A gorgeously surreal drama starring Rosa Salazar, Undone tells the story of Alma, a woman who discovers that she has a new relationship to time, after surviving a horrific car crash. Harnessing the powers that come to her in the aftermath of this event, the character sets out to piece together the story behind her father’s mysterious and untimely death.
Widely known for their work on Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, Bob-Waksberg and Purdy embarked on Undone with almost no knowledge of rotoscoping—a process that is incredibly intensive, in terms of both time and labor. Produced over the course of a year, Season 1 would ultimately comprise 50,000 hours of work in character animation, and 130,000 hand drawn frames.
But for the series’ creators, the unknown was nothing to fear. “That was exciting. I, for one, enjoy jumping into things that I don’t know a lot about, and learning and experiencing them,” Bob-Waksberg says. “Life would be boring if you just did all the things you already knew, right?”
Below, the pair discuss the process of creating Amazon’s first original animated series, the innovations that came out of making Season 1, and the way the pandemic may shape production on Season 2.
DEADLINE: How did Undone come about? What was it that excited you about creating this series?
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: I was mainly excited to work with Kate Purdy. We obviously worked on Bojacktogether, but she’s such a phenomenal talent, and joy to be around. So, the very earliest conversations were just like, “Hey, what if we made another show together? What would that be like?” Then, we developed this idea together.
DEADLINE: What inspired the story? And how did you land on rotoscoping as the key technique in telling it?
KATE PURDY: I guess we started talking about what was interesting to us, and talked about philosophy, and personal experience, and also experimenting with magic mushrooms, and all of those feelings of being in different states of consciousness, whether it’s meditation, or crises, or a drug trip—what that feeling is, and how to capture it.
We had worked on an episode together the first season of Bojack that played with those concepts of alternate realities or experiences. The episode that we wrote in Season 1 was one of the last episodes, and so Raphael thought, “Well, that was so much fun, when we did that. What if we kind of started in that place with this show? What would that look like? Then, where would the show go from there, if that were the starting place?”
BOB-WAKSBERG: Then, the rotoscoping came in because we were talking to the director Hisko Hulsing, who is a brilliant Dutch artist. He suggested it, and we thought it was so cool. I mean, there’s no other TV shows that really do that. There are a few that have used rotoscoping in smaller ways, but to do a full show, all rotoscoped, it felt like, ‘Oh, this will really look like nothing else on television.’ I think the visuals of it have this dreamlike quality that really compliments the scenes of the story that we’re exploring.
DEADLINE: Can you elaborate on the qualities of rotoscope animation that lent themselves to the story being told?
PURDY: For us, and for Hisko, we wanted to capture the emotion of the piece. One concern was with traditional, flat, 2D animation, you might not be able to capture all the nuance of performance, and rotoscoping allows for that, because you’re having these live-action performances.
It gives that feeling of reality, while also being very imaginative. So, you get to live in this liminal space that feels both very real, but also very painted, where anything can happen, and there’s a continuity of experience. So, you are with Alma as she is experiencing the world be pulled and stretched, and reality, bend and flex. Because you’re with her as she’s experiencing it, and it’s continuous in its experience, there is no separation of, “This is real, and this is not real.”
It’s all real in her experience, which is part of the messaging of the show. Each of us is in our own perception of reality, and our own experience, and it is all very real to us. But perhaps if we can understand that we’re all coming together from our own perspective, there will be a greater sense of empathy or understanding that each of us is slightly different, in terms of what we’re creating.
DEADLINE: What were the steps involved in bringing Undone to life?
PURDY: First, we start with the live-action shoot, with actors on a soundstage, or in a space. They are interacting with really limited backgrounds and props, and there really are no backgrounds, so it’s a lot of using their imagination. It feels almost like black box theater, or theater camp.
All of that then goes to our production house in Austin, called Minnow Mountain, that’s led by Craig Staggs and Steph Swope. They have a team of animators to hand draw the frames, so it ends up like a coloring book—like a white background with these black, outlined characters. They capture all the nuance, the microexpressions in the performance, and really decide, how do you make this moment of Alma laughing or crying really resonate?
That then goes to Amsterdam, to our production house called Submarine. Femke Wolting and Bruno [Felix] oversee that, and Hisko is there in Amsterdam with them, along with his assistant, Nora [Höppener]. They have an ink and paint department that paints in all of those coloring book images, and then there is a department that actually does physical oil paintings in Hisko’s style, under Hisko’s direction.
I think we have eight painters from all over the world who have been trained in Hisko’s style. Traditionally, they sit in a room together, and Hisko says it can sometimes get very competitive, because they’re all incredible artists. But they are actually painting 3×4 foot paintings that are the backgrounds that exist in the show.
Then, there are these composite departments that composite in those painted-character, live performances into these paintings, and that atmosphere and context, and sort of blend the show into a consistent feel and look. There’s also 3D departments that create 3D painted spaces, and other departments I’m sure I’m not giving attention to, that deserve attention. But it’s an incredible undertaking with many different layers and steps, and everyone really brings their best to it, in a way that elevates the show at every step.
We say it’s like making this show three times over. At each step, you’re looking at an animatic, and editing and reviewing it, and honing it. So, I think we’re fortunate in that way. It’s a lot more work than making a show another way, but I think ultimately we’re very happy with everyone we get to collaborate with, and with the outcome.
BOB-WAKSBERG: And at the end of the day, even if you don’t like the show, we’ve got hundreds of oil paintings. So, that’s a nice bonus.
DEADLINE: Supposedly, production on Season 1 led to some innovations in rotoscoping technique. What can you tell us about those?
PURDY: There are a lot of innovations that happen, and Hisko definitely does so much, in terms of the animation process. The compositors also do a lot of the innovation, in terms of how you’re bringing these images into software to create a consistent look. Tommy Pallotta, one of our executive producers, does a lot too, in thinking about the technological innovations, and what we need to do with the pipeline to make the show. And then a lot of questions came up through the course of making the show, where things get complicated, where I would say all those people involved in the technical side do a lot to figure out solutions, to make those moments work.
BOB-WAKSBERG: One of the cool things about making this show is, just by nature of making it, it’s one of the biggest rotoscope animation projects ever. You know, it’s bigger than most movies. So, just by making it, we have all this innovation, and a lot of artists who spent their whole career doing this, they’re really excited to have the larger canvas to try out different techniques. And even in making the show, the technology changed between when we were making Episode 1 and when we were making Episode 8. We could do things, or try things that we couldn’t in the early episodes.
DEADLINE: Were any scenes particularly challenging to render in this medium?
PURDY: We had some dancers in one of the episodes, and they have all these feathers. They’re doing this beautiful, traditional dance, and all of that is very difficult for every department, because you have all this movement that’s being captured. You have multiple characters that have to be line drawn. The feathers have so much texture and color, and a variation of color within a short amount of space. So, there was a lot of figuring out, what do we need to do to capture this in a way that feels right, in terms of the storytelling?
DEADLINE: What was the process, in figuring out the logic of Alma’s experience, and visualizing her unique way of navigating the world?
BOB-WAKSBERG: We really wanted it to feel emotional and intuitive, and not necessarily logical. I remember that was a big conversation that we kept having in the writers’ room. Like, what are the rules of these “powers,” or this new mode that Alma is in? And the more we talked about it, the more it felt like, could we do this without having hard-and-fast rules, and have it feel different each time, and have it evolve and grow? Is there a way to make it make emotional sense and not logical sense?
We tried to give her a few tasks, right? Like moving the keys. But we also wanted it to feel like dream logic more of the time, and have it feel more intuitive, and not necessarily define what exactly is happening to her in any direction, which was, I think, a real challenge. But I think we pulled it off.
DEADLINE: Undone was renewed for a second season last year. How do you imagine the coronavirus pandemic will impact production going forward?
PURDY: Before the pandemic, we were doing new tests with different cameras, and last year, we didn’t use green screen. We just used kind of a checkerboard background to give definition to our rotoscopers, but we thought maybe green screen would make it easier. So, we were testing that, and testing green screen with props. We were trying to think of technological innovations that could help in the process.
But then with the pandemic, we’re thinking, ‘Well, how can we make this show without the actors actually being in the same physical space, if we need to do that?’ So, then we began testing, sending kits to their homes and having them set up equipment, and we’re looking at it as a possibility. We’re having to be very flexible, because now, things may open up again, where we can shoot with a skeleton crew, if we’re very safe, if the actors feel comfortable. So, we’re figuring all of that out.
BOB-WAKSBERG: But I think the experience of working on the first season really primed us for flexibility on the second season, because the first season was so much figuring it out as we went—feeling out what kind of studio space we need to make this show, what kind of cameras we need, what kind of physicality we need to get. What can we do in animation? What can we change? What can we not change? That really varied, episode to episode, in Season 1, so I think we came into Season 2 in the best possible position of like, ‘Well, here’s the challenge we definitely did not anticipate. How do we approach this?’ So, we’ve been figuring that out over these last few months.
PURDY: It keeps shifting and changing, but I think the benefit is, even though it is a many-layered process and it’s international, we have a surprisingly flexible team of people, and that’s wonderful. We’re all dedicated to making this show, so how do we do it in any circumstance and maintain the quality?
DEADLINE: Is there anything you can share about what we can expect from Season 2?
BOB-WAKSBERG: More of all the things you loved, and fewer of all the things you hated. It’s going to be great…No, why would we reveal a single thing? The joy of the show is the discovery of it.