We had the chance to catch up with award-winning animator and producer Rosa Tran, who is best known for her work as co-exec producer of the animated series Final Space and producer of the stop-motion feature Anomalisa and her work on numerous shows such as Before Orel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, Robot Chicken and Titan Maximum. She answered a few questions about her latest collaboration with Charlie Kaufman on his new, disturbing and mysterious feature I Am Thinking of Ending Things, which premiered on Netflix last week.
Animag: Can you tell us a bit about how you got involved with your latest project, I Am Thinking of Ending Things, which is a haunting adaptation of the acclaimed book by Iain Reid.
Rosa Tran: Charlie texted [she laughs]. Charlie texted Duke Johnson and myself, and said that he needed some animation help. We love working with Charlie, so it was a fun surprise.
When did you start working on it and how long did it take to finish the animated sections of the movie?
We started in April of 2019 and delivered final shots by Dec 2019. All of it was 2D and hand painted frames.
How many minutes of animation did you produce over all?
I’m actually not sure. We had the Tulsey jingle spot and then the pig shots, so I would like to say about three minutes overall.
What kind of material did you use to produce the animation?
For the Pig: We had a few different interested artists submit pig sketches, but once Charlie started talking about the painterly style, Mollie Ong knocked it out of the park. We had the usual look dev via thumbnails and animation test to see if we were on the right track, and everything fell into place fairly quickly. Mollie created the pig by hand painting each layer on paper! They really wanted to embrace the paper and watercolors to give the pig a sense of depth and texture. So, the pig pink base layer, the pig bluish layer, the spots layer, the face layer, the blood drips. I think at one point the pig had eight layers.
After each layer was scanned into the computer, our VFX artist Derek Smith worked with Charlie’s input to come up with a treatment that gave the pig a ghostlike appearance. Voila … our pig!
For the Tulsey Spot: Simon Wilches-Castro joined the team and really brought that sequence to life. He wanted to stay true to the era of animation by using live-action dancer reference for the clown, blending live-action movements with very cartoony exaggerated.
We had a small, but mighty team! Simon Wilches Castro led the Tulsey Spot with one assistant, Lily Chao. Mollie Ong worked on the pig animation with one assistant, Rafeal Mejia, plus VFX with Derek Smith, and then Duke and myself.
What do you love about working with Charlie Kaufman?
It’s the surprise element – you can’t anticipate what he’s asking for and then when he does, you’re like, Yes. Yes. Yes. I see. And references! Charlie gives great references. Working in animation and having to create every little detail, it makes the job so much harder when you get someone who has to see it before they can make a decision. But Charlie has an idea of what he is thinking, then the conversation blooms from there.
How was this experience different from Anomalisa?
We did this all remote and this was 2D. The team met once and then everything was done remotely.
What was the biggest challenge for this production?
The usual time and money, and we produced this all remotely before WFH was in place and that was a tough workflow to get through. New people, new style, with a project that was already filming. There was one point where it looked like the pig animation was so far behind schedule, so we went all hands on deck to help Mollie. Mollie brought on Rafael Mejia and I started scanning the pig layers. Since we are doing all of this remotely, it was one more layer of difficulty. I’m sure we all feel this now since we have been working from home. But you lose the synergy from and team troubleshooting when you’re all separated.
What pleased you most about this assignment?
The final look. Placing an animated element within a live-action shot or movie, I’m always worried that it won’t fit. But what these artists created is stunning. I’m always blown away with the final product from these talented artists.
Can you tell us about your next project?
Actually, Charlie encouraged me to write my next project, called Bardo. It’s an animated story about the Vietnam War through the eyes of a civilian. This is my first time writing and directing. It is an extremely personal project for I’ve spent about three years developing it and I was lucky to be a part of the Sundance Intensive this past March and have been working with Nina Yang Bongiovi from Significant Productions on further development.
What is your take on the state of animation in 2020?
2020 has proven how resilient animation is! Animation productions have been able to continue while live action has shut down. It’s very exciting to see artists be extremely busy. I think or my hope is that this will reshape the way animation production is viewed. Animation is extremely creative and extremely technical and the talented individuals in this field have proven their incredible skills.
I Am Thinking of Ending Things is currently streaming on Netflix.