How Amazon’s ‘Undone’ brought cutting edge animation to TV

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Animated shows are hard to make, but “Undone” takes matters to a whole new level. The Amazon series uses a technique called rotoscope, which projects and enlarges individual frames of filmed live action to permit them to be used to create cartoon animation. The long production process roped in artists across the globe, from Texas to Amsterdam.

“Rotoscope is perfect because it allows the emotions of the characters and performances of the actors to come through very clearly,” says Kate Purdy (“BoJack Horseman”), who co-created the show with “BoJack” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Rotoscope has been used in movies such as “A Scanner Darkly,” which stars Keanu Reeves, but “Undone” marks its small-screen debut.

Premiering Friday, “Undone” follows Alma (Rosa Salazar), a woman who’s visited by an apparition of her late father (Bob Odenkirk). She is tasked with solving the mystery of his death, thanks to a newfound ability to travel through time.

Purdy had impressed Bob-Waksberg when she wrote a similar storyline on an episode of Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman.”

“It’s this episode where the main character is procrastinating writing and he decides to take drugs to make it work faster,” she says. “He ends up having this alternate reality experience as part of his drug trip, where he sees this life he could have lived if he made less selfish choices. Raphael approached me after the season, and asked, ‘Could you think of conceiving a show that plays with format and reality in these ways?’”

In “Undone,” it’s unclear whether Alma is having a breakdown or if something supernatural is afoot.

“We thought the show should be live action [at first],” says Purdy. “But then if you shoot it, when the story goes to the trippy or otherworldly places, you’re going to feel that shift. And we wanted it to feel continuous. So we were thinking grounded, realistic animation. Then, when that stretchiness of reality happens, it feels continuous; all of the same world. Because we don’t want to say, ‘This is true’ or ‘That is true.’ We want to say, ‘We don’t know what the truth is, so let’s look at what truth could be.’”

That led Purdy and Bob-Waksberg to use rotoscope. First they shot scenes with the cast on a soundstage in LA. The footage was then sent to an animation studio in Austin, TX.
“Frame by frame, the animators do line drawings of each of the characters. When they’re done it looks like a coloring book,” Purdy says. “So [the pages are] white with all the actors outlined, and they decide which facial expressions best capture the emotionality. Once they’ve done that work, the footage goes to our studio in Amsterdam and those [animated] performances are hand-painted onto oil-painting backgrounds.”

Each of the eight episodes contains 150-200 oil paintings that provide backdrops. As a result, the show looks like a hybrid of animation of live action. Odekirk, for example, looks like a drawing of himself. In general, the cast’s facial expressions are better preserved than a mainstream animated show such as “The Simpsons.”

“It was a year-and-a-half production schedule, which is longer than most TV shows and even long for animation,” says Purdy. “It’s like making a show three times.”

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