Joe Passarelli’s career has taken off quite a bit since his latest film “Anomalisa,” was released into movie theaters. The film is both a critical success and a filmgoers dream and now is an Oscar nominee in the Best Animated Feature category. This level headed filmmaker is not boastful about his accomplishments, but rather a straight forward professional eager to discuss the complexities of stop action animation.
Passarelli was born in Juliet, Illinois – a suburb of Chicago. His father was an insurance salesman for Prudential and his mother was a housewife. His love for cinema came from moments when he would watch movies with his father.
But it was a more celestial business that Passarelli tried on before becoming a filmmaker. He spent his first post-high school year at Purdue to study astronomy. After it hit him that astronomy was more about math and less about the beauty of the stars, filmmaking came to mind, “Being from the suburbs of Chicago it seems a little farfetched.”
Passarelli went to Columbia College in Chicago to study cinematography and it was the perfect mix of academia and family as he commuted to school, “Right away I started making movies on 16mm film and it was my first class that I got to shoot and make my own short film. After that, cinematography was the path I wanted to pursue.”
After his undergraduate work at Columbia College, Passarelli attended AFI for film school. It was there at AFI that Passarelli met Duke Johnson. The two made their thesis film together, titled “Marrying God.” After graduation the two filmmakers stayed in touch.
The two reunited during Cartoon Network’s show “Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole.” It was part of Cartoon Network’s adult swim content. The show was written by Dino Stamatopoulos and produced by Stamatopoulos’ production company called Starburn Industries. Johnson was co-writing material and directing episodes of the show. According to Passarelli, “It was my first stop motion job and it went well.”
When “Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole,” stopped shooting, Stamatopoulos decided to try to adapt a Charlie Kaufman radio play, “Anomalisa,” into a stop motion film. The project earned its starting costs via Kickstarter and the filmmakers eagerly went to work to film as much as they could in order to use to raise the additional funds to make the film into animated feature film.
To Passarelli, Kaufman was everthing he expected and more, “He’s just a wonderful person to work with. He’s really open to ideas and not intimidating at all. From our first meeting I knew it was going to be an amazing experience working with him.”
The set of “Anomalisa,” was a combination of stages, with many filming at the same time. But the beginning of the film had its challenges. The puppets took longer to make than anticipated and in some scenes the full bodies were not operational.
Lighting was also an issue to work through. They wanted to make the hotel room in one scene have moody lighting and it took some imagination to get the right kind of lighting for the scene.
As the movie progressed, it was sometime difficult to work around the animators, “It was a challenge to work around the animator which is so big – making room for a human body on the set because space is so limited.”
But all in all, “Anomalisa” took two years to complete. And it made Passarelli completely happy to have the public respond to the film in such a positive way, “Everyday I would go and work on part of the film. I was working on it almost every day for two years and then once it was playing it got such great reaction. I was really happy, since I really didn’t know what to expect.”
So, what’s next for this cinematographer? Passarelli is eager to work on a live action film and is in the process of reading scripts right now, “I can be a little more selective.”
Passarelli doesn’t have his sights on working with anyone in particular, “I’m open to working with anybody. I really like working with creative people.”
Perhaps, someday this director of photography will be hired on to shoot a live action science fiction flick and Passarelli can combine his love of the stars with the work that has become his life’s passion. Wouldn’t that be perfect?
“Anomalisa” is rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language and has a runtime of 90 minutes.