When talking to the cast and crew behind Amazon Prime Video’s trippy series Undone, the last thing you want to do is ask about the rotoscoping of it all too early.
First deployed in the early 20th century, rotoscoping is an animation technique in which artists paint over live-action footage to make the movement of animated characters appear more realistic. Deployed strategically and sparingly in films like Cinderella and Mary Poppins, director Richard Linklater revolutionized the concept in the modern era with fully digital rotoscoped feature films like Waking Life in 2001 and A Scanner Darkly in 2006.
Per Prime Video, Undone is first TV series to fully utilize the technique, so naturally you’d want to ask about it when stars Rosa Salazar, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie; creator Kate Purdy; and director Hisko Hulsings sit down at Den of Geek video studio during SXSW to discuss the upcoming second season of the show. But somehow it seems rude to – like opening up an interview with a question about an actor’s enormous top hat rather than the content of the series itself. That’s not technically why we’re all here but how can that hat be ignored?
When you do finally get around to asking about it, however, you discover there’s not much daylight between the revolutionary nature of how the series is created and what the series is about.
In the end, they’re both all about experimentation.
There’s a hell of a lot going on in Undone beyond just all the pretty colors. This is a generations-spanning story about a young San Antonio woman named Alma (Salazar) who discovers she may have time-altering powers…or may just be gone in the head. Either way, she intends to utilize what’s going on in her brain to turn back the clock and bring her scientist father Jacob (Bob Odenkirk) back from the dead. In the show’s first season, Alma experiments with her burgeoning powers via trial and error. Tweak an event or two in the past and see what happens in the future. That scientific method extends to the process of creating the show and Alma’s story.
“It feels like we’re in a Petri dish,” Cabral, who plays Alma’s sister Becca, says. “It feels like we’re creating a genre as we go.”
“It is a lot of experimentation,” Salazar adds. “Within the parameters of your very scientific approach of grids, measurements, distances – it all has to be very specific with the tape on the floor.”
It turns out the experience of filming the live-action base of Undone involves quite a lot of tape. Like season 1, Undone season 2 was filmed in a black box theater in Los Angeles with performers using apple boxes in place of buildings and tape stretched across the floor to establish guidelines and depth. Production on season 1 was complicated enough but season 2 added another curveball that every major production in Hollywood had to deal with: the pandemic.
Asking about the pandemic sounds just as trite and tired as asking about the rotoscoping, but just as is the case with the former, Undone has a truly unique pandemic-filming related experience to report. The cast and crew of Undone got back in the black box theater in June 2020, well before many productions tried to get going again.
“It felt very safe and cozy. It felt like we were in this time warp. The whole world was on hold and we still got to create and do this thing together. If any show could work in a weird pandemic situation it’s this one,” Cabral says.
Season 2 had to significantly reduce the number of people involved behind the scenes though, with only eight people allowed onstage at a time. Even the show’s creator and director weren’t present with Hulsings and Purdy both Zooming in remotely.
“Because no one could be on set, our amazing AD Patrick Metcalf did everything,” Salazar says. “He had one AirPod in for (Hulsings and Purdy) and he’s listening to us with his other ear. He’s running the camera crew and at any given moment there’s someone yelling in his ear.”
Even with all the chaos, Undone had to find a way to innovate and improve upon the already-impressive technical specifications of its first season. And that brings us back to the rotoscoping of it all. With fewer people allowed on set and less immediate feedback to process, Hulsing’s team did something radical, implementing 3D previews for every shot to give the director of photography a better sense of how a spartan black box theater will eventually become the lively and vibrant world of the show’s San Antonio and Mexico sets.
“Season 1 was like building a car while driving it,” Hulsings says. “When we started season 2 I was like ‘wow I’m going to drive this Maserati on cruise control now.’ Then (the pandemic hit and) we had to figure it all out again.”
All of that tape, 3D previews, and metaphorical car building lays the groundwork to create Udone’s visually arresting world. Befitting the ambitious experimentation behind the scenes, the story in Undone’s world levels up in meaningful ways in season 2 as well.
The cliffhanger at the end of season 1 is resolved quickly in season 2, though ever-mindful of the story’s nonlinear status, Purdy refers to the revelation as to whether Alma’s gambit at the temple worked as “waves of discovery.” Season 2 is less afraid to lean into the supernatural elements at play and more closely incorporates Alma’s sister Becca and their mother Camila (Marie), as they investigate a family mystery south of the border. It all amounts to a generations sprawling saga of familial pain.
“The great thing is that you actually get to go back and explore in a nonlinear way exactly what shapes a human,” Marie say. “You may not understand in present time why someone is behaving the way they are but if you go back it’s like ‘oh my God.’”
“This season is a lot about very difficult decisions you’re faced with in your life,” Salazar adds. “You never know if you’re doing the right thing. Tough decisions you feel like you have to make at the time. But you never know what worse decisions your bad decisions have saved you from.”
In the end, you’re glad you asked about the whole rotoscoping thing after all.
All eight episodes of Undone season 2 are available to stream on Prime Video now.