Let us be the 47th outlet to say it: Nothing else on TV or streaming looks like Undone. Amazon Prime’s animated time-bending sci-fi series centers on a woman named Alma (played by Rosa Salazar, of Alita fame) who suffers an accident that changes her relationship to the world. And as Alma deals with that in-progress 180, she attempts to investigate the mysterious death of her father (played by Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul). The story… well, better to say less and avoid spoilers for any soon-to-be viewers.
Undone’s style, however, deserves all the words one can devote. If you heard of the show before, it’s likely because it represents the first major streaming series to be done entirely in rotoscope, an animation technique where artists paint over live actors using a variety of methods and styles. (Maybe you’ve seen the campus shooting documentary Tower or Richard Linkliter’s Waking Life; that’s rotoscoping in action.) Rotoscoped work can be dreamy, museum-like, nightmarish, disjointed, or other-worldly—sometimes all at once. In other words, it might be the perfect creative visual choice for a show like Undone.
Credit for executing this vision goes to a trio of production companies behind the scenes: Tornante in Southern California, Submarine Productions in Amsterdam, and Minnow Mountain in Austin, Texas. If that kind of globe-spanning collaboration doesn’t already say it, we will: the process was complicated. But you don’t have to take it from us, since Undone director and production designer Hisko Hulsing kindly sat down for our latest entertainment episode of “War Stories” and outlined the laborious process that makes the show seem so effortlessly beautiful to all of us watching at home.
Worth a thousand words
Rotoscoping at this scale turns out to be a two-fold challenge. First, it has to make sense from a storytelling perspective—meaning the final visuals fit the narrative and things don’t veer too close to the uncanny valley and remove viewers from the story. Hulsing said Undone did initially fly a bit too close to the uncanny valley (that gray area where things look nearly realistic but just different enough to be jarring), but the team upped its impressionistic instincts and elevated the artificial nature of the show’s world. Making those tweaks ultimately played into Undone’s story, too, strengthening the decision to go with this highly stylized approach.
“We used rotoscoping first of all because it’s a more realistic approach to animation,” Hulsing told Ars. “Second, it remains ambiguous in the story whether Alma is schizophrenic or experiencing some kind of nightmare or flashback. To me, it seemed if we used rotoscoping we’d create a very unreal atmosphere while seeming to be realistic. So for the audience, it’s not always clear when she’s experiencing something completely unreal… I think the rotoscoping helps with that. Even the realistic scenes can seem a bit suspicious.”
Eating the elephant one bite at a time
The second major challenge with rotoscoping is all the technique required to execute eight episodes. Making Undone involved everything from directing actors on a sound stage to projection mapping to old fashioned oil painting. And each step of the process likely reached a more granular level on Undone than it would on another project. Take the soundstage filming, for instance.
“A lot of people think we just shot live action and traced it, but that’s not how we worked,” Hulsing said. “We filmed actors on a soundstage in LA, but there’s no actual set. There’s just some grids to help us determine perspective afterwards for our virtual sets. So before we film an episode, we design every environment that will appear—every room, house, exterior, we design it. We make floorplans with measurements. So when on set, my assistant Nora uses tape on the ground to show actors where the walls are so they don’t cross the walls while acting.”
In the end, the show took an entire year to produce (with more than 50,000 hours of character animation and 130,000+ hand drawn frames, according to Deadline). But whenever the production team came across problems executing some ambitious idea or scene, they found solutions by going small. “When you want to make things look big, all the little details have to be small,” as Hulsing put it. You can hear the longtime animator provide blow-by-blow details in the full episode above, but the results speak for themselves. Amazon renewed the series for a second season with two months of its debut, and some critics even believe the show deserves a 2020 Emmy nomination for Best Drama.
“Ten years ago, no distributor would think this could be successful. The whole story is done in a very risky way. It’s a lot of genres: it’s comedy, tragedy, drama, science-fiction, and there’s some psychological thriller elements to it. There’s so much, it could have gone so wrong,” Hulsing said. “I always thought Hollywood produced so many formula films because too many people are interfering and then it becomes dumbed down. And what I notice with Undone, it’s the opposite. When you’re on this set, you’re with a lot of very good brains and everybody adds to the whole thing. You have much more brainpower to actually do the right thing.”