A genre-bending series that sends its heroine through time and space to unlock a family mystery, the Amazon Prime Video Original “Undone” breaks new ground by becoming the first episodic series wholly created through rotoscope animation.
While animated shows have been part of the television landscape for decades, rotoscope provides a unique view in which to tell this complex story. Industry veterans Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, who were producers on acclaimed animated series “BoJack Horseman,” bring us the rotoscoped series Undone. To explain what to expect before getting started on the series, we have prepared the following primer on rotoscope animation.
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First, what’s the show about?
After an auto accident leaves Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar) hospitalized, she begins to experience visions of her late father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), who encourages her to explore her newfound ability to bend reality in order to help solve his untimely death. But as Alma gets deeper into the mystery, those around her, including her mother, sister and boyfriend, wonder if she’s losing her grip on reality. Rotoscope aids in creating a distinctive look and feel for Alma’s heightened new world.
So what is rotoscope?
Rotoscope is a technique that utilizes several mediums to create an animated final product. Live footage is shot, and then animators render the backgrounds, frame by frame, to create images that appear more life-like than traditional animated projects.
Where have I seen rotoscope before?
Rotoscope has been around since the 1910s, when it was developed by animator Max Fleischer. He used it to create a series of shorts called “Out of the Inkwell” featuring Koko the Clown, and later used the technique in his Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. Once his patent expired, rotoscope was used by Walt Disney for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and other timeless films. You also might recognize rotoscoping from A-ha’s classic “Take On Me” video and the Richard Linklater movies “A Scanner Darkly” and “Waking Life.”
How was the rotoscope in “Undone” created?
The unique look, under the direction of Dutch director Hisko Hulsing (“Montage of Heck”), utilizes a variety of mediums, including oil painting on canvas to create the backgrounds. Amsterdam-based animation studio Submarine assembled a team of artists and painters from all over Europe to bring the animation elements to life, with rotoscope done by the veteran team behind “A Scanner Darkly” at Austin-based Minnow Mountain, led by co-producer Craig Staggs.
That sounds complex – was it?
Scenes were shot, often with minimal sets, and then animators begin the process of tracing and painting. For example, during a scene when Alma runs down the hall of a hospital in a panic, Salazar first did the live-action shot on a basic set, based off the storyboards created for the episode. That shot was then converted into a 3-D image to create a layout for the artists, who then paint the scene accordingly. Next, the 3-D scene and painting are combined to create the rotoscoping effect.
Why rotoscope, though?
In a series that questions the nature of reality, rotoscope gives “Undone” a surreal look and feel that mirrors Alma’s unsteady grip on time and place. Alma’s world can fracture at any time, revealing stunning alternate vistas that contrast sharply with the muted coloring of the “real” timeline. Hulsing also notes that rotoscope helps bring out the “micro-expressions” and emotions of the characters.
Do actors enjoy working in rotoscope?
Salazar is no stranger to visual-heavy work, having starred in “Alita: Battle Angel.” She was thrilled to bring the emotionally complex story in “Undone” to life in a new way. “I was just so in,” she said. “Obviously, I’d been animated before. I’d been an alternate version of myself, and I really like doing that. I feel like it frees me from this body, and I can really give birth to a character — someone completely different — and be free from this mess.”
Who else is involved in the show?
Along with Salazar and Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, Siddarth Dhananjay and Daveed Diggs are in the main cast. John Corbett, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Tyler Posey are among the guest stars. Purdy found inspiration for this series from her work on “BoJack.” She wrote a Season 1 episode in which the titular horse experiences an alternate reality and wanted to explore those themes further.
Where can I watch “Undone”?
All eight episodes are available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video starting September 13. For more on the show’s rotoscope process, please watch the video below: