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Oscars: Production Designer John Joyce On 'Anomalisa's' Challenges And Joys; Collaborating With Charlie Kaufman

Coming from a background in fine arts and design work, John Joyce made a seamless transition into the world of production design, creating the world of Anomalisa in his first stop-motion feature alongside designer Huy Vu. Joyce became inspired to work in animation after spending time designing kids’ books, adding the exciting element of movement to designs that would work in that space.

Like puppet supervisor Caroline Kastelic, who was also working on her first feature, Joyce was drawn by the chance to work from the imagination of Charlie Kaufman on an adult-themed animation which could push the possibilities of the format. Honing his craft in animation for commercials and TV, which often took weeks to months to produce, Joyce’s biggest challenge was acclimating to a years-long production schedule and learning to maintain consistency in a style over time.

“It was laborious in a good way, and the nice thing about doing a feature was you get to explore certain things you don’t normally do in commercials or in a TV show,” he says.

Joyce was also credited as a set dresser on Anomalisa, which he attributes to the low-budget, intense nature of the production. “Everyone on the production wore many hats, and I loved getting behind the camera and really getting everything into place,” he says. While Kastelic and producer Rosa Tran emphasized the challenges and the endurance required by the marathon production, for Joyce, the process was a joy.

“It’s fun going to work every day. It’s like working in Santa’s shop. You go to set and work with all these artists that are like elves making all these tiny, miniature things, everything from the designs on a menu to costumes and hair. The transition is amazing when you finally see that final frame,” Joyce says, a sentiment that is certainly echoed by his collaborators.

Of course, stop-motion comes with its constant array of very specific difficulties. According to the production designer, it was challenging to manipulate and scale the sets to real life, and to give the animators proper access. The process of shooting through reflections was also particularly tricky. Joyce and Vu frequently had to design up to eight duplicate sets, and the materials involved in the design didn’t always cooperate: “If you’re shooting on a wood table throughout the day, the temperature difference might be 30 degrees, so with these things expanding and contracting, we might come in the next day or a month later and the walls might shift a little bit. There’s more fine tuning that we need to do from day to day to make everything work.”

Despite all these rigors of production, Joyce couldn’t have asked for more open and generous collaborators than co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Together, the directors and production designers arrived at the decision to make the film a bit more atmospheric, blurring out backgrounds and using rainy windows and bright lights to provide a sense of the character, Michael’s, isolation. Says Joyce, “He was always in a bubble, and his world only existed 10 feet from what’s outside of him because he was just always into himself and his own little world.”

And Joyce has enjoyed being a part of this little world very much, but is ready to return to the varying styles and shorter shoots of commercials and TV, as props and items of Joyce’s designed are gifted to the film’s generous Kickstarter supporters.