Using DIY Key Lights and Filters and Live-Action Camera Moves to Illuminate a Surreal Yet Realistic Drama

It took a Kickstarter campaign, 1,261 3D-printed faces, a bit of blind faith and a hard-working team of filmmakers and animators to turn Charlie Kaufman's original sound play into Anomalisa, the stop-motion film Kaufman co-directed with Duke Johnson. Lit and shot like a live-action feature with subtly controlled lighting, slow camera moves and shallow depth of field, Anomalisa is every bit a mature, existential drama about midlife alienation. It is also a very human film. And as it turns out, the painstakingly constructed execution of stop-motion production sheds remarkable light on the assembly-line conveyor we call life.

Applying live-action techniques frame by frame on a miniature scale wasn't easy, and doing it in extreme close-up was even harder. "We knew it would be different from other stop-motion films, and technically, we made it much more difficult for everybody the way we did it," says director of photography Joe Passarelli, who shot Anomalisa with 18 Canon 7D cameras on 18 stages. Passarelli began collaborating with Johnson in film school and went on to work with him on the Dino Stamatopolous cult Adult Swim stop-motion show Mary Shelley's Frankenhole, his first stop-motion experience. He says the steady, introspective pace of lead character Michael Stone dictated the camera moves in Anomalisa (Stamatopolous' Starburns Industries produced the film). "These longer shots and the camera moving so slowly means many more frames, and the animators can only do so many frames a day. The scenes were taking months. In the winter, even in Burbank, the wood sets would tighten up overnight. We'd have to heat up the sets and make adjustments before shooting began."


The slower tracking shots, he says, led to experiments with depth of field during pre-production. "In stop motion, it's a smart thing to do to stop down to a 22 so the animators have room to maneuver the puppets. But we really wanted to isolate Michael in certain situations, so we went against the grain and had just enough depth of field to make the background look like it would in a live-action movie, when you're setting up a nice close-up of a character, say, in a bar. We always wanted to move toward the cinematic rather than worry about the restrictions of stop-motion."

The hotel room was the first set to be built and where most of the pre-production testing took place. "We wanted everything to be realistic looking but also have a cinematic feel," he adds. "We talked about looks of films from the '70s, and also classic films, so I wanted to light the film in a soft, warm and inviting way. I knew I had to get the lights close. The closer and bigger the lightup is, the softer it's going to be."

At first, he tried the smallest motion picture lights he could find. "A lot of those traditional lights worked as back lights, but to bring in the right key light that lets you get a nice key from the right angle would give you a beautiful eye light that lets the audience connect with the characters. I knew I had to figure out how to build something myself." He also tried LED lights but test shots revealed light that was too hard, too shadowy and too purple or pink. "Finally, I tried a regular household light bulb, built a housing for it, and put some muslin in front of it," he says. "It gave off this terrific quality and I could bring it easily on set right next to camera, right to where the animator was going to be. That was our key light."


Passarelli went on to make even smaller versions of his prototype, shining it wherever the puppet was looking in the shot. "Duke and Charlie both stressed from the beginning that needed to get that glint in the eye. We knew we had these eyes that are able to reflect light. They are just super small. They're even recessed back into the puppet's head, which was even more difficult to light. Picture something a quarter size of your fingernail."

The 10 or so animators on set at any given time had to move the eyes one by one, he says. "Sometimes, something would come up where the animator's move would influence the way I lit a scene. For example, when Michael is on the plane he looks out the window. When Duke and I looked at the shot in the morning we realized that the eyes were kind of dead, so we had to figure out how to sneak in yet another eye light to shoot his head in that direction."

The animators also needed access to the puppets at all times, which he admits was not always easy to shoot around. "They needed to pose these microscopic movements of the puppets breathing and moving, and also replace the faces. Right off the bat, that added a restriction that I'm not used to on a live-action shoot. So that became part of the setup: figuring out where this person is going to be standing during the animation, and if that works for the lighting, especially the eye light."

Some of the more complex camera moves in the film, including those shot with motion-controlled crane arms, added another level of difficulty. "They would have to be swung in from overhead down into the sets, and that's just massive compared to these small, delicate puppets and props," says Passarelli. "Space, and how we navigated it, was crucial."


The Canon 7D's compact size certainly worked well in this environment, although it was chosen as much for its seamless fit with the Dragonframe software workflow used by the team. Lenses took more careful consideration. "Going into this, we knew we were going to use the 7D, which I'd used to shoot Frankenhole," he says. "We couldn't have any automated iris lenses because it would cause a flicker within the software. We had to find older lenses with a manual iris. We ended up finding a set of Nikkor zoom lenses. They had their limitations, but it all kind of worked for the look of the film."

During camera tests, Passarelli found that with his DIY lights held close, the puppets' skin showed too many striation lines, a result of the 3D-printing process. "There were little small variances, from color to texture," he says. "The animators tried to get the faces as consistent as possible but it was never completely perfect because they weren't being hand-painted. I went looking for a diffusion for the lens that would smooth everything away. I ended up with pantyhose, which I put behind the rear elements of the lens, right in front of the sensor. It worked out beautifully and seemed to bring even more life to the puppets. And it really helped with the color temperature, too. Because it scattered the light so much, it corrected some of the color shift that was happening in our earlier tests."

His nylon invention led to several other happy accidents. "It did cool things with the practicals and back lights that you didn't expect at first," he says. "During the breakfast scene in the hotel room toward the end, when Lisa is changing back into a character like every other one in the film, we knew we had to somehow visually enhance what's happening in the script. I started flaring out the lens to see what that looked like, and Duke and Charlie decided we should flare out every time we look at Lisa in the scene. By blowing out the image, it gives you another way in to what's happening in Michael's mind. I literally stumbled on it because the netting just did weird stuff in that format."


The voice recordings of actors David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Lee and Tom Noonan were filmed at the beginning of production for reference. "Duke and Charlie would show the animators specific moments from those videos, and a lot of the acting they did during those recordings is referenced in the film," says Passarelli. "Stop motion is all very front-loaded. After the voice records, the whole movie was storyboarded, and the storyboards were edited to the voice records, giving us an animatic. We'd watch those animatics constantly, depending on the scenes we were shooting." 

With each animator doing 24 to 48 frames, or one to two seconds of a scene, per day, the entire project took two years from start to finish. "We were constantly busy for those two years," he adds. "Eighteen stages seems overwhelming, but there were only ten 'hot' or live stages at any one time. It was a process. The puppets and sets were still being made and perfected as we were getting funding, and we began with the taxi scene, since only the top halves of the puppets were visible."

That first scene shot also became one of his favorites. "When reading the script I wondered, 'How do we create a poor man's process in stop motion?' It ended up being one of the scenes I'm most proud of, because I think we pulled that off. We started using my home-made lights passing his face and it's where we figured out we could add silk materials behind things to add more depth to the scene. We had lightbulbs behind different layers of wedding veil and other silk material." 


In addition to the puppet rigs painted out in post, visual effects were mostly limited to ceilings in the hotel. "Because of these claustrophobic spaces created in the screenplay, the decision was made early on to build no ceilings for the interior scenes, giving all of us much more access to the characters," Passarelli says. "We could do overhead lighting, use cranes and drop-down lights, and the animators could reach over the walls if need be. We tried our best to keep that homey feel to it by shooting reference material to give to visual effects."

Then, there is the film's 1,000-frame sex scene, unique in just about every way. "It took the animator six months to animate this," he says. "We knew going in it would take a long time because it's a very long shot. On top of that, it was animation that just hadn't been done very often, and if it had, it certainly didn't feature all the elements we had in our scene. There was a blanket, a sheet, a bed, two characters' worth of clothing and naked bodies. The set needed to be in place for a long time, so we had to reinforce everything as well." Even the workflow was different from other scenes in the film. "Typically, the animators would pose the puppet, take a frame, create another pose and take a frame. For the sex scene, you'd take a frame, and then through the animation software, where you can automate motion-control and lights, we'd add another exposure where a glowing green card would fly in behind the puppets and all the other lights would turn off. This way, each frame had a silhouette match of the puppets, just in case something drastic happened while shooting. We gave the visual effects department that ahead of time."


Another uniquely tricky scene was shot completely in camera. "I remember seeing the animatic of the cityscape scene and realizing it was a time lapse," says Passarelli. "I thought, 'Wow, that's cool.' I figured that was a job for VFX. But Charlie and Duke were adamant—they wanted to do it all practically, without any CG at all. It ended up being pretty crazy. We had around 400 LED lights taped to the walls inside these miniature buildings all running into a DMX program that would fade them down or turn them off. We used lots of silks and overhead lighting to get the sunrise light just right." At Kaufman's and Johnson's suggestion, the team intensified the foggy atmosphere by putting wedding-veil tulle in between buildings. "I also used a double fog filter on the camera, on top of the netting near the sensor," he says. "We didn't have the luxury, shooting stop motion, of pouring a bunch of smoke into the room, a la Blade Runner. We had to come up with another way."