It was a simpler time, back in October 2001. The nation couldn’t have possibly predicted what was soon to creep up on them with almost no warning whatsoever.
When Waking Life, the rotoscoping philosophical masterpiece by Richard Linklater was released to limited audiences, minds were blown. The animation style of rotoscoping—drawing the animation cells over existing film or video—was one of the oldest tricks in motion pictures. Disney had been using the technique for decades, and some of the first ever cartoons employed this tactic. But this was something different; a full motion picture, trippy and engaging in its complexity and cosmic scenarios. Waking Life was a series of vignettes that created a psychotropic visual experience that paralleled its cognitive subject matter.
Years later, in 2006, Richard Linklater adapted a Philip K. Dick story using the same method of rotoscoping to match the psychedelic and expectation-bending plot. A Scanner Darkly was messy, but using familiar faces like Keanu Reeves and Woody Harrelson got Hollywood intrigued, along with a wider audience.
Then, it seemed like rotoscoping took a long hiatus. The process is interminable. First, you have to film an entire movie. Then you have to painstakingly illustrate every frame of that digital print as if you’re hand-animating a brand new picture; because for all intents and purposes, you are.
Amazon has recently taken this to the next level, an 8-episode series called Undone starring Alita Battle Angel’s Rosa Salazar and Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk. Not only is it groundbreaking in terms of non-linear storytelling, but also in its scope. It’s a rough hike through treacherous woods to make a 120-minute feature film using the rotoscoping technique, but doubling that to eight 30-minute episodes is climbing Mt. Everest. And unlike the wavy disjointed style of its predecessors, Undone is clean, crisp and gorgeous to look at.
Undone follows the story of a dysfunctional young woman, Alma (Rosa Salazar) dealing with her abandonment issues and lashing out at her family and newly engaged sister (Angelique Cabral). After all of the players are established in episode 1, the story kicks off when Alma had a near-death experience in a car accident and begins seeing visions of her dead father (Bob Odenkirk). Her father proceeds to awaken latent powers in his daughter to manipulate space and time, all in an effort to alter the past and discover the truth that lead to his death.
The series was brought to fruition by BoJack Horseman creators Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg with short experimental rotoscoping alum Hisko Hulsing directing.
Their storytelling genius was matched only by their perceptually innate way of combining the depth of human experience with the complexity of mental illness.
The emotional journey that the series embarks on will have even the casual viewer desperate to keep watching, with the artistic visuals creating a compelling multi-layered experience. Many publications and blogs are calling this series Amazon’s first adult animated series, which is transparently ridiculous. There are a multitude of cartoons geared toward grown-ups, but this one may be the most credible and praiseworthy. Aside from a few aspects of mature subject matter and occasional expletives, there should be no reason that viewers couldn’t watch this show as a family.
The series is not without its flaws, however most of those flaws come in the form of its flawed characters. It seems to be a trope in modern visual storytelling that the male love interests are either inexplicable villains based on off-putting individuals in the writers’ lives. But whatever the writer found so objectionable about the character doesn’t shine through as brightly as the actual absurdist behavior of their primary “heroes.”
For example, the main character’s sister Becca is over the moon about her recent engagement but no one else seems to care for her new fiancé. When we meet him he is a normal, friendly and social gentleman desperate to make everyone feel included. He may be a bit on the dopey side, but nonetheless he is strapping and kind. But Becca cheats on him after a long night of binge-drinking and playing strip-truth-or-dare. Why would any engaged self-respecting adult woman participate in this? Who is the real “bad guy” in this scenario? I expected the writers to make up for this by turning the fiancé into a pig who would do the same to Becca. But, it never happened.
Subverting expectations and dealing with complex characters is probably not much of a flaw, but it did take me out of the reality of the story. There were other issues that I won’t go into for risk of spoiling major plot hurdles, but suffice it to say that none of them were series-ruining.
You can watch Undone right now with an Amazon Prime Video membership, but considering that over 1/3 of the entire population of America already has a Prime subscription, chances are you’re already signed up. So set aside 4 hours and binge watch this streaming series masterclass because you’re going to be rooting for it should it be up for some ubiquitous self-congratulatory awards.
They deserve all of them.