Amazon Prime Video’s animated drama Undone elevates its storytelling with a unique visual style. Femke Wolting, co-founder and MD of producer Submarine, reflects on the creative process behind the series.
Undone is an intimate examination of a young woman’s personal traumas and possible mental illness, as well as a wild science-fiction story exploring the elastic nature of reality through its central character, Alma (Rosa Salazar), a 28-year-old girl living in San Antonio, Texas.
After a near-fatal car accident, Alma eventually wakes up from a coma to discover that she can manipulate time and use her ability to uncover the truth about the death of her father (Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk).
My business partner Bruno Felix and I both immediately loved the project when former Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s company Tornante introduced us to Undone. At Submarine, we always like mixing genres, pushing the boundaries of storytelling and using new techniques to tell stories in exciting ways.
The series is written by two amazing showrunners, Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creators of Netflix comedy BoJack Horseman, which is also produced by Tornante. The writing is pure and original, emotional and intellectually challenging at the same time.
Submarine co-financed and produced the series together with Tornante and executive producer Tommy Pallotta (producer of A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life). The director is Dutch talent Hisko Hulsing (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Junkyard). Pallotta, Hulsing and I had previously worked together on the Emmy-winning Last Hijack, a mixed-media animation/live-action feature about the pirates of Somalia.
Undone is a hybrid between live film and animation; a mixture of oil painting, 2D and 3D animation and special effects. The writers wanted the series, commissioned by Amazon Prime Video, to be a real situational dramedy that was grounded in reality, so that when the characters move between different realities it would feel cohesive.
The unique animation style allowed us to seamlessly transition between alternate realities in a believable way, while sustaining our main character’s emotional and physical journey through space and time. The rotoscoped animation has the quality of animated film but, at the same time, allows the real expressions and emotions of the actors to come through. The result is both stylised and realistic.
A huge chunk of the animation production for Undone was done in our studio in Amsterdam, including storyboarding, set and character designs, animation and compositing. The unique visual style of Undone was directed by Hulsing in close collaboration with executive producer Pallotta.
Hisko Hulsing is an incredible painter and for Undone he oversaw a team of oil painters. He has a great sense of light and depth, which gives the series a very cinematic feel. Pallotta developed the rotoscope technique during his collaborations with Richard Linklater, including A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, each of which he produced.
For Undone, Tommy brought together a team of rotoscope artists in Austin, Texas, to rotoscope the video footage. In the film A Scanner Darkly, everything in the image was rotoscoped – the characters, sets, props. In Undone, only the actors were rotoscoped and the rest of the image is pure animation.
Almost 1,000 actual oil paintings on canvas were produced for the series and served as the backgrounds for the scenes. In the fall of 2017, we did an initial animation test in Amsterdam before the production started. Based on that, we thought we knew how we would produce the animation for the series. But when we started production, it quickly became clear it would have taken a year longer to make the entire show like that.
It was a huge undertaking; we were basically doing the equivalent of two animated feature films in 18 months. We had to rethink the method to make sure we could maintain the look and creative vision, almost on the level of every single shot, but still be time-efficient. So we had to come up with solutions and new techniques. We were all open to experimenting and to disrupting regular ways of producing animation.
The project was a real creative collaboration between Amsterdam, LA and Austin. We would receive the scripts from LA, then we would start with storyboarding and designing the location and characters and making the oil paintings in Amsterdam.
Following that, the live-action shoot would take place in Amsterdam, rotoscoping started in Austin and then we would get the rotoscoped video back from Austin and start the animation process. It was a real back and forth. It was sometimes tricky to nail cultural details in the designs.
For example, the placement of traffic lights is different in the US compared with the Netherlands. Undone is set in Texas, which is also where our rotoscope team was based. Our concept design team was based in Amsterdam, and as a result we had no frame of reference when designing streets and buildings.
During many Skype calls, our trusty rotoscope team took us out on the streets of Austin with their cell phones and showed us around town.
The Undone theme of jumping through time was very appropriate for our teams in three different parts of the world – sometimes it made us all feel that perhaps we were in our own time warp along with Alma. The upside, of course, is that the whole team essentially worked around the clock, so the sense of progress and momentum every day was a strong motivator.
Although Undone has the distinction of being the first rotoscoped series produced for television, it is also notable for its mature themes. The style we created for Undone had to blend seamlessly with the story. The ‘uncanniness’ of rotoscope and the world built up with oil paintings and 3D animation had to work in concert to put you in the subjective point of view of the protagonist played brilliantly by Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel).
With fantastic writing, amazing acting from the entire cast and our unique animated world, we are very proud that Undone is unlike anything else made for television.