Entering into the world of animation production after starting on Adult Swim’s adult stop-motion comedy Robot Chicken, Rosa Tran quickly worked her way up from puppet supervisor to producer, and was instrumental in the making of Anomalisa, one of the more unusual entries in the Best Animated Feature category this year. While animation is always a rigorous process, making a stop-motion feature is an even steeper hill to climb, especially when your puppets are realistic mini-humans. Here, Tran talks about the feature, codirected by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, and her steep learning curve in her first experience as a feature producer.
Stop-motion animation is a very narrow field. How did you get into it?
I graduated school and started out in reality TV and I was just this lowly assistant, pushed around a million times. I finally just quit one day and was like, “I can’t do this anymore.” I took another out-of-the-business job—I went back to working in the salon for about a year and a half, and I just kept applying for jobs. One day I saw this job for a puppet coordinator and I applied; it was for Robot Chicken season two. And I got it! That’s how I started. I then stayed for Moral Orel and Titan Maximum and all these shows, and I learned a lot about puppet fabrication. I learned how to run the room, about the materials and supplies, and the processes—how what you’re building is going to affect the animation. There was no better place to get an education.
Is that where you first met Duke Johnson?
I met him there at ShadowMachine. We were all there. And that’s where I met Dino (Stamatopoulos), as well, because I worked on Moral Orel.
How did you first find out about Anomalisa and what interested you in producing it?
I was working here at Starburns (Industries), and we’d just finished a commercial and there was no work; I think six months went by without work. It’s hard to sustain a studio without that. Duke came across this script and was like, “Read this. Do you want to do it?” And I said, “Uh, yeah?” (Laughs.) We didn’t see it any other way than stop-motion, which was really cool. I was like, “Let’s do it. Let’s go for it. We can do this.”
Anomalisa is your first feature as a producer. Was it a steep learning curve?
It was extremely difficult, yeah. We didn’t have enough money the entire time, so you’re kind of begging, borrowing and stealing the whole time… not stealing, but you know. I would have, if I had to. (Laughs.) But you learn really quick how to do this. When I first called to talk to an agent I was so scared and so timid on the phone, and he wouldn’t let me finish my sentences. I was just freaked out. And then I could tell the second time around when I had to call him again, I was like, “I got this. I know you, I know what’s coming and I’m ready.”
Where does the money go on a project like this?
Everything is so much more expensive and takes so much more time than you think. We didn’t have all this money up front, so we had to piecemeal our puppets. The poor puppet department had to rebuild the puppets, I think, three or four times because we could only afford wire puppets at first. Then we got a little bit more money and we could make it a little bit better, and then a little bit better, and a little bit better, so a lot of the money went to puppets.
We have this giant machine, a 3D printer, and the materials for it are really expensive. And then there’s tons of lighting equipment. And then you burn most of your money on animation days, because everybody’s on It can’t just be the animators animating on the stage with one lighting guy. We need an entire lighting team. We need motion control. You need all the animators. You need the assistants. You need production, you need puppets, you need support, and that’s where you burn most of your money. The name of the game is getting as many seconds (of footage per day) as you can, and so we have 18 stages, 15 animators—12 to 15 animators on at a time, and then it’s like this rotation. When you’re animating on stage number three and you’re done, you’re going to bounce over to eight, if it’s ready. Then you go back and forth, and it’s like this dance that everybody does with lighting, art, and puppets, and everybody has their turn on the stage.
Having worked in reality TV for a while, what would you say is the main difference between the production of animated content and live-action content?
Stop-motion is like a hybrid between animation and live action—you have your stages and all the crew and stuff, but we have 18 locations so it adds up. Live action is just one place, maybe two in a day—maybe there’s a company move and you’re going to the other side of town. God forbid you do two company moves in one day. Eighteen stages means 18 different locations, so 18 different cameras, 18 different computers, 18 lighting setups, 18 sets of puppets. It’s incredible. I always equate us to an ant farm, or a beehive: a colony where everybody’s got a job and the common goal is to get the animator going while trying to bank as many seconds a day as possible. You see everybody working as fast as they can just to get everybody going.
How long was the entire process, from pre-production through post, and how many seconds of footage did you average per day?
It was three years, from beginning to end. We launched Kickstarter in May of 2012 and wrapped June of 2015. It was crazy fast for animation, because we had no R & D because we didn’t have any money. Our animation quota is two seconds a day per animator. Some got nine seconds a day. We would have real bad weeks—on Fridays, we would show weeklies. We put all of the shots from the week up there. We all would go out there and gather and watch it. I would be really sad sometimes, and it hurt our morale because we got like three seconds, and it would just like, “Ugh, we worked so hard this week and we got nothing.” But then there are weeks when you get a minute and a half. When we saw the breakfast scene pieced together for the very first time it was like, “All right, we got this, we’re going to do this. We turned a corner, everybody.”
Anomalisa is stylistically distinct because the motion of the puppets is so fluid and human in appearance, whereas a lot of stop-motion is characterized by more broad gestures. Was this approach part of the intent from the very beginning, and was making the film more difficult because of it?
Absolutely. It didn’t come together so quickly at the beginning. We did tests and then they did a movement and it looked weird, and then the animator would do something and we were like, “Oh my god, that looks great.” The directors would work really hard with the animation team to find this realistic, nuanced animation. Normally, in Frankenhole and Robot Chicken and Moral Orel, there are these broad movements but on this they wanted a really subtle, natural movement and it was really hard to find animators who could do that. There’s like a handful in the world.
What was it like working with Kaufman and Johnson? Were you familiar with Kaufman’s ouevre prior to working together?
I had only seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I haven’t seen Being John Malkovich or anything else. I’ve tried, I just never had any time. I knew who he was and knew his work, and I really admire him because I knew he was really smart. I get starstruck by people who are super attentive, and it was just really cool to work with him. We joke all the time that Duke and Charlie are this comedy duo that we have to take on the road because they’re really great together. They bounce off each other really nicely. Even though they’re two different directors this marriage worked because they had the same sensibilities and wanted the same things but took two different approaches to get to it done. It was a learning experience for me to see how well two directors can work together. There weren’t arguments or anything like that; even if they had a difference of opinion it wasn’t like, “Ah, scream/grudge match.”
What does it feel like completing such a long undertaking as this film?
I feel like I can do anything now. I can’t skydive, but I feel like anything else is achievable. I’ve never worked so hard my whole entire life and have never been so scared. I never thought that we would be done. Even to this day I feel like I’ll wake up and we’ll still be animating. But I think it’s such a huge accomplishment. My husband is so sweet and he says, “Oh my god, I’m so proud of you, look at what you did,” and I was like, “What did I do?” I really didn’t do anything, but when you sit back and think about the times when the roof was leaking on us or we couldn’t make payroll… We were behind on our bills and we couldn’t get this piece of equipment and somebody was telling me, “No.” Now I can hold my head just a little bit higher.
What are your thoughts on Kickstarter now that you’ve produced a film that was partially funded through the crowdfunding site?
This was my first time and it was more work than I thought it would be. It would take a lot of convincing for me to do it again and I would need lots of help because you go to bed at night and another part of the world wakes up. And they all have questions, they all have comments. When you wake up in the morning your email inbox has 150 new emails, every single day. You want to get back to everybody. I try to treat everybody the way I want to be treated. So when people write in and they’re asking something, I’ll take the time and I’ll answer But when you’re being so overloaded sometimes you don’t have an answer, so what do you say?
What are you working on next?
I’ve got a couple of projects that I really like; I just want to see where the wind is going to take me. Maybe I want to apply for a job at Starbucks. (Laughs.) I think all the responsibility I could take right now is just putting in the straws, one at a time. But I’ll do anything, really, and I’m just excited for the possibilities.