and uncomfortable with herself, so we gave her long sleeves so she could constantly be pulling down on the sleeves and fidget. So that came out of hearing Tom’s voice work as that character.

TMS: Did people discuss why stop motion animation was the right approach for this specific story?

Kastelic: We talked about that a lot, especially when a new crew would come on board and ask “why are we doing this in stop motion?” And first we were like, “It’s a job, be happy,” but the film came about through Charlie and Dino’s friendship, and Dino liking the radio play, and he wanted the project for his studio, and went about convincing Charlie to do it as stop motion. But in the radio play, all the background characters are voice by Tom Noonan, so had they done this as live action, that approach would have been kind of distracting. But in stop motion, we were able to keep the faces and Tom’s voice the same, but change their bodies and clothing, so we could drive that point home about Michael’s facial blindness in a way that would be subtler and less distracting for audiences. And, it allowed us to develop this world more than if it were a live action film. And I think that the story is so weird and stop motion is sort of a weird craft itself, that combining the two made sense to us. But I think the initial, conceptual idea of having all of the other characters look the exact same was the original reason it made perfect sense to do this as a stop motion film, because I don’t think it would have worked any other way.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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