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Dream Is Destiny: Waking Life

Richard Linklater's latest film has caused quite a stir in the animation community. Is it really animated? Why is it "animated?" Is this just what the animated feature world needs or a sneaky imposter?

The main character of the film, played by actor and artist Wiley Wiggins, walking through life in a dream. All Waking Life images © Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The main character of the film, played by actor and artist Wiley Wiggins, walking through life in a dream. All Waking Life images © Fox Searchlight Pictures.

On November 8, 2001 in Los Angeles, an exclusive art gallery exhibit showcased the work of artists who helped in the creation of the critically acclaimed and widely discussed Twentieth Century Fox Searchlight film Waking Life. Puzzle Creative Development brought together and showcased the artists' work. Featured artists attending the event included Jason Archer, Paul Beck, Nathan Jensen and Travis Lindquist. Also in attendance to help put Waking Life in perspective with the greater animation world was Steve Brown, a faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts' character animation department.

Gregory Singer attended and spoke to the artists and other attendees about the film, its creation and the bigger picture...has animation painted itself into a corner? Are we getting such a reaction to this film because it isn't what we expect from an animated feature? Far from the subject matter, Waking Life asks many other questions...

Imagine that we are all walking through life in a dream. This is the thematic cornerstone of director Richard Linklater's latest independent film, Waking Life. Having first wowed audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, the movie is now, slowly, in wider release, courtesy of the distributive art house arm of Twentieth Century Fox Searchlight. Though largely a movie of philosophical ideas, a "narrative of digression," as Linklater describes it, the film does succeed, ultimately, in couching its ideas as entertainment. Without coming across as pretentious, boring or annoying, the film achieves its message, in no small part, because of the nature of its presentation: the fact that it is animated.

With the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honoring filmmakers this upcoming March (2002) with the first-ever Academy Award for Best Feature Animation, there has been some hesitation and contention within the animation community as to whether Waking Life should be among the considered films. For some people (not all), there arises a criticism: despite its visual "coolness," despite its innovative experimental technique, Waking Life is merely the façade of animation and not the real deal. For these people, not only should Waking Life not be a contender for the Oscar, they feel it is somewhat insulting to the craft even to nominate it within the category.

Before we delve into this particular brouhaha, perhaps it would be helpful to step back and give a brief summary of how the film was made, for those readers who may not already know.

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Originally, Richard Linklater, who has brought to the screen such films as Slackers and Dazed and Confused, worked with a small crew of four or five people to shoot the film as a live-action digital video. The coverage was edited, converted into a QuickTime movie, and then, using software developed by Bob Sabiston (more on him later), a team of about thirty artists -- working on G3 and G4 Macintoshes out of Linklater's Austin, Texas office -- painted over the live-action images, frame by frame, until the movie was essentially converted, or fabricated, into "animation." Ta-dah! One year later, having devoted upwards of 250 person-hours for each minute of final film, Waking Life made its animated debut to the rest of the world.

Now, there has always been a politely muffled feeling among animators that rotoscoping (drawing over live-action footage) is a fundamental cheat. People may not express this outwardly, but there is almost an unspoken understanding that rotoscoping is a shortcut circumventing the imagination, skill, nuance (and therefore, "magic") of traditional hand-drawn animation. This, of course, is ironic, in light of the fact that rotoscoping has been used since the very earliest North American animated features, including Walt Disney's Snow White (1937), wherein we bear witness to a beautiful maiden dancing around her idyllic forest world with a grace that is almost "too perfect."

Steve Brown, a faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts' character animation department, historically known as a breeding ground for many future Disney animators, recently remarked: "Even when [Disney] didn't rotoscope, nobody really likes to talk about it much, but they used to shoot a ton of material of actors in costume, acting out the scenes. And they can say they study it for reference, and they don't actually trace back from it, but still ... to what degree are they 'drawing' inspiration from the shot or the filmed image of the live actors." Alluding to whether Waking Life merits some of the recent complaints, Brown adds, "It's really kind of a murky issue, it's really easy to throw stones."

Pillow talk with Ethan Hawke.

Pillow talk with Ethan Hawke.

The process used to animate Waking Life has come to be known as "interpolated rotoscoping." Bob Sabiston, the creator of the software (dubbed RotoShop) and the art director of the film, is an alumnus of M.I.T., whose own work has won him kudos, awards and animation gigs with such companies as MTV and PBS. For anyone who may be in the know, Sabiston is the fellow who animated Snack and Drink, a three-minute short about an autistic child in a 7-Eleven store, which is now part of the permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Basically, Sabiston wanted to create a program that was relatively fun and easy to use; that didn't crowd out the emotional involvement or the immediacy of experiment that comes with, say, a traditional pencil-and-paper flipbook. Again, perhaps ironically, this is something that artists are oftentimes asking for -- technology that doesn't belabor their creative efforts, where they have to busy themselves fiddling with default levels and tweaking x,y,z coordinates.

Trust the Process

Paul Beck, one of the artists to work on Waking Life, will be the first to tell you: "I'm not an animator." With good-natured, self-deprecating humor, he adds, "I mainly paint houses."

Using a Wacom tablet and the original live-action video as reference, the animators on Waking Life recreated and interpreted the film, aesthetically, according to their own vision. Artists like Paul Beck and Travis Lindquist consider themselves painters first, but they also enjoy the fact that they can now, with Bob Sabiston's software, add animation as another hat.

Steve Brown, of CalArts, suggests, "I think that the main thing a lot of animation students lack is a real knowledge of art history and a real appreciation of contemporary art. I think that any technology that makes it easier for fine artists to begin to include animation as part of their artistic expression is a really good thing."

"I want to have real human moments."

Nathan Jensen, another artist for the film who now works in Los Angeles, comments, "What was special about this film is that we, not coming from a trained arena, can sit down, learn this software in a day, and start to work." With each artist choosing and working on one actor in the film, at a time, director Richard Linklater notes that the process of creating the animation was the antithesis of any committee-minded manufacture of consent. As the artists interpreted the live-action and brought to bear their own ideas and whims, Linklater would give his feedback on whether the animation was communicating properly. Jensen remarks that Linklater and the producers did not come to the project with a preconception of how the animation should be, or what it should look like. Jensen describes the filmmakers' approach more along the lines of, "We recognize you as artists, and we want you to be artists, and to do something to this film."

Remarking on this freedom, artist Jason Archer says, "A lot of the things that we did, it was kind of an experiment, and the mistakes that we made wound up becoming something that we didn't expect to see, and we left them in there."

Jensen adds, "We're not tied to any software, whether it's Bob's program or AfterEffects, or another animation software program. It's about pushing the limits of these tools."

Archer continues, "Anyone can use the software, anyone can create this animation, but it's the people behind it that really make it interesting. [The artists] are so creative, they take the viewer into this realm they have never seen before."

It's All About Story

This is precisely the efficacy and success of Waking Life, and the motivation for Linklater to animate the film. For years, Linklater had the general idea of the story in his mind, but there was never any clear way to depict the notion on film, of walking through life in a dream. Waking Life emerges as a larger philosophical and peripatetic conversation, wherein the audience participates in the fragmentary and fluid reality of the dream state.

As Linklater explains, Waking Life was really "two films in one -- a double creative collaboration" that called for a full live-action feature and then a fully animated feature. Linklater explains, "I don't really divorce the processes. To me, there's this inherent overlap between the content of the film and the look of it."

For some people, the "look" of the film ranges anywhere between hypnotic to dizzying; and its disjointed story structure is received either as mildly bewildering, or as a welcomed intellectual relief from the typical formulaic plot.

Steve Brown, for one, was excited to see Waking Life, because it was something he had not seen before, visually, in a theatrical film. In clarifying his appreciation, Brown says, "Even though there is this goal [within schools] of trying to encourage new innovation and vision and approaches in animation, ... there is also this recognition that, no matter what developments may occur within the visual aspects of the medium, for it to connect with an audience, there still have to be almost 'traditional' elements of narrative and character."

In any storytelling, audiences need a way to relate to the characters on some level. Waking Life represents a kind of dichotomy for Brown, "Because on first glance, it seems to be somewhat non-narrative, or at least not a traditional narrative. But there is still an 'identification character' ... someone who took us through this journey, through this world; and that was important in terms of being able to experience and identify with the film. There was even sort of a classic conflict, which in a sense was introduced in the second act, where it became clear that the identification character was trapped within the dream state; there became this quest or goal to discover the way out of the dream state."

In all, unlike some moviegoers, Brown was a fan of the non-traditional nature of the film. "No matter how visually innovative or interesting something is, its real justification is in how well it supports the story ... how well it seems to 'plus' or work with whatever the basic narrative idea was. And, in this sense, the whole visual approach of the film was very effective in suggesting the idea of being within the dream state."

Animation as Myth

This, then, speaks to the real reason for animating anything, and serves as a rebuttal to those naysayers who believe that if a narrative can be filmed in live-action, then there is no purpose or justification in wanting to animate it.

"There are some holy moments, and then there are all the other moments that are not holy, right?"

Within Waking Life, there is a brief discussion of the "ontology of film" -- this notion of trying to capture moments of so-called reality; and our subsequent relationship, as an audience, with this effort. Indulging in a "holy moment," with thunderbolts, electricity and clouds surrounding the discussion on screen, we glimpse through the window of what animation uniquely allows for, in communicating ideas, experiences and understanding. Whereas live-action filmmaking oftentimes must depict a specific character with a specific look, in a specific environment, animation suggests, visually, a realm of absolute possibility. Animation retains an inexactness of feeling and representation, an "imaginative aspect," that we more usually associate or experience through literature.

The animation of Waking Life, without having to slavishly maintain continuity of line or character, echoes the dialogical contemplation of dreams, consciousness, identity and reality. The visuals of the film contribute thematically, suggesting that we are all, maybe, characters in a larger story, in a bigger dream, continually becoming and unbecoming.

Steve Brown compliments the film in its success of going beyond the live-action images that served as reference. He likes that each artist could move away from model sheets, and interpret the characters according to their own perspective. Brown observes, "It's not the normal physics that one thinks of in terms of animation, in terms of squash, stretch and other fluidity of movement ... but it seems appropriate to the film. There were certainly segments where you could almost see the film stock underneath the images; they looked very photographic in a way. But then there were other scenes, where [the artists] were willing to start with the photographic image, but then actually distort the forms, and really think about manipulating the shapes. That's much more in the spirit of animation; that, to me, took it beyond the idea of just rotoscoping."


An angry, red-hot, poker-in-the-eye diatribe, questioning freedom, justice and sanity.

This brings us, therefore, back to the original contention of whether Waking Life should be considered validly animation. Brown suggests, "People are too interested in defending the little piece of ground they have staked out. I wouldn't go so far as to say they feel threatened, but traditional animation needs to be challenged, and to rethink what it is doing, and what it wants to do. Student and professional animators, both, struggle with their own ideas of what animation is, and what it can be, and perhaps they need to think beyond the current commercial paradigm for what theatrical animation generally tends to be."

Bring It Home

Rotoscoping, of course, may not always be the most favored or flattering technique for an animator to pursue, but with Waking Life costing something on the order of $10 million to make, there are certainly arguments supporting it.

In terms of the availability of off-the-shelf technology which made this movie possible, "That's the democratization of the artform," Brown says, "taking it away from just a few powerful producers and opening it up to a much wider range of people." Given the ever-evolving nature of the industry, Brown fully advocates "bringing more fine artists, and people of that sensibility," into animation.

Paul Beck, in his own poetic way, agrees: "This stuff is becoming more available to average, everyday people, and we can do this shit, and make it interesting."

Nathan Jensen adds: "Now you can do so much with a $1500 machine in your home, without a lot of extra things."


"On especially romantic nights with myself, I like to go Salsa dancing with my confusion."

Steve Brown expands on this notion of an evolving and growing animation community: "I'm excited to know that there is this active animation going on in Austin, or really just outside of Hollywood in general. I think the whole digital evolution of art also means a decentralization. It's an exciting thing to think that maybe there are these nexuses of animation appearing in other areas besides within the industry; and probably that is where new ideas will come from -- fortunately or unfortunately -- outside of the traditional Hollywood film business."

Brown continues, musing, "Part of the reason the animation industry is in trouble is that people [audiences] are just being given the same old things all the time."

Inagro Lazarre, director of Creative Puzzle Development, which is hosting and showcasing some of the fine art of the animators who worked on Waking Life, says, "The hope and idea is to create commercial art that still maintains its artistic integrity."

Brown concludes, "I think we have to at least be open to seeing what is possible, especially with the economics of the market."

Gregory Singer is an independent animation producer and freelance writer. He currently resides in Los Angeles, California.