It has been said that the soon to premiere “Undone” is a television series unlike any other before it. Yet its creators find issue with some of the statements being made about their show in the lead-up to it. More on that in a moment, but one thing is for certain: It is Amazon’s first-ever animated series for adults.
Featuring a largely Latinx cast and set in San Antonio, the half-hour series focuses on the character of Alma, portrayed by Rosa Salazar, and her relationships with her parents (Bob Odenkirk and Constance Marie), her younger sister (Angelique Cabral) and her boyfriend, played by Siddharth Dhananjay.
But the most important relationship is Alma’s with herself. The main story unfolds after she is seriously injured in a car accident, a catastrophic crash that opens the first of the eight episodes. In flashbacks and as she recovers in a hospital bed, it is revealed that she has never really gotten over the sudden death of her father, killed in a car accident years earlier that is shrouded in mystery.
“Undone” goes deep into the human psyche by bending time and space and using magical realism as Alma examines her life, much of which is spent in rote depression going through the motions as a preschool teacher, wondering if something will come along that will snap her out of her dreariness.
The series comes from creators Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy, who met on Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman,” soon to enter its sixth season. Bob-Waksberg is the creator and showrunner and Purdy joined the writing staff in the first season, penning an episode in which BoJack, an animated horse who plays a washed-up equine actor who once starred in his own show, goes on a drug trip and re-evaluates his life.
“I was blown away by Kate’s writing. She came highly recommended, but I didn’t even have time to read her sample before deciding, ‘Let’s throw her in there,’” Bob-Waksberg recalled during a phone call this week with Purdy also on the line. “I didn’t know what to expect. She landed on that episode by chance and I found out she was interested in a dream world and had a wealth of knowledge about it. We started talking about this show during the second season of ‘BoJack’ in 2015.”
“It was a pleasure to work on ‘BoJack,’” Purdy said. “I fell in love with him, the show, his mind and the characters. During his drug trip, he experiences an alternate reality that leads him to focus more on love and less on ego. After that, Raphael said, ‘What if we did a show that started from that tricky place — what would it look like?’”
The character of Alma is based on Purdy’s own personal experiences with depression and anxiety and learning how to move through them. “I was in therapy, but most helpful was Ayurveda and an amazing healer, Martha Soffer, who uses indigenous traditions from Polynesia, Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico. It opened awareness of experiencing reality, perhaps a gift from ancestral lineage, and perhaps realizing you are not living in a way that’s best. You dive deeper into who you really are in a holistic, transformative experience, playing with reality and perceptions of reality. All the characters have their own, often pushed by other characters. That’s the bed where Alma lies.”
Both creators said they took lessons learned from “BoJack” into their crafting of “Undone.”
“You have this gradual frog in boiling water feeling, which starts as a regular cartoon-y thing and works in more dark introspection that’s serialized, and walk audiences gradually into the world,” said Bob-Waksberg. “But at the end of the first season, we started seeing reaction and realized we didn’t have to slow-walk as much as we thought. Audiences didn’t necessarily need explanatory scenes to get to the interesting parts. With ‘Undone,’ we went in with guns blazing, thinking let’s do what this show is from the get-go, and not explain it to the audience.”
The visual look of “Undone” makes it unique. It is entirely done in rotoscope animation, which takes live-action footage and through various artistic techniques transforms it into realistic-looking animation. The technique was notably used in the 2006 sci-fi thriller film “A Scanner Darkly,” based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name.
Rotoscoping is also often used in visual effects in live-action films.
Yet contrary to several pre-release reports about “Undone,” it is not the first time the technique has been used for a television series, as Bob-Waksberg explained.
“Other shows have used it within, so we don’t want to overstate ‘nothing like this has been done before.’ But the truth is every single piece of TV is a combination of all sorts of influences,” he said. “We could strip this show for parts, like this part came from a commercial, this comes from that movie, but we try to hide that. For a lot of people it’ll be like if you haven’t seen it before, it’s news to you.”
Purdy said the production process takes infinitely longer than a typical show. After the live-action footage with the actors is shot, it goes to an animation studio in Austin and then to a studio in Amsterdam where the animated performances are put on oil painting backgrounds. Each episode contains about 150-200 oil paintings as backdrops. “It takes a year and a half,” she said. “We shot one episode a month, and our director [Hisko Hulsing] had to be at a studio that does all the oil painting, as well as shooting with live actors. It’s an ongoing process: shooting, animating, editing, and eventually dropping in rotoscoping.”
The process for the actors was also out of the norm, shooting on a bare-bones soundstage in Los Angeles. They would complete 12-15 pages a day, while the typical show does 6-8.
“There is limited hair and makeup, and they’re doing a lot of pages every day,” Purdy said. “They often called it acting camp. You have to imagine the furniture. Sometimes there’s a table or a bottle. The bar was some crates put together and the sofa was chairs, but we did have a mattress in the hospital. There would be tape where a wall would be and someone had to make sure they didn’t step through it.”
Bob-Waksberg admitted that rotoscoping may not be for everyone, but both he and Purdy felt it was the ideal way to capture and translate the often shattering emotions of their story.
(“Undone” drops on Amazon Prime Friday, Sept. 13.)