Anomalisa, a new film about an emotionally stifled middle-aged customer service expert, tackles existential questions about what it means to be alive. But unlike other movies that raise similar issues, the characters in Anomalisa are doll-sized puppets. Duke Johnson, who co-directed the film with Charlie Kaufman, explains that everything the characters do in the film — from speaking to showering to having sex — is shot frame-by-frame using stop-motion animation. Co-directors Charlie Kaufman (left) and Duke Johnson, on the set of their film, where everything is built at “Barbie scale.” “Everything is static,” Johnson tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “The puppets are posed in various static positions in a sequence over the course of a series of frames, and when the frames are played back in real time it creates the illusion of movement.” Kaufman, who wrote the film in addition to co-directing it, says that the painstaking filming process he and Johnson used help heighten the character’s humanity. “There’s something about this type of animation that communicates fragility and humanity and brokenness … because it’s all handmade, and because it’s an imperfect process,” he says. MORE
TIME: As R.E.M. once sang, everybody hurts. In Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa, that goes for puppets too. The characters in this obsessive drama about human suffering and isolation are stop-motion-animated figures, something like the ones in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, only a lot less cute and a lot more depressed. Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) is a successful motivational speaker—his specialty is customer service—who has come to Cincinnati from Los Angeles for an engagement. After checking into his anonymous, faux-fancy hotel, he calls an old flame he’d walked out on without explanation years before. He’d been thinking about a final letter she’d sent him, and had become wistful about her. We hear someone read the letter in voiceover, but the voice attached to these feminine hurt feelings belongs to Tom Noonan—in fact, as Michael goes about his all-too-human hamster-wheeling, every voice he hears, male and female, is voiced by Noonan, a smart idea that amplifies Michael’s distance from his own feelings, as if he were moving about in a stage production being playacted by the wrong people.
Michael, it turns out, is cracking up. He meets with the old flame, but it doesn’t go well. In desperation he runs through the corridors of his hotel, knocking on doors, claiming he’s “looking for a friend.” It’s hardly a lie. And that’s how he meets Lisa, a young fan (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose awkwardly cheerful presence gives the movie some soul). When Michael hears her voice— hallelujah, it’s not Noonan’s!—his previously dead eyes light up with wonder. At last, he has found someone genuinely human. Lisa—shy, slightly overweight, and with a minor facial disfigurement—is amazed and flattered by Michael’s attention. They sleep together in a scene that, particularly for puppet sex, is staged with remarkable tenderness, but it’s clear this bliss can’t last. MORE