Articles >

Capturing The Stop Motion World Of “Anomalisa” – An Interview With DP Joe Passarelli

By: Marjorie Galas

Imagine managing eighteen sets a day.  Cinematographer Joe Passarelli spent five days a week, ten hours a day for twenty-one months doing exactly that on the stop motion feature “Anomalisa.”  The shooting days, otherwise, would be very similar to a live action set – with a few hours shaved off and – do to the minimal motion captured on puppets moving a fraction of an inch a section, far less time captured in any given scene.

“If we were really busy, we’d get fifteen seconds a day, and that would be a great day,” recalled Passarelli.

The Oscar nominated screenplay for “Anomalisa” was written by Charlie Kaufman, a thrice nominated writer who won for Original Screenplay of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”  The story follows an emotionally empty motivational speaker named Michael Stone (David Thewlis) who takes no joy in speaking with the people around him.  In fact, the world has achieved a blanket uniformity – that is, until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh.)  Kaufman, with co-director Duke Johnson, decided early on that the stop motion technique would aid in representing a world devoid of emotion and humanity. Produced by Johnson’s animation company Starburns Industries, Johnson turned to Passarelli.  The two attended AFI and created a thesis film together.  After forging steady work as a cinematographer, Passarelli was invited to help Johnson on  the second season of hisn Adult Swim stop motion animation project called “Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole.”  At that point, “Anomalisa” was already in the early stages of acquiring funding.  Although staying attached to animation wasn’t a particular goal, Passarelli heard early recordings of the “Anomalisa” dialogue and was immediately hooked on the project.

Despite the fact that “Anomalisa” takes place in a stop motion world, all sets and props are highlight realistic.  To ensure their authentic qualities would read correctly on film, Passarelli was highly involved with the pre-production period, checking on materials used for lamps, fixtures, furniture – in fact, every element of the setting.  He worked directly with the model builders creating the characters  to ensure the felt on the faces came across as naturalistic as possible.

“I was involved when they were trying on faces for the sculpt of the characters,” said Passarelli.  “I watched for colors that worked best for skin tone.  We used LEDs – anything else created a weird gloss.”

With the creative direction in place, working out issues of lighting became the next major hurdle.  To capture the atmospheric lighting on the sets, particularly the hotel rooms and hallways, Passarelli created “mini gems” – incandescent light bulbs wrapped in muslin, that were placed around the set in the same fashion of a live action shoot.  Passarelli controlled the warmth of the bulbs depending on the scene:  lighting throughout the movie dictates Stone’s emotional state.  When Stone invites Lisa to his hotel room, for example, the lighting is much warmer and inviting than the lighting when he first entered the room, which was somewhat cooler.  The practicles seen throughout the sets were “grain of wheat” bulbs which cast a regular incandescent light.  Overhead lights set to daytime and nighttime lighting through a DMX program established the proper scenarios for outdoor scenes.  Other elements, such as fabrics including silks and tules were also instrumental to achieving atmospheric effects such as fog.  These elements were placed in between buildings and read perfectly on camera.

Once production began rolling, animators would be working on 18 different scenes at a time.  There were 18 cameras set up at each stage.  Passarelli would arrive to set around 8:30 and review camera placement and the status of each set. After the walk through, he’d meet with the crew to walk through a “big board” meeting.  This board included the storyboarding and shooting order by stages. Initially Passarelli would manage the lighting and camera set ups for four to five stages at a time.  Once additional funding came in for the project, he was able to hire four lighting crew and two camera/motion control crew members to assist with preparation of each set.

Continuity is always a major concern on any set.  For “Anomalisa” Passarelli knew continuity would be a “problem times ten.”  Before any shot was reviewed, the lights were turned on a full hour, allowing them to properly heat up.  Then the crew would watch for small flickers or color inconsistencies.

“Regular bulbs fluctuate, so you always have to watch for that.  There would be small adjustments to compensate,” said Passarelli.  “The wood and materials in the sets might expand due to weather, or the camera may sag or there would be a color shift.  All the lights were on DMX dimmers using a program called Dragon Flame so we could adjust the intensity.  We’d do a lot of review and matching to still images.”

Despite the tedious nature of the stop motion animation, including animators swapping out faces after each shoot in additional to all other elements on set, the same principles as live action shooting occurred.  The daily output was obviously much lighter – generally the crew would capture 24-48 frames a day.  The pre-production period is also much more extensive than a typical live action shoot:  “Anomalisa” spent ten years in pre-production before shooting began.   Passarelli enjoyed the deeply satisfying nature of watching the bits and pieces come while working at Light Iron where the color correction took place.  When he saw the finished cut he felt quite overwhelmed at the scope of the project and its successful completion, and proud to be involved in a “special and interesting story.”  Having kept his schedule open for an extended period of time to accommodate the grueling stop motion timeline, he’s currently looking forward to returning to live action.

“Stop motion can be more creative.  There are no restrictions to the world or what you can do,” said Passarelli.  “Maybe in the future I’ll go back.  Right now I’m just glad to have been involved in this project.”