INTerview: John Joyce (Anomalisa)

The stop-motion film, Anomalisa (2015), is a story with one location. Except for an airplane, a taxi, a sex shop and a family home, the story mostly focuses on the main character, Michael Stone, as he travels to the Fregoli Hotel for a business trip. It is in this hotel that we see somewhat of a mid-life crisis involving a man that doesn't seem to be able to make any social connections with anyone.

What makes Anomalisa, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, so fascinating is its humanistic quality. Everything from the puppet's mannerisms and movements to the miniature locations make the film come alive. These exquisite architectural sets only enhance the human-like mood that the film portrays.

In an exclusive interview with Interiors, we spoke with John Joyce, who is the Production Designer for Anomalisa. The images and floor plans are property of John Joyce and his team.    

Anomalisa (2015)

Anomalisa (2015)

INT: We realize Anomalisa is your first feature film. Can you share some information about your background?

JJ: I come from a fine arts background.  Both my parents are artists and when I showed an interest in it at a young age they started teaching me the fundamentals.  As I got older my drawings became more dimensional and they encouraged me to try sculpture.  This was a thrilling discovery to then have something I drew be a tangible object.  While in college at Pratt institute I explored ephemeral art, earth art, and installation art.  I enjoyed the topic of how viewers had to view and interact with the work I was creating, which led me to kinetic art.  Conceptually I was trying to tell a story though and I found it to be a constant struggle trying to imbue all the ideas I was trying convey into a single piece of work.  So I decided to try writing and illustrating children's books.  To earn a living I worked as a designer and prototype fabricator, creating lighting, furniture, toys and games. Kids books were fun but they still only represented a series of illustrations of a story and lacked that tangibility that I craved. Growing up in the 80’s I loved films that used puppetry and stop motion animation.  So I decided to go to graduate school at Calarts and study animation.  Stop motion filmmaking was what I had been searching for.  It combined everything from storytelling, design, tangible art, and movement, all into one medium.  It’s an amazing niche of film to work in that requires the collaborative effort of dozens of highly specialized artists.  With animation anything you can imagine is possible, and every project presents us with new challenges to figure out.  We make every commercial, TV show and film one frame at a time and have visual control over each and every one.  Artistically it's extremely rewarding!

INT: How did the opportunity to work on this film come about?

JJ: Stop motion animation is a very specialized form of filmmaking. Everybody who works in the medium knows one another and we travel like gypsies from one studio for a production to the next.  I had worked in the art department on the tail end of Mary Shelly’s Frankenhole years ago.   Starburns Industries was a newly formed studio at the time and it was one of their first productions. Director Duke Johnson and producer Rosa Tran liked my work and invited me back to do production design on their next show Beforel Orel.  We all had such a great collaborative work experience, that when they asked me to come back to do a Charlie Kaufman animated film, I jumped at the opportunity.  I'd like to add that the initial funding for Anomalisa was generated through a Kickstarter campaign. Starburns Industries really wanted to create a film that they would have total control over without any outside major studio influence.  The fact that the filmmakers involved would have complete creative freedom was another huge incentive for signing on to the project.  Kickstarter backers were invited to tour the studio throughout the course of production.  It was a challenging film to make for all involved, and seeing the excitement of these Kickstarter backers about the project during their visit was really what kept us all going.  Whether they were fans of Kaufman or stop motion or both, on a weekly basis we got to meet the people who wanted to see this film get made and their enthusiasium for Anomalisa was very inspiring.

Michael's Hotel Room Floor Plan

INT: Can you talk about working with directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson?

JJ: They were great to work with. Not only are they both strong visual artists, they both are clear and concise when it came to their vision of what the film was.  We spent a lot of time early on putting together an inspiration board. It included all kinds of photos and notes that really set the mood for the type of film we visually wanted to create.  We also discussed aspects of a lot of films that we liked for a variety of different reasons, which in turn led to a long list of things we wanted to explore in Anomalisa. It really gave me a clear and cohesive understanding of how they envisioned the story as well as the overall film.

INT: In the beginning of the film, there is a 14-minute scene that takes place almost entirely in Michael's hotel room. Were Michael's actions choreographed within the space in any way? How were you able to create such a dynamic space for the entire film? Was it constructed in such a way that the camera could be placed anywhere in the space?

JJ: It was very much so choreographed. Storyboards were turned into an edited animatic, which is basically a rough 2d version of the film in its entirety.  In addition Duke Johnson and the animators recorded tons of live action video reference of various scenes.  This allowed the animators to study the movements and have a clear understanding of the their shots.  Before every shot the animator did what's called a pop through.  It’s a rough positioning of all the key poses and placements of the character throughout the shot.  This allows the animator to address issues of puppet access and performance, as well to test out any camera moves and make necessary adjustments before the real shot.

To accommodate for the large number of hotel room shots in the film we constructed eight identical fully realized sets.  All of them were modular to allow for the various camera angles we needed.  Three of them had additional mechanics built in for specific shots that entailed elaborate motion control camera moves throughout the space.  I feel that what allowed us to achieve a dynamic feel in the film was approaching it from a live action sensibility, however we knew going in to it that certain techniques of live action filmmaking aren't conducive to stop motion filmmaking.  Long shots are incredibly difficult to pull off in stop motion.  The materials we construct the puppets and sets out of expand and contract depending on the temperature.  Film lights dim and get brighter over the course of the shot.  Gravity affects the motion control camera move and can create slight changes in position or focus. All of these things needed to be tweaked on a daily basis over the course of the shot to maintain consistency. In live action you can get one minute of footage after filming for one minute. In stop motion it might take you a months to animate one minute of footage and a lot of factors can change in that amount of time.       

Toy Store Concept Art

INT: Is the Fregoli Hotel inspired by any hotel, specifically, or was it supposed to be a generic space?

JJ: It wasn’t important to Charlie that we create an exact replica of Cincinnati, to him it was just where he happened to base the story.  While we wanted it to have a Midwest feel, we took a lot of liberties.  Since it is animation and everything is fabricated from scratch we decided it was more important to create a city that fit the lead character’s perception of the world.  So yes, all the locations including the Fregoli hotel are generic. They are an amalgamation of lots of online research as well as numerous field trips to similar locations.  Interior design like everything else has trends that become popular and are rapidly copied everywhere, so we studied the types of building materials and design features that were common in 2005.  We cobbled together all the glaring similarities from the stone tile walls to the emotionless close up photographs of architectural details that hang on the walls to construct a look for the Fregoli Hotel that is familiar yet universal to that time period.

INT: What was the most challenging aspect about designing and building the scaled-down sets?

JJ: Honestly I'd have to say that designing and building the sets was the fun part.  The challenging aspect was all the preplanning that entailed how we were going to physically and technically accomplish the shots. The stop motion movie magic is all the stuff the camera doesn't see.  While the sets are scaled down, the overhead lighting grids, cameras, motion control camera units and animators are not. In other words you have to cram an enormous amount of stuff around these miniature sets and puppets, all the while keeping in mind that they need to be accessible. With each shot we were presented with new challenges.  Take for instance the hallway shots where the camera follows the characters down the 16 inch wide by 30 foot long set.  The camera was aimed directly down the hallway showing the floor as well as the walls on both the left and right side. A programmable camera mover whose track ran along side the length of the set suspended the camera above the hallway floor, and above that was the lighting grid. This meant that in order for the animator to access the puppets every wall section of the set needed to be independently hinged to open and close repeatedly for every frame as the puppets walked down the hall. On top of that the walls had to lock exactly back into place or else during the animation it would look like an earthquake was happening over the course the shot. Another example is the continuous shot where Michael walks from the hotel lobby to the elevator, down the hall, into his room, and finally into the bathroom before cutting. We spent about half a year planning and setting up the shot and close to a full year animating it. The lobby had to be built in a way that elements of the floor could be deconstructed as the animator progressed through the set. The characters then make their way into the elevator. The elevator set was designed to break away from the lobby set with all of the overhead lighting and camera attached to it and was wheeled onto another stage and connected to the hallway and hotel room set where the shot continued. It was extremely nerve racking. Remember, everything is miniature and we are animating it frame by frame, so even the most minute shifts in the lighting or camera could jeopardize the entire shot. 

Michael's House 

INT: The film has been described as being "atmospheric" with backgrounds not always fully visible. Did this make certain sets and spaces easier to design because you could focus on what was most important?

JJ: Hmmm, yes and no. Working in a film medium where every thing you see on screen is completely fabricated in miniature scale, sometimes makes it harder to hint at something rather than just create it in its entirety. The types of locations we shot are made up of so many seemingly insignificant details that normally are in our periphery but are what help define a place’s atmosphere, such as signage, art on the walls, or light sconces.  In other words I feel both the primary focus as well as the elements we choose to render in a more atmospheric way needed to have those key visual details to create that subconscious sense of believability.  Honestly, when I initially signed on to the project I thought dear lord its one realistic mundane location after another, this is going to be incredibly boring to design. But once I listened to the original radio play and saw the animatic I knew I was presented with a unique stop motion opportunity. We wanted to incorporate enough detail into the sets that they would be perceived to have a sense of realism, but more importantly we wanted viewers to feel the environments. We’ve all been to these types of locations and can relate to the feelings they create and the toll they take on you mentally and psychically.  It's exhausting dealing with security lines, pressurized airplane cabins, layovers, jet lag, hotels that at first seem luxurious, but quickly leave you longing for you own home, all within a city you don't know.  So the environments where meant to parallel Michael’s story and his perception of the mundanity of life.  He travels place to place in his own little bubble; his world is only defined within his personal space and the daily human interactions he has to deal with.  He’s so caught up in himself, his problems, and his delusion that everything outside his bubble falls off into an unobtainable abstract world. And sadly enough, perhaps this is where his salvation lies.

John Joyce is a Production Designer and has worked on various Films and Television Shows. You can visit his Vimeo to see more of his work.