Review: Fragmented Beauty and Chaos in “Undone”

Imagine going through life and each week seems to be the same sequence over and over again. Your breakfast takes exactly ten minutes to finish and is eaten at the exact same time every day. The motion of toothbrushing bores you as your week progresses. Moving from A to B over and over again makes you wonder what other people get out of this. When looking at your future, you don’t know what to look forward to either. Abruptly, your life seems to be slowly pulled apart at its edges: you end up in different places than originally intended, get in touch with people who were close to you but exist in a different time and in a different place, your idea of reality gets challenged, and big parts of your life seem to be heading in a different direction you wouldn’t have possibly predicted.

I’m talking about Undone, an Amazon Prime animation series that aired last September. It’s starring Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, BoJack Horseman) and Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel), who now has two digitally rotoscoped productions to her name. The project was initiated in the US by Katy Purdy (BoJack Horseman) and Odenkirk. They collaborated with Amsterdam-based animation director Hisko Hulsing (Montage of Heck) and Studio Submarine for producing the show’s visual part. I think it’s wonderful to see the Dutch film production branch flourishing like this, as its creative field is small, but eagerly wanting to grow. I believe a second season is coming up too, which is very well-deserved.

In short, and without spoilers, Undone is a show centred around Alma, who, like in this article’s opening, experiences abrupt changes entering her daily routine from an exterior source: time taking its own course. She used to be afraid her life would be an endless sequence of repetitions of eating, toothbrushing, working, being polite, sleeping… Instead, she is starting to experience glitches in time and space which leaves her utterly confused. Everything that happens to her appears to be initiated by her somewhat mysterious father. He died while she was young, but is still ‘lively present’. His reappearance has a strong influence on Alma and her surroundings.

What I found refreshing about this show was its combination of being a complex animated production with beautifully moving images, interesting characters, and an adult storyline that I think would be interesting for non-animation fans, too.

The characters in Undone are diverse and make for an interesting dynamic. Their different views on life are shown at its best through the show’s ability to easily switch perspective through their brilliant use of animation. The side characters’ personalities have depth and whenever stereotypical, the show is completely aware of it.

My favourite character of them all is the protagonist, Alma. She is incredibly stubborn, has a unique view on life and I think she is as funny as she is complex. Complex, because she is a bit unhappy with the direction in which her life is heading, and throughout the show she deals with possible schizophrenia or PTSD-like symptoms. This confusion goes hand in hand with how time travel seems to influence her mind. In combination with Alma’s character and history, her path is an interesting one to learn about.

She also wears hearing aids due to hearing problems she’s had since childhood. And although I’m a big fan of representing subjects such as disabilities and (mental) illnesses, I think it’s better to shy away from using it as a plot device. However, Undone seeks for nuance and uses it for questioning issues in life rather than a cool combination of difficulties with confusion and time travel.

The possibility of creating a show that is both beautiful and mysterious is inspiring. It looks colourful and warm but trippy, confusing and somewhat unnerving at the same time. I’m talking Papurika-vibes, both visually and narrative-wise, only less daunting due to its family setting and daily practices throughout the story. Its imagery brings you to familiar and charming places like their homes, melancholic streets and lush nature, while cunningly switching to other familiar and unfamiliar spaces through time lapses, time travel and time manipulation, only as one would imagine a lucid dream would feel like.

The animation style is another important layer that adds a lot to the show’s intricate charm. It uses fragmented images and surreal morphs, playing with timing in animation. This makes for unreal images that let you experience what it’s like to, for example, experience time or space in a different way, which Alma does quite a lot. This style of animation is perfect for what it does in Undone: it displays the inner workings of the human mind, and it especially imposes on how one would experience something not easily explicable, something inside you. This is what makes Undone unique.

“I think Undone works in the uncanniness of the reality but the unreality at the same time, and I think that puts you into her mindset in a very visceral way, that you can actually sort of experience it in the way that she’s experiencing it.”

Tommy Pallotta, executive producer

So, what’s up with our characters’ inner workings, technically? To put their complex way of production simply, the entire show was acted out by human actors first, their each and every movement then scanned and put together with 3D surroundings, oil painted backgrounds, and 2D layers on top of that.

As Purdy explained in an interview, their reason for this style of animation is that a real life show with CGI surroundings would too easily visualize reality and non-reality. They turned it around. Regular types of animation make facial expressions a bit difficult to read, so they opted for a combination of both life-like gestures and the non-real animated world. It cunningly evades the uncanny valley.

The most alluring thing about this is the effect that this technique creates. To me, the effect of this vivid style has a slight alienating feeling to it, but in a satisfying way, however contradictory this may sound. Even though the creators were consciously choosing not to create a too unfamiliar experience, there is a slight gap that is still there. At times, I noticed that registering their faces and emotions took more time than with a real human face. On the one hand, you can clearly see the distance we have to the 2D-characters, on the other, you can see Rosa Salazar’s actual personality shining through these ‘2D’-images. And while it’s not the first thing you would notice when watching Undone, I think this realization creates a somewhat eerie feeling. And this is not to downplay the show: this effect contributes to its mystery and success.

Altogether, Undone is saturated with mystery through themes of time travel, distorted images, psychological complexities, while showing beauty, too.

In the end, watching these actual images move works better than what these stills display.  Please do yourself a favour: watch it, and let these layers instill a whole bunch of lively matter onto your daily life.


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