Ask animators about interpolated rotoscoping – an animation technique involving drawn images being added to live-action footage in post-production – and be prepared for venomous replies. Some animators may tell you that the results are cheating: the animator simply gets to ornament a pre-existing image, creating a beautiful but lazy hybrid of film, computer graphics and cartoons.
Waking Life (2001), Richard ‘Slacker’ Linklater’s first rotoscoped film, evinces no such fear of charlatanism. Working with computer animator Bob Sabiston, Linklater involved 31 animation artists in the ‘interpretation’ of Waking Life’s individual characters, endowing each with signature colours and objects. The result is lustrous, unreal and brazenly original. There’s an art-chick succubus with a coiling, Medusa-like head of red hair that seems to be wriggling off of her skull; a cult filmmaker, whose constantly gesticulating hands shoot lightening bolts; and an intense countercultural icon whose pupils spiral so maniacally that his eyes seem ready to explode. You get the sense that you are in a world slightly more heightened than our own.
Set in Linklater’s terra firma of Austin, Texas, the film’s narrative is not particularly original. Its minimal plot involves a young man who resembles Keanu Reeves in his salad days. Our passive, shambling hero (Dazed and Confused’s Wiley Wiggins), cuts a stoner’s swathe through the small city and is involved in 40 encounters with a range of kindly freaks. A man in a boat-car discusses Existentialism. Another insists on recollecting Andre Bazin’s theory of film and Christianity. Still another wishes to explain quantum physics. Even Steven Soderbergh shows up, quoting Louis Malle’s conversation with Billy Wilder, in which he told Wilder that his new film is ‘a dream within a dream’ (Wilder is said to have responded: ‘You’ve just lost two million bucks’).
But thanks to Waking Life’s ornate animation, the film is more than a retarded retread of Slacker culture: with its sublime visual vernacular it is also an oblique discussion of digital film subsuming analogue. In a growing number of Hollywood (as well as independent) films, the spectator’s expectation of material truthfulness – having a ‘real’ physical referent behind the make-believe that is every analogue fiction film – is now severely challenged. The anxiety over what it means to make a film in which an image of a feather or a plane crash, or even ‘historical’ footage, looks ‘real’ but has in truth been manipulated or constructed wholesale, is palpable in every new feature where computer-generated effects are prominent, from Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace (1999) to Cast Away (2000). Waking Life, however, is clever enough to take this anxiety as its theme. The film’s monologues revolve around whether the town’s wise men and women are asleep or awake, alive or dead, human beings or dramatis personae, and these oppositions stem from the film’s polarity between live-action film and computer-generated characters.
Unfortunately, the characters’ discussions about their own dematerialization are usually a bit trite. Just try caring when Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, enhanced to look even more beautiful than they do in the ordinary world, chat in bed about rebirth and the collective unconscious. After a while, even the well-meaning metaphysics of the non-celebrity characters sounds like drivel, the twitterings of bright high school students with too much time on their hands. Yet, even though Waking Life’s spoken revelations are not as profound as Linklater might have hoped, the film’s visual language manages to achieve a kind of epiphany. The twilight visual mode fills the gaps its loopy conversants can’t: the space between waking and dreaming, mundanity and ecstasy, celluloid and the digital.