Rotoscoping is a film technique in which animation is layered over live-action footage. The manual process dates back about a century, making early appearances in Disney classics like Cinderella. But in the past few decades, technological advances have elevated it to an aesthetic, most notably in a pair of Richard Linklater films—Waking Life, a sort of philosophical fantasia, and Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly—made with the proprietary program Rotoshop. Both movies interpolate familiar actors’ evocatively animated faces into stylized worlds; the effect is gorgeous but unsettling, less like watching a movie in a new medium than like watching it in a dream. The barrier between your consciousness and what’s happening on the screen seems to dissolve.
The same team that created the look of those Linklater films is behind the rotoscoping for Undone, a wildly ambitious animated series from BoJack Horseman executive producers Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg that comes to Amazon Prime on Sept. 13. In its first few minutes, I found almost everything about the show grating: another millennial protagonist, Alma (Alita: Battle Angel star Rosa Salazar), who battles depression, professional aimlessness, stagnating relationships. At the supermarket, she can’t get it together to decide between two brands of canned beans. Pretty as the painted backdrops looked, the decision to draw over the expressive faces of a cast featuring producer Bob Odenkirk and Daveed Diggs seemed to be a misguided attempt at adding visual interest to a story I’d heard before.
In retrospect, this was a foolish presumption to make about the team behind a cartoon horse who renders the realities of human psychological suffering more elegantly than just about any other character in the history of television. Once Alma has humiliated her judgmental mom Camila (Constance Marie), sabotaged the engagement of her snobby sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) and forced her live-in boyfriend Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay) to move out, Purdy and Bob-Waksberg articulate why she undermines her every relationship: “If you know you have a broken brain,” she asks Sam, “then why would you put someone else through that?” By the end of episode one, Alma has been critically injured in a car crash. In the hospital, moving in and out of consciousness, she reconnects with her father, Jacob (Odenkirk). Who happens to be dead.
From there, Undone unfolds into a sci-fi mystery set largely within Alma’s allegedly broken but inarguably unique brain. Before his sudden, accidental death, Jacob was a maverick researcher whose work connected neuroscience with shamanism. Now, his ghost—or whatever the dad-shaped being who keeps coming to her in visions should be called—tells Alma that he was murdered and that she has the ability to go back in time and save him. As she explores her past, the present and the celestial landscape of her own inner space, the animation mediates between these settings. Backgrounds shatter and fragment; the hospital room briefly transforms into a speeding train car. Yet the magic of Rotoshop, along with plunging viewers into the uncanny valley, keeps actors’ emotions legible to an extent that would be impossible with pure animation.
This combination feels especially crucial for a sci-fi epic that’s so grounded in the emotional realities of its characters and the familiar world they occupy. Alma’s time travel can recall the shifting perceptual planes of Inception. But her journeys are reflections of her everyday life as a young Latinx-Jewish woman living with mental illness, a cochlear implant, a dead parent, a job at a daycare center and a partner who just doesn’t get it. Unlike so many recent shows that clumsily grasp at both relevance and entertainment value (see: Amazon’s Carnival Row), Undone fully integrates its genre elements and its hot topics—science vs. religion, biracial identity, contemporary sociopolitical malaise—into the story’s structure. Alma’s quest to help her dad becomes inseparable from the question of whether she can find a way to be present in her own life.
Though it shares BoJack’s rich psychological insights and dark, dry sense of humor, fans of that series might find the cosmic aspects of this show pretentious or woo-woo. (Purdy’s official bio describes her as a student of Ayurveda and “healing modalities.”) Yet I appreciated the creators’ divergence from the more popular, futuristic space-and-dystopia strain of science fiction that imagines where millennia of human progress and folly could lead us. A stab at diagnosing the various psychic maladies that come with life in 2019, Undone embraces a form of speculative storytelling that’s closer to mythology. Its rotoscoped world might be merely a fun-house mirror of reality, but if you’re brave enough to gaze into it, a mind-expanding adventure awaits.