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DVD Review: Waking Life

Chris Lanier reviews the new Waking Life DVD. If you liked the film, or haven't seen it yet, this DVD is the way to go. Extra audio tracks, missing scenes, technology demonstrations, the short film Snack and Drink and more, are all included.

© Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.

© Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.

The newly-released DVD of Waking Life is full of extras that will be of interest to anyone who enjoyed the film.

There are two audio tracks; the first features Linklater, Wiggins, Sabiston and Tommy Pollatta, the film's producer. Linklater is refreshingly candid about what the actors and the animators added to the film. He seems to have created a process more than a script. Many of the most striking visual moments -- the sparkling rivets that punctuate and support the discursive narrative flow (for example, a pair of people at a table turning into cloud-forms, or a dream that plays out in silhouettes projected onto a wall) -- were conceived entirely by the animators.

The second commentary track, featuring over 25 animators who worked on the film, is even more engaging. The animators, several of them artists who were animating for the first time, come across as a group of people only slightly less eccentric than the characters featured onscreen. (This is surely the only feature-length animation production that has hired an artist based on his work on an X-rated coloring book.) A few point out the little subliminal filigrees they worked into the background, too fast to catch at normal projection speed, but now able to be seen in DVD freeze-frame (a detail-intensive rack of candy bars with "Hercules" substituted for "Hershey's," "Junior Pants" for "Junior Mints," and so on, is particularly chuckle-worthy and testament to the human mind's need to turn drudgery into a game).

These sorts of flash-frame subliminal details have historically been an industry safety valve; bursts of passive-aggressive animation that safely tick past faster than the human eye. Here, though, they seem less the result of frustration than play. The common thread through the animators' commentary is the pleasure they took in the creative environment Linklater and Sabiston established. Sabiston emerges as a genuinely impressive creative force behind the film, not only encouraging a collaborative atmosphere that inspired excellent work, but also drawing long sequences of animation himself, and periodically getting under the hood of his own software, adding new functionalities to the program as new needs arose.

The DVD also includes some alternate scenes (many involving incidental bits of business the animators have added to the footage, which were ultimately deemed distracting from the flow of the film), a few scenes of the original DV footage the animators rotoscoped over (which shows just how much the animators reinvented the feel of the scenes not merely tracing them), and Bob Sabiston giving a demonstration of how the artists used the software.

There are more odds and ends, but the most satisfying extra is Sabiston's short film Snack and Drink, which features earlier (and more free-form) use of his animation software. The short follows an autistic teenager, Ryan Power, on a walk to the corner store for soda and candy, while Sabiston tags along, asking questions. (Power would later act in one of the segments of Waking Life, as a human who turns into an alien over the course of his monologue.) I worked at a group home for autistic kids for over a year, and found the universe Sabiston created for Power, where everyday objects are prone to shift and transform, almost overpowering in their strange "thingness," to be a persuasive visual metaphor for the autistic experience -- at least as it might be imagined from the outside.

It's a point at which Snack and Drink meets back up with Waking Life. We really do live in a world patched together with strange, perplexing things; it's only habit, a kind of sleepwalking, that dulls it down to normalcy.

Chris Lanier is an animator, writer and cartoonist living in San Francisco.

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