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Shutter Angles

Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey

Puppets and Pantyhose: DP Joe Passarelli on Anomalisa


Watching Anomalisa – the painfully human stop-motion animation film from co-directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman – the same thought flitted through my head as when I viewed The Revenant: “This is incredible, but it was probably a nightmare to work on.”

Though free from the threat of hypothermia, the production of Anomalisa offered equally maddening difficulties. A tale of a depressed customer service guru (voiced by David Thewlis) and his fateful one-night stay in a Cincinnati hotel, Anomalisa took the greater part of two years to complete. Collecting mere seconds of usable footage per day, the film’s crew pieced together more than 100,000 individual frames to capture the puppet protagonists’ connections and disconnections, one facial expression and one gesture at a time. A single misstep – an animator bumping a light, the camera sagging slightly from the weight of a zoom lens, the delicate miniature furniture shifting positions overnight as the temperature dropped and the wooden sets creaked – and days if not weeks of work were impacted.

Anomalisa’s cinematographer Joe Passarelli spoke with Filmmaker about the Sisyphean effort required to make the Oscar-nominated movie.

Filmmaker: Production on Anomalisa took almost two years. Was that continuous or were there periods where shooting was shut down while you waited for more funding?

Passarelli: There were actually no breaks. Once we started filming, I was there basically full time for two years. Sometimes when funding was running out the number of animators would taper down, but even then we had 18 stages and we always tried to keep all of them up and working. Then if more funding came in we were able to bring in more animators. At most I think we had maybe 10 animators at a time.

Filmmaker: How did you deal with the logistics of those 18 miniature sets?

Passarelli: Each stage had a Canon 7D ready to go, but not all of the stages (were actively being photographed). About half were being animated and shot and the other half were being worked on – the art department was dressing the set, the lighting department was rigging, or the motion-control department was in there working.

Filmmaker: Did you have duplicate sets built for locations such as David Thewlis’s character’s hotel room, where a big portion of Anomalisa takes place?

Passarelli: When we first started filming there were actually eight hotel sets at the same time. Sometimes there would be two stages right next to each other where we would be setting up a shot and then on the other stage we’d be setting up the reverse shot. Then other times we would do a shot facing one way and then not do the reverse shot until 18 months later. The schedule was always interesting to follow along with.

Filmmaker: You previously worked with Anomalisa co-director Duke Johnson on the stop-motion animated Adult Swim series Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole. How did you first meet Duke?

Passarelli: Duke and I went to AFI together — we actually did our thesis film together — and after we graduated from AFI we stayed in touch. We did some live-action shorts together and then Duke started getting into stop-motion. He would tell me how much fun it was (working on Frankenhole) and that it was a super-creative and interesting process. Then he was able to bring me on the show and that was my first stop-motion job. I had never even seen a stop-motion set before. I went into that job completely blind and I was kind of glad I did, because I just handled shooting miniatures and stop-motion the same way I would shoot a live-action film, using the same principles, just scaled down appropriately.

Filmmaker: How did you augment that approach for Anomalisa? True, the characters’ faces have the dimensions of a human face, but the material they’re made of isn’t going to react to light the same way as human skin.

Passarelli: Early on in preproduction, right after the puppets’ faces came out of the 3D printer, we started experimenting to see what the faces were going to look like on camera. I tested a bunch of different lighting fixtures, including really advanced LEDs, and nothing was getting the puppet faces to look very human. We ended up trying regular household light bulbs — something you would screw into a lamp — and then we built a housing for them and put muslin in front of it. That gave the light a warm quality that, for whatever reason, reacted well with the 3D printed faces and gave a nice colored skin tone that seemed relatively realistic.

But we still had an issue with seeing the striations on the faces from the 3D printer. I needed to do more than just softening the light on the face. I tried different diffusion options on the camera and ended up putting some pantyhose behind the lenses and it really gave an interesting quality. That quality differed based on how tight or loose we stretched the pantyhose.

Filmmaker: Did you use a specific style of pantyhose?

Passarelli: We used Fogal 110 Noblesse Noirs. I did a lot of research about the best net to use behind the lens and they kept popping up. Ordering them was really tough, though. I ended up having to get them shipped from Paris because they were the only ones who had any in stock.

Filmmaker: Why did you opt for the Canon 7D as your camera?

Passarelli: Basically because that camera worked particularly well with the animation software. It was more of a technical choice than a creative choice or even a budget choice.

Filmmaker: What can you tell me about that software?

Passarelli: It’s called Dragonframe. The designers were stop-motion animators. The interface also has a bunch of cinematography windows where I can run all of our DMX lighting and link our motion-control units to the software.

Filmmaker: You shot RAW stills on the 7D?

Passarelli: Yes, it’s still capture so we shot Canon Raw, which comes out to about a 5K image. So it was a relatively high quality for using that camera.

Filmmaker: How do you determine your shutter speed when you’re shooting still frames and aren’t shackled to the 1/50th typically used when recording video on a DSLR?

Passarelli: You want to shoot at a lower ISO to keep the image clean and with miniatures you need to stop down to keep things in focus. So the shutter speed was where we could toy around. The longer the exposure, the softer the image was. So when we wanted an intimately lit moment like in (Michael’s) hotel room, we could do like a two-second exposure.

Filmmaker: For a stop-motion film, Anomalisa has unusually long takes to help create the feeling of monotony in Michael’s life. That has to be incredibly difficult, when an accidental bump of the camera or a lighting unit can throw off a shot that’s taken days if not weeks to shoot.

Passarelli: We had one shot where the camera slowly pushed in that took five or six months to animate. Each frame, the camera is moving less than an eighth of an inch. So when you’re shooting something over that period of time, you’re going to deal with all of those technical things that you mentioned — people bumping cameras, people bumping lights, bumping props. When that would happen we would have to go on to set and try to fix it. But if something was really unfixable, then visual effects would come in and we’d talk with them to devise a plan. But even beyond the animator or somebody hitting something on the set, every morning we would come in and we would turn on the lights and the sets would look like an earthquake happened. Because it was cold in the morning but the night before it was warm because the lights had been on for 12 hours, the wood would breathe and (as the temperature) changed things on set would shift. Then sometimes the camera would sag slightly if the lens was heavier and it was on a motion-control rig. It was a very interesting process to figure out.

Filmmaker: What did you choose for lenses?

Passarelli: Because we were tied in to the Canon cameras and because of the budget, we used still lenses. Mostly zooms. Newer lenses with automated irises didn’t work with the animation software. There ends up being a flicker. So we had to use lenses with a manual iris on them — one that you can physically turn. We looked at a bunch of lenses and we mainly went with old Nikon Nikkor zoom lenses. We did use different lenses for specific shots, like for the last shot of the film we ended up renting an older still lens to give us an interesting flare that we were looking for. Then for a lot of the close-ups we were looking for a softer lens and we used a 60 mm Nikon macro prime for that.

Filmmaker: What did you use for the practicals we see on the sets – the hotel room lamps and hallway light fixtures? They look like they’re about the size of a Christmas light bulb.

Passarelli: They’re even smaller than that. They’re called Grain of Wheat bulbs and they’re basically made for hobbyists who use them on toy trains and things like that. We could buy a bundle of like 200 bulbs on Amazon for relatively inexpensively. We also used, particularly in the cityscape outside the window, LiteRibbon made by LiteGear. You can cut them every inch so you can make a bunch of small, one-inch size lights. For our cityscape time-lapse, we had 300 or 400 of those LEDs running into the animation program to dim and flicker. In the cityscape we also had fiber optics and those were kind of difficult to find. Again, I just had to dig on the Internet to find somebody who was willing to sell their old fiber optics from the ’70s. Those were cool because we could hide them in the miniature cityscape to bring some more life to it. Then for the blinking sign outside the sex shop we used these electroluminescent rope lights that the art department made into a neon sign.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about a few specific shots, starting with the opening tracking shot of the plane passing through the clouds. It ends with a pullback through the window of another plane that I’m assuming is a second shot stitched together.

Passarelli: Yeah, exactly. All the tracking through the clouds was filmed practically with about 12 feet long and maybe 20 feet deep of cotton batting stretched out to look like wispy clouds. We had trouble making the clouds look like clouds rather than cotton. In addition to the pantyhose behind the lens of the camera, which we stretched really loose to make it as soft as we could, we used an old double fog filter.

Then for pulling through the window, that was its own separate shot that was then comped in. So outside the window was a greenscreen. The lens was bigger than the plane window, so we used a longer lens and pushed it all the way up against the window to begin the shot, so it would give the illusion that we were pulling through the window.

Filmmaker: How about the sex scene, which I read took six months to shoot?

Passarelli: We knew that it was going to take a long time. From an animation standpoint, that was the most difficult shot. There was so much going on. There was clothes to animate. There was bedspread to animate. With all the overnight set shifts from the wood breathing, each morning there would always be a difference (in how things were arranged). So to help visual effects fix that, we did two exposures – one with the puppets posed for the shot and then we had a self-illuminating greenscreen that we would slide in behind the puppets. We’d turn off the other lights and that image would be captured as well and then they would slide the greenscreen out of the way and go on to the next frame. So if anything did happen, the visual effects department had a silhouette matte of the puppets.

Filmmaker: There’s a fantastic dream sequence in which Michael visits the hotel manager in his cavernous basement office.

Passarelli: For stop-motion, that set was huge. It was like 40 feet long. Normally the animation tables are about chest height so the animator can stand there while they’re animating for ten hours a day and be comfortable or sit in a high chair and animate. For that scene, the set was built on the ground. It was this vast thing and Charlie and Duke were like, “We want it lit entirely by the fish tank (in the manager’s office),” which was 40-feet away from the camera on this miniature set. We ended up using six little Dedolights bouncing into a piece of Mylar that hung above the set.

Filmmaker: I can imagine that over the course of two years the attention to minute detail could drive you crazy. What day did you come closest to losing it?

Passarelli: Probably during the cityscape time-lapse. We kept pushing that to the end of production and it was just taking forever to get these hundreds of small, 1-inch LEDs into the buildings. Then just when you’d be ready to roll, the tape inside the buildings that was holding the LEDs would fall off because everything took so long to set up. (laughs) So yeah, one of those days probably.

Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.

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