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The Sky’s Not the Limit in Richard Linklater’s ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’

The famed director talks about his return to animation and how he captured his childhood and the country’s optimism surrounding NASA’s quest for the Moon in his new animated feature, debuting today on Netflix.

In 2001, about ten years after he first came to attention with the now classic films Slacker and Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater made Waking Life, an ambitious and aesthetically innovative animated feature that used rotoscoping to create a dreamlike environment. Five years later, he used the same technique in A Scanner Darkly, a critically acclaimed sci-fi film based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name.

Now, after many more films – including the Academy Award-nominated Before Midnight – and some recent TV work, Linklater has returned to animation for his new feature, Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, which premieres globally on Netflix today. Inspired by events in the filmmaker’s own life, Apollo 10½ tells the story of the first moon landing in the summer of 1969 from two interwoven perspectives – the astronaut and mission control view of the triumphant moment, and through the eyes of a ten-and-a-half-year-old boy growing up in Houston, Texas. Part coming-of-age film, part social commentary, and part outer space adventure, Apollo 10½ is a compelling and entertaining snapshot of American life in the 1960s, a time of great optimism about the technological future of our world.

While, like the earlier films, Apollo 10½ employs rotoscoping to create some of its distinctive visuals, it also incorporates a significant amount of 2D painted backgrounds and effects layered into CG environments to achieve its hand-made scrapbook look.

“It's really a 2.5D production process, which means it's basically 2D elements within a 3D environment,” says producer and head of animation Tommy Pallotta. “It was very important for us that the look feel out of time, not like it came out today. Rick and I discovered that we both loved the look of Kodachrome film, and that our memories of that era had a Kodachrome feel. So, the challenge was capturing that depth and emotion of that process using digital tools.”

To learn more about the film’s genesis and production – and in particular what it was like to be getting back into animation after so much time – we spoke with Linklater about Apollo 10½, his return to animation, and his exploration of a very different time in American life.

AWN: When you were first considering making a film about your childhood and Apollo 11, were you also thinking that it was time to do something animated?

Richard Linklater: No, to me it always starts with the story. I think that's what a director does. I use all that processing time. It’s like, how should the story look? What's the right visual feel for it? And I spent years thinking about this one, and it wasn't quite working. And this has happened before, where I had a film in my head that wasn't working, and then, when I jumped to animation, it was like, “Oh, now it works.” I'm just blessed to have animation on my palette as a storytelling technique.

But the interesting thing is that I was really thinking of this as a live-action shoot because I wanted to incorporate documentary elements. A lot of that live-action found its way into the animated film – newsreels and scratchy footage. It's a mashup of techniques, obviously, but once it was animated in my head – once it was in that part of the brain that is imaginative and creative – then the whole story worked, and I never questioned it from that point on. And, damn it, a few years and hundreds of thousands of hours and 150 animators working around the world later, here it is.

AWN: There’s a lot of disagreement in animation circles about rotoscoping – whether it's really animation, or that somehow it's like cheating. Does that ever bother you or do you not worry about it?

RL: Sure it bothers me, if only because it's disrespectful to the people who spent so many thousands of hours creating it. I think the people who say that think there's some kind of filter that you just run your footage through and it spits it out. I challenge anyone to produce a one-minute piece the way we made this film and come back and tell us it wasn't an animated adventure. That's just crazy.

To me, it's the most natural thing in the world to want to replicate exact human gestures and movements. I think that's where a lot of animation comes up short. So, for me, it’s a way to capture the realism I'm going for. But, that said, this is a lot less of a rotoscope movie than my other two films. It's really a fully animated film.

AWN: Where did you get the inspiration for the mashup of styles and what did it provide you as a storyteller?

RL: It was really just about the different kinds of graphic looks we could get. We had newsreel footage, so we had a certain style for that. Then there’s what we're recreating on TV, and there's also a kind of home-movie look. And then we have this fantasy – all of the NASA stuff is technically a fantasy, yet it's very exacting. The live-action domestic life is very different from the NASA mission and the documentary elements. I don't know if documentary is even the right word – the non-fiction world within the fiction. There are a lot of layers and a lot of different color palettes. We spent a lot of time up front thinking about these things, but once we had our parallel tracks going, we knew it was right.

AWN: You’ve spent most of your career making live-action movies. How difficult is it for you to translate your skills, your style, and instincts, into an animated film?

RL: I don't mean to sound glib, but to me, it's really no different. It's just the same filmmaker brain trying to achieve a final result. You have to do different things to get to that result, but you previsualize all that. In the animated world, everything is much more precise. Every live-action shot is like a special effect, everything's designed to the inch. We're going to be dropping what we shoot into a very exacting environment that we've pre-planned, so you're kind of hemmed in. But you're still creating everything for the final result. You approach it in the same methodical way you would anything else. It's much more complicated, but at the end of the day, you're just telling a story.

AWN: What were the toughest parts of making this film? Were there specific things that presented unique challenges?

RL: That's a hard question in this case because I've never been more grateful to be making a movie, particularly once we edited and we were starting the animation. It was really a joy. In terms of complexity, it may have been recreating [the theme park] AstroWorld, where we didn't have a lot of reference materials and I was trying to communicate to animators in Amsterdam what the Black Dragon ride looked like... it was a challenge. But everyone worked so hard. I had to be very decisive and, if I didn’t like something, I had to be able to explain why. I know I couldn't have done this film years ago. I've become a much better communicator.

AWN: To conclude, can you talk a little about what inspired the film and where the story comes from?

RL: It was just my own perceptions as a kid. I was making the movie Boyhood in Houston, where I grew up, and I thought, “Oh, wait, I lived near NASA when I was a kid. What an interesting time to be a kid. We were walking on the moon. I was so excited about the space program and, God, you know what, come to think of it, that's never been topped.” I felt kind of chosen, and I wanted to try to communicate what it felt like. It was a very interesting moment in time to try to portray, just what it was like to be alive, to be a kid watching the moon landing on TV. The film sort of has it both ways, because it's that and it's also the NASA official version, based on transcriptions and transmissions. It's all pretty exact.

I just think the achievement of Apollo 11 and the Apollo program is such that people will be talking about it a thousand years from now, when humans left earth and went to another body in the solar system. That's a big deal in our own evolution as a species. And I lived through it. So leaving a little record of what it felt like to be alive then. I think that's what I'm trying to do in all my films – just record what it feels like to be alive, to be a human in a certain time and place.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.