Any San Antonian watching the Amazon Studios streaming television series “Undone” will immediately recognize the Tower of the Americas and downtown skyline among its familiar backdrops, which also include the Alamodome, Trinity University and St. Anthony de Padua church.
The church appears with its familiar campanulate façade because “Undone” creator, writer, executive producer and showrunner Kate Purdy grew up in San Antonio, and her parents were members of the St. Anthony de Padua congregation.
While growing up in Terrell Heights, her father taught at Boerne High School, her mother taught at Herff Elementary School, and she attended Alamo Heights High School.
Informed by the deep impression the city made on her, Purdy draws on San Antonio’s look and feel for the animated series, which debuted in 2019 and completed its second season earlier this year.
Speaking by phone from her current home in Los Angeles, Purdy called her hometown “this wonderful liminal space,” and “a battleground for identity, in terms of the people who have come through there at different times.”
From the locale of Spanish missions and emigrés from the Canary Islands, to the seat of Texan Independence centered on the Alamo church, to the majority-Latino, second largest city in the Lone Star State, San Antonians have had their realities reframed each time the identity of the city has changed, she said.
That shifting character provides an ideal locale for the hallucinatory, mind-bending imagery of “Undone,” which is based on its protagonist’s confrontation with mental illness.
The Rembrandt of TV
“Undone” viewers follow the inner world of spirited main character Alma Winograd-Diaz, who, after a fight with her sister Becca, runs a red light, causes an accident and winds up in a coma.
As she wakes up, she sees her father Jacob sitting in her hospital room, though he died 17 years earlier under mysterious circumstances. Whether or not Alma can actually see and talk with her father is in doubt, as no one else can perceive his presence. The subsequent sequence of persistent visions that alter Alma’s reality has loved ones concerned she’s losing her mind.
Thanks to realistic rotoscope animation pioneered by Austin director Richard Linklater for his 2001 movie Waking Life, viewers see and hear all that Alma experiences, including hearing loss when her cochlear implant is not in use.
The moody, richly textured backdrops of “Undone” are oil paintings, made in Amsterdam by the studio of animator Hisko Hulsing, who directs the show. Purdy and “Undone” executive producer Raphael Bob-Waksberg, who previously made the animated Netflix series BoJack Horseman together, were drawn to Hulsing’s innovative animated sequences in the 2015 documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and felt similar visuals would be ideal for “Undone.”
After viewing test sequences with Hulsing, Purdy said they all were amazed at the results.
“It felt uncanny, you felt pulled visually between worlds, between the animated world and live-action world, in the same way the lead character is pulled between worlds,” Purdy said.
As an artist trained in the classical tradition of Dutch oil painting, which counts 17th century Rembrandt and Vermeer among its most celebrated figures, Hulsing said he and his team of animators were able to render a version of San Antonio that drew from Purdy’s memories and the city’s present.
“The use of a very classical, historical painting style might have helped convey that feeling of time expanding beyond the present moment,” Hulsing said. “Giving San Antonio a look as if it was painted 300 years ago might have helped to convey that idea of timelessness.”
‘An unseen world of spirit’
For Purdy, the city’s unique character made it an ideal setting for a narrative that transcends time and place.
Though she was born in Austin and her family moved to Guadalajara, Mexico for two years when she was a toddler, San Antonio “was really very formative for me in terms of experience, in terms of relationships, and personal history and family history,” Purdy said.
As the Alma character delves into her family’s past with the help of her Jacob apparition (played by Bob Odenkirk), she learns more about his Jewish heritage, the Mexican American identity of her mother Camila Diaz (played by Constance Marie), and her sister Becca’s assimilation into wealthy white society (as played by Angelique Cabral). A hidden history of familial mental illness also arises, explorations of which deepen in the eight episodes of the show’s second season with the introduction of Jacob’s Polish mother Geraldine (played by Holley Fain), who is based on Purdy’s real-life grandmother.
As Alma navigates her inner and outer realities, she “feels in many ways outside multiple worlds,” Purdy said. “She feels on the outskirts of society. She’s always challenging up against it, looking at it, examining it, looking under the rug of it, poking and prodding.”
And when Alma is pushed to take medication to control what others regard as mental episodes, she refuses and relies on her own perceptions and sense of selfhood to carry her through.
“Rosa Salazar is a phenomenal actor and brings so much to the character,” Purdy said. “She has toughness and a smartness and an intensity that is so fun to watch, where she cuts through and challenges things.”
The storyline of “Undone” draws deeply on Purdy’s own life story, hingeing on a “complete and total breakdown” she experienced at age 33. That episode revealed a deeper family history of mental illness — including her grandmother Geraldine who was institutionalized in Austin and San Antonio — and taught Purdy that episodes such as her breakdown are seen differently among world traditions.
She traveled widely, to India, South America, Central America, and Hawai’i, and explored indigenous traditions with shamans to gain an understanding of depression and anxiety through the lenses of other traditions. She learned that “this can be a time where spirit is speaking to you, this can be a time where your ancestors are pulling through to you and saying, ‘You’re on the wrong path. And you’re not going to feel better until you get right with yourself.’”
Like Alma, she saw her own mental breakdown as “a call to change and to opportunity. When I could see it that way I didn’t feel so stigmatized.” While unsettling, the experience instead felt valuable, “that there could be an unseen world of spirit that is reaching through. That’s something we wanted to explore in the show.”
A third season?
Whether “Undone” continues with a third season is up in the air. Pulling together eight episodes of an animated series that combines live actors with elaborately crafted animation is complex, time-consuming, and expensive.
Hulsing estimated that 1,100 large-scale oil paintings have been generated for the show’s two seasons, which are “digitally photographed and merged with about 260,000 drawings” at Linklater’s Minnow Mountain rotoscope studio in Austin, which are then subsequently colored and shaded by 22 artists back in Amsterdam. Rotoscope animators work primarily by outlining actors in live-action shots, and Hulsing wanted more nuance in the shading of the characters to match the overall moodiness of the show.
Purdy estimated that all told, one full day of work generates about two seconds worth of show time.
The effort is all worth it, Hulsing said, given that the riveting complexity of “Undone” could only be achieved effectively with animation.
“The whole story’s done in a very risky way. It’s a lot of genres. It’s comedy, it’s a tragedy. It’s drama. It’s also science fiction. There’s some psychological thriller elements to it,” he said in a YouTube video explaining his approach.
The result is the opposite of a typical Hollywood production, he said, praising his collaborators on the show.
“On the set, you’re with a lot of very good brains, and everybody adds to the whole thing. And you have much more like brain power to actually do the right thing,” he said.
Purdy also praised the collaborative nature of the show, with the actors, director, editor, composer, and artists all deeply involved in its development.
“We’re so lucky to be working with so many brilliant people who are bringing so much of their intelligence and experience and heart to the show,” she said. “We’re constantly blown away, which is a wonderful way to work.”
And that question about a potential third season? “We’ll see,” Purdy said.