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Waking Life and Liquid Caricature

Chris Lanier explores the purpose and meaning of caricature from its very inception to its latest use in the "rotoscoped" Waking Life.

Waking Life takes the viewer on a journey of dreams. All Waking Life images © 2002 Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Inc.

Waking Life takes the viewer on a journey of dreams. All Waking Life images © 2002 Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Inc.

Waking Life, directed by Richard Linklater, takes the viewer on a dreamer's journey -- the main character, unnamed but played by Wiley Wiggins, wanders through a series of dreams from which he cannot wake. Trapped in this oneiric net, he encounters a procession of characters who offer him their ideas on the nature of reality, identity, human communication and destiny (among a hodgepodge of other topics). Some of this is scripted, and some of the monologues are actually the pet theories and personal enthusiasms of non-actors brought before the camera. The original footage was shot on digital video, and then a team of artists were hired to animate over it, using software developed by Bob Sabiston. Through the animation, the characters are given a slippery dream-presence, sometimes to humorous effect, and sometimes to a more purely expressionistic effect.

Waking Life is a wildly digressive film, delighting in sidelines and the occasional enticing dead-end; along the margins of its journey it also manages to suggest several novel things about the nature of caricature, and the purely occult applications of that much-maligned animation technique, rotoscoping.

The art of the caricature first appeared in Agostino Carracci's

The art of the caricature first appeared in Agostino Carracci's "Sheet of Caricatures" (detail), 1594.

The use of caricature in Waking Life is very particular. Caricature is certainly nothing new to animation. One of the early staples of animation was the old "Hollywood party" cartoon, which only existed to parade a series of recognizable exaggerations: Groucho's oily moustache, Clark Gable's granite outcropping of forehead, Mae West's prehensile eyelashes, WC Field's swollen punchbag nose. Today we watch these famed ideographs rubbing elbows with lesser-knowns and second-stringers, who we're meant to recognize, but don't: placed beyond the ability to remind us of their origins, their physical exaggerations simply come off as rubbery deformities. Likewise, if they utter a once-beloved catchphrase, cut off from its original context, it just registers as a kind of cultural tourette's. (The spectacle of Hollywood strivers reduced, after death, to anonymous inked grotesques is enough, if dwelled upon, to give a case of the night-sweats.

Disney has increasingly carried celebrity caricature into their feature-length animation; though as one of the "extras" on the new Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs DVD reveals, it lies hidden at the very genesis. Staff artists sometimes turned toward celebrities to help them envision the qualities of the characters they were hoping to bring to life, and an early character design of Snow White was modeled on Zasu Pitts. [Although the artist didn't have Pitts' work with Erich Von Stroheim in mind. The drawing suggests an alternate universe where Snow White lies rolling on the Dwarves' beds, madly clutching a blanket of coins. While Pitts was abandoned as a "source" for Snow White, she did eventually make it into cartoons: her flustered comedic persona, with its fluttering hands and nervous voice, became the template for the animated version of Olive Oyl.]

More recently, Disney has moved from considering caricature as a source of inspiration to a mandate, modeling the character designs directly on their "name" voice actors. There's wit on display here, in the Hirshfeld-like desire to whittle the essence of a face down to its sparest lines. Though, unsurprisingly, this is wit inextricably entangled with the logic of marketing: if you pay the money for name voices, you want to make sure you can sell their celebrity. Celebrity is a kind of currency, and while a caricature is an expression of personality, it can also be "branding" -- the sublimate face as corporate logo.

We're such a celebrity-inundated culture that it may seem strange to speak of caricature outside the realm of fame and notoriety. Caricature has a number of modes outside of fame, however -- the caricature of definite, individual personalities was actually a late development, preceded by the caricature of "types," whether they be social, moral or racial.

And when the caricature of the individual did appear -- under the pen of the Italian Annibale Carracci, in the 1600s -- it first played on intimate physiognomies, not public ones. As the art historian E. H. Gombrich writes: "...the Italian caricature of the seventeenth century was a pastime for leisure hours only. The victims of such caricatures were not public heroes but friends of the studio, dilettanti and noblemen, enlightened enough to be flattered by these fruits of passing whim and gentle mockery."

While I have no way of knowing how many dilettanti and noblemen are on the roster of Waking Life, there are certainly many "friends of the studio;" people from the Austin film scene where Linklater made his name. In fact, the handful of performers in Waking Life who might be considered famous -- Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Steven Soderbergh -- are animated without being caricatured. The is no desire to use caricatures to play off the recognition of a wide audience, but simply to amplify and distil the subject's individualized personal traits; and in this narrow regard, at least, Waking Life is a new-tech throwback to personal caricature's infant studio days.

Caricature as it appears in Waking Life.

Caricature as it appears in Waking Life.

Also, when caricature is used in Waking Life, it's very different from the usual fixed stylization of caricatural animation: an effect as though the subject's facial features had been extended and abstracted into an articulated mask. Rather, the caricatures exist as flickering, shimmering indeterminacies. This is an effect achieved through a novel usage of rotoscope, which is also employed by the animators to caricature something more intangible than physiognomy: at times, Waking Life moves into a personalized caricature of motion.

Rotoscoping at its most basic is the tracing of a photographic image, projected onto animation paper or an animation cel, in order to create a series of animated frames. Bob Sabiston's process doesn't exactly use those analog configurations, but it still deals with the tracing of figures over a recorded image, and he himself has referred to it as a rotoscoping process.

While rotoscoping's initial use was met with praise -- critics found rotoscoped animation amazingly fluid and "realistic" -- it has since then been generally looked down upon. The most obvious reason for this is that it appears less "artistic;" the hand isn't creating something out of thin air, rather it's following the lead of a mechanical apparatus.

But there are artistic possibilities hidden in the act of tracing and rotoscoping has never been a purely mechanical process; it produces its own peculiar artifacts. Waking Life is the first animated feature to embrace those artifacts and actually compound them until they make up a coherent artistic vision.

Perhaps it's natural that some of the few instances of interesting rotoscoping come from the technique's inventors, the Fleischer Brothers. They first used the technique for their character Koko the Clown, a creepy smooth-faced Pierrot -- and a habitual fugitive from an artist's ink bottle. Koko would start each episode either by unscrewing the bottle's cap from the inside, or by congealing himself out of a puddle of tipped jet India. The jittery liquid quality of the rotoscoped sequences is reminiscent of the shimmery wobble of spilled ink, as if Koko, once spilled, can't stop spilling.

A rotoscoped Snow White appears less interesting visually than her dwarf friends. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

A rotoscoped Snow White appears less interesting visually than her dwarf friends. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Disney soon employed rotoscoping techniques for Snow White, to more distracting effect. The rotoscoped human characters in Snow White look like they come from a different universe than the Dwarves and animals and what's worse, a far less interesting universe. It's a perfect visual distillation of the problem that dogs most fairytales, where the main protagonists are usually far duller than the intriguing side-characters who fill out the world's corners. Even when the human characters in Snow White strain for expressiveness, they seem reigned in: the rotoscoping smoothes away some of the particularities that might have otherwise been gleaned from the faces and bodies of the actors. Everything that has been subtracted from the actors is present, in heightened form, in the plastic (and wholly animated) features of the Dwarves.

Max Fleischer considered suing Disney for patent violation, but soon found out that another company had actually created something similar to the rotoscope, prior to the Fleischer patent. Fleischer still might have been able to sue, as that company had never filed a patent itself. But perhaps he'd developed some karmic appreciation for buried antecedents and their claims on legality; the Fleischer studio had already dodged a suit brought against them by the singer Helen Kane, who claimed Betty Boop was a "wrongful appropriation" of her identity. In fact, Boop had been designed after Kane (making Boop a sort of caricature manqué), but Kane lost the case when it was discovered Kane's trademark "Boop-oop-a-doop" hadn't been coined by Kane at all; in fact, she'd apparently lifted it from a black singer, named Baby Esther.

The byways of transformation, appropriation and outright theft, knotted along the miscegenating lines of entertainment and race -- the sputtering black soul hidden under the gloss of a painted cel or a turn of phrase -- leads us back to another memorable Fleischer rotoscope: Cab Calloway's first immigration into the Boop universe. In "Minnie the Moocher," when Boop visits a ghostly underworld, Calloway appears in the guise of a ghost walrus, singing "Minnie" through his ectoplasmic ivory tusks. At first this might seem like a bit of early ethnic smuggling (like the contraband phraseology "kick the gong," stashed in an entertainment for bright-eyes kids, most of whom, we have to assume, had yet to be acquainted with an opium-pipe). Up to the present day, there's a tendency to "clothe" ethnicity under unsewn animal skins: The Little Mermaid couldn't have a real Jamaican in it, so the faux-patois had to issue from a hermit crab. Likewise, Eddie Murphy has now ventriloquized both a dragon and a donkey.

But "Minnie the Moocher" isn't an attempt to "mask" the race of the performer since the cartoon actually begins with live footage of Calloway and his orchestra. The hilarious, slithery, ineffably cool dance moves that Calloway exhibits here are the same steps copied for the bump and shuffle of the ghost (Calloway, for the record, reportedly fell off his chair laughing when he first saw his Walrusification).

Calloway's transmigration to animal form may've been an active mercy, considering the caricatural imperatives of the time. Louis Armstrong wasn't so lucky; in the Boop cartoon "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You," Louis appears as an African "native." As the title song begins, a spear-wielding African's head balloons, 'til it engulfs his body and floats into the air: the song is mouthed by a thick-lipped top-knotted cannibal-dirigible. This eventually melts away to superimposed footage of Armstrong's actual head, mugging and rolling his eyes in echo of the cartoon.

If Calloway had appeared as a cartoon black man, with saucer eyes and innertube lips, he would've seemed less human (and less himself) than as a spirit-Walrus. The caricature of race was so smothering at that point that the caricatural "type" was bound to overwhelm a caricature of individual personality. The cartoon African version of Armstrong's face (not rotoscoped, but animated outright) can't immediately, from its facial characteristics, be identified as Armstrong: it's just another assembly-line jigaboo rictus.

Does this minstrel mask give us clues to understanding the person underneath the image?

Does this minstrel mask give us clues to understanding the person underneath the image?

A sequence in Waking Life at first seems to skirt some of the bad old days of racial caricature. One of the monologists, Aklilu Gebrewald, is a black man, and the animator chooses to exaggerate the size of his eyes and the bright white sheen of his teeth. These are such keystones of the minstrel mask, at first it's as though the gates of race have closed over his face. But after a short while they seem like real expressions of personality; there is a warmth and openness to Gebrewald that the eyes and blinding smile seem to invite in. As you listen to him speak, in the few minutes he occupies the screen, his cartoon figure seems, paradoxically, a more genuine human presence than real-life footage of 7-Up shill and professional eye-bugger Orlando Jones.

Besides which, it's clear pretty early into Waking Life that eyes are key, both as a visual and philosophical touchstone. The way the animators use the rotoscoping software, they often isolate each facial feature from the others, setting them gliding on different planes and oscillations. In this facial ripple (as if each face were a puddle that a stone has been dropped into, sending eyes, nose and mouth drifting on separate concentric rings), the eyes most often take precedence. Sometimes they break the frame of the face, giving the jarring sense of an intelligence or spirit that's sprinted one step ahead of its body.

More often, the eyes loom larger than scale, expanding outward; perhaps this Americanized dilation can finally lay to rest the notion that the Sailor Moon-eyes in Japanese anime are some swoony admission of Occident-envy. It's merely an attempt to widen the portals to the soul.

The eyes are key to character development in Waking Life.

The eyes are key to character development in Waking Life.

It's a graphic simulation of the sensation that occurs when you're involved in an intense conversation with someone and the person's eyes take over their face. Across that bridge of sight, the eyes may not seem to grow physically larger -- but they do appear to drift closer (it's the feeling of proximity that gives the linguistic formulation of eye "contact"), while the rest of the face blurs into generalities.

One of the grounding vignettes in Waking Life takes place between independent filmmaker/performer Caveh Zahedi and a friend. Zahedi excitedly talks about the "holiness" of every moment, a "holiness" to which we're ordinarily oblivious (he speaks of this in connection with Bazin, who felt that in an attentive recording of the unscrolling moment, cinema could potentially have truck with the divine). After some windy gusts of theory, Zahedi finally has had enough of it and turns to praxis: he suggests he and his friend have a "holy moment" right here, right now. He stops speaking, and for several seconds, they simply look into each other's eyes. It's a wonderfully awkward, charged scene. The camera zooms in on Zahedi's looming, fixed pupils.

The filmmakers, the animators, the actors -- they all turn toward the eyes when they're hunting for spirit, for essence.

And isn't caricature, when all is said and done, about essence?

Carracci, according to Gombrich, offered an early defense of caricature, on grounds that its impulses were the same as those of the more refined, more "profound" arts:

"Is not the caricaturist's task exactly the same as the classical artist's? Both see the lasting truth beneath the surface of mere outward appearance. Both try to help nature accomplish its plan. The one may strive to visualize the perfect form and to realize it in his work, the other to grasp the perfect deformity, and thus reveal the very essence of a personality. A good caricature, like every work of art, is more true to life than reality itself."

It's interesting that here, the defense is still couched in purely negative terms: the "perfect deformity." It's certainly true that caricature is often employed to make the subject less human. But the apparent contradiction caricature is based on -- namely, that distortion can make something more itself -- is more fundamental than its application toward deformity. Hirshfeld, for instance, elevates his subjects as much as he kids them, making their iconic presence concrete, indelible. Hirshfeld, though, the great chronicler and mythologist of the stage and screen, is essentially capturing a performative mask. His caricatures rarely have that intimate sense that accrues to the characters in Waking Life, where the caricatures seem exploratory and provisional.

The simplified self can be a more intimate self, a more familiar self. The memories we have of people tend not to be photographic -- when we think of a close friend, we don't think of every pore and pimple, we can't enumerate every eyelash -- we have more of an essence, a refined caricature. This is the effect that is rendered on all the characters in Waking Life, even the ones that aren't exaggerated, the ones who are "captured" without the extravagances of caricature. We're given the memory of their form without the intercession of time -- as if memories could take place in present tense.

Our memories of people are refined caricatures, not photographic facts.

Our memories of people are refined caricatures, not photographic facts.

Like dream and like memory, the characters and the world they inhabit in Waking Life are constantly in flux. There is a jittery wobble that seems to arise from the rotoscope process: the accumulated imperfections between the eye, the hand and the rendering surface. It's a sense of inconstancy that worked well for Koko the clown, but which was ordinarily the bane of the rotoscoper's existence during the photochemical era of the technique. In Waking Life it's wholly embraced, and almost set on a pedestal of aesthetic principle. The caricature becomes a liquid caricature, with the physiognomic exaggerations erupting and then subsiding, almost as though these physical particularities were merely adjuncts to a deeper animating force.

A bravura sequence of animation in Waking Life is the monologue of Eamonn Healy, a professor and chemist who believes humanity is reaching a new stage of evolution, at the threshold of becoming the "neo-human." He talks excitedly, skipping from one thought to another, too rapidly to keep up with; his hands lunge out in explosive swipes at the air. The animator treats Healy's head and face like a restless blob of mercury, or a caffeinated amoebae, threatening to make some quantum evolutionary leap. His limbs swerve and snake beyond the limits of anatomy, stretching like rubber.

Any isolated frame of this sequence, if frozen, would make Healy look like a grotesque. But in motion, he actually appears intensely vibrant and alive. This moving caricature gets at Healy's living self, as both a body and an intellect: the restless wiggle of his figure, which seems always on the edge of mitosis, visually puns off Healy's idea that the next level of human evolution will be driven by the mind, rather than by purely physical processes. The animation allows him to become a figurative fulfillment of his own prophecy.

The expressive flow of gesture that rotoscoping is here used to capture, for the sake of artistic exaggeration, is very unlike the rehearsed gestures of Snow White. There, the gestures were coached beforehand, in order to match the plan of the animation: gesture was used to give form to a theatrical idea. The gestures express, but they don't reveal. The body and movements of Marjorie Belcher, the dancer and actress used as filmic reference for Snow White, were used as intermediaries -- placeholders between idea and execution.

Film captures gesture in a way no other medium can; the motion picture camera is the technology that has brought all the subtle nuances of gesture into the fold of artistic contemplation. The way the camera "notices" incremental movements and expressions has transformed the physicality of acting, moving it from melodrama that could be "read" from the back seats of the theater, to a more subdued naturalism (the most visible contemporary trace of the earlier, theatrical mode of acting is of course the cartoon, where the use of the emphatic still seems "natural").

The physical acting behind the rotoscope of Snow White stands at an interesting pivot-point. While that telegraphed, pantomime style was already well receding from the screen by 1937 -- brought about by a technology of vision that essentially magnifies small gestures, collapsing the space between the physicality of the performer and the eye of the audience -- Belcher was being coached to push her style in the opposite direction, back toward the emphatic, so that it wouldn't clash too much with its cartoon environment. So the camera-eye is both destroying a mode of acting, and being used to project that mode of acting into a reinvigorated art. Rushing forward and backward at once, old styles are meeting with new forms, turning on the fulcrum of the rotoscope.

(If this seems a too coldly technical eye to put on the use of motion in film, consider that the rise of caricature as an art form was facilitated partly by technical means: it was the rise of etching that allowed the reproduction of the fine, light linework that best abetted caricatural wit. The line engraving that preceded etching was too stiff and formal to support such tossed-off fancy.)

Both the animated gestures of Snow White and Eamonn Healy can be understood as caricatures of motion. The first is analogous to the caricature of "types;" the distortion of gesture doesn't reveal anything of the essence of the individual performer, rather it amplifies emotional states. It is meant to evoke qualities, not personality. The latter example is nothing but personality.

The kind of gestures Waking Life pays such heightened attention to are usually noticed, in ordinary film, at the margins of performance. But in Waking Life, the revelatory qualities of gesture are nearly the whole film itself. It is a movie that repeatedly asks: What is identity? What is self? It offers no final answer except the evanescent, living dance of forms, expressions and gestures -- quivering over the surface of a dream, like a skin of colors stretched across the spheral screen of a bubble.

Perhaps this is part of the eerie magnetism of the spectral Walrus. Calloway himself has gone to the boneyard. By capturing Calloway's idiosyncratic dance (not only has no Walrus ever danced that way -- no other human being has), that rotoscoped trace -- emanating yet also isolated from his body -- captures some mirror ricochet of his soul.

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