Waking Up from Cinema

By Richard Wright

waking-life-richard-linklater-1.jpgWaking Life, Richard Linklater, 2002 © C20 Fox Film Corp.

Dream and reality blur in fruitful ways in two recent feature animations

When director Richard Linklater was pitching the idea for his first animated film Waking Life (2002), he wanted to show some studio executives the different logic that operated in the dream state. Every dream explorer knows that the way to test if you are dreaming is to switch the lights off. If the light stays on then you must be dreaming. Linklater got up from the meeting and switched off the lights of the board room. The lights stayed on. Unknown to him the lighting circuit in the building had recently been rewired and some of the switches had been disconnected. Perhaps the separation of dream and reality requires a greater effort than it once did.

Waking Life is a simple talking heads film about a young man (played by Wiley Wiggins) who finds himself in a dream world from which he cannot awaken. On the way he meets a succession of professors, raconteurs and café philosophers who wax lyrical on themes of human consciousness, free will and identity and seem to offer the protagonist a variety of perspectives on the problem of reconciling the inner self with the world external to it. By the end of the film it is suggested that Wiggins’ subjective experiences are a dream he has created due to his resistance to the fact that he is dead.

waking-life-richard-linklater-2..jpgWaking Life, Richard Linklater, 2002 © C20 Fox Film Corp. 

But the real substance of Waking Life lies not in the pop-philosophy ruminations of Linklater’s own brand of Texan Existentialism, but in the fact that the entire film has been animated from DV video. It is this process whereby each live action scene is given to an animator to recreate that gives the film its intended look of ‘realistic unreality’, as Linklater puts it. Using Bob Sabiston’s rotoscoping software, the animators are able to redraw each scene element or character – delineate them, re-colour them and separate them out into independent layers. The result is a flattened, sketched, elastic world of shapes dependent on the individual styles of each of the 30 or so animators. Sometimes appearing like sketchpad drawings, sometimes super-realistic paintings, comic strips, lino prints or graffiti art, each scene element is also animated on an individual layer to mimic the hand-held camera style. Combined with the effects of the shape-interpolating software, this creates the appearance of the screen breaking up into a number of gently floating, stretching and undulating planes. The film’s surface plays like a collection of life’s jetsam bobbing up and down on the surface of a river as it is carried away past our eyes.

As well as redrawing the video footage, each animator is encouraged to add their own interpretations to the scenes. Thus, a professor talking about a human being as a bag of water himself fills up with liquid; two people trying to achieve Bazin’s ‘Holy Moment’ turn into clouds; a lecturer is portrayed as his favourite animal – a chimpanzee. Although relatively unorthodox, these animated extrapolations are little more than whimsical asides. The strongest effect occurs when, while watching the film as an animated cartoon, you suddenly notice nuances of behaviour that betray its live action roots. The unexpected fluidity of a character skipping down the steps, a squint, shrug or incidental hand gesture, the glint of a passing reflection on glass, an enigmatic expression or change in someone’s eyes can create a kind of puncture through the perceptual continuity of the animated surface. All the little ticks, hesitations and detailed shading that an animator would never get time to include in an exclusively animated film suddenly key you into another world. The film begins to read like a dream in which we periodically attain glimpses of reality forcing its way through.

waking-life-richard-linklater-3.jpgWaking Life, Richard Linklater, 2002 © C20 Fox Film Corp. 

Waking Life achieves a material representation of the current trend towards the inter-penetration of reality and fantasy, which is observable in a more narrative form in many special effects films. A useful comparison is with Hironobu Sakaguchi’s computer-animated feature Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2002). The film’s main distinction is that it is the first animated feature to be entirely depicted in live action cinematic “realism". Here the intention is to convince the viewer that the synthetic actors, hi-tech urban metropolis and fabulous creatures are as “naturalistic” a representation of live-action business as damnit. Waking Life and Final Fantasy both follow analogous production processes but employ different technologies and pursue different aesthetic aims. Yet the results introduce a related tension between the perceptual modes offered.

The story behind Final Fantasy is as maddeningly convoluted as the process of its visual construction. A testament to the Japanese love of recklessly combining elements of mythology, sci-fi and the supernatural, it leads into a narrative of dream-like divergence and fragmentation. To give a brief flavour, Earth has been invaded by alien ‘phantoms’ that arrive on a meteor. However, it turns out that they are not invaders but alien ghosts, trapped in a violent purgatory, which feed on the souls of the living. Protagonist Aki is ‘inflected’ with a phantom, and her only hope is to find eight ‘spirits’ who can release a ‘wave’ of ‘bio-etheric’ energy that can ‘heal’ the alien ‘proto-phantom’ using Earth’s own Gaia life force and thus also save the planet. The only clues ‘explaining’ all this reside in Aki’s recurring dreams.

Although Final Fantasy is entirely computer-generated and contains no direct visual trace of the live-action world in the resultant image, its animated origins are similar to Waking Life. For a start, about half of it is derived from motion capture, the technique whereby actors play the scene while sensors record the motion of their bodily extremities. This is then used to animate a computer-modelled character, much like a form of puppetry. But because motion capture is not very detailed, the computer animators also rely on video recordings of the voice actors to reproduce the subtleties of their facial expressions. A computer-animated character can therefore be animated from data recorded by the motion capture of one actor, whilst talking with the voice and facial expressions of another actor modified as necessary, whilst wearing clothes procedurally simulated and sculpted by another animator, at the same time as dodging an explosion created by simulated laws of physics; and all this against a digitally hand-painted landscape.

There was once a time when it was assumed that 3D computer animation would soon be able completely to recreate a live-action scene, to recalculate and replace the physical world with a virtual version. But what is actually developing is an emerging aesthetic that articulates the tension between the two. As in Waking Life, there are many occasions in Final Fantasy when one becomes uncomfortably aware that a character clambering over some rubble is moving too smoothly and subtly to have been entirely animated by hand or computer. Equally, sometimes the lighting and texturing on a face seems so close to human flesh that for one startling moment it appears that the dead have come back to life. Once again it is as though the synthetic surface of the film fantasy has been momentarily punctured by the real although, in the case of Final Fantasy, this ‘real’ is not quite the same.

Even though there are sequences in Final Fantasy that are unnervingly realistic, that quality is always seen in terms of mimicking the ‘realism’ of mainstream live action cinema, which was the stated goal of the filmmakers. This tendency to copy the realistic styles and conventions of other media is one of the defining characteristics of computer-generated imagery, according to theorists like Andy Darley. For instance, although there is nothing to stop the filmmakers from designing the most elaborate and daring virtual camera moves, the camera motion is really quite conservative. The directors state that they were deliberately constraining the camera to the cinematic style of the ’70s and ’80s: no DV style ‘shaky cam’ here. In the same vein, the design of the vehicles, props and sets was toned down so as not to detract from the centrality of the characters, as is demanded in the conventional action film.

final-fantasy-hironobu-sakaguchi.jpgFinal Fantasy: The Sprits Within, Hironobu Sakaguchi, 2002, © FFFP

In this way, Final Fantasy slips in and out of different styles of ‘realism’ – from Manga comic book styles to fantasy art to cinematic narrative realism. On the other hand, Waking Life gives the impression that some external presence is breaking through the animated exterior like the cold light of day. This is not to imply that the production processes of DV video are more ‘real’ than the Hollywood action movie, but that the stylistic distance between the animated treatments of Waking Life and its live-action foundation opens up a kind of perceptual axis which allows the reality effect to achieve greater impact. In Final Fantasy, this axis has far more dimensions and the result is that the reality effect seems more confined to the surface – to the slippery interplay between the cinematography of the action movie, mange, marionette animation and digital scenography. Its juxtaposition of familiar realistic styles operates within a relatively closed intertextual system, while the styles of Waking Life are less easy to recognise and therefore appear juxtaposed by their proximity from reality itself.

Waking Life takes place entirely within the dream world, but a world whose appearances are engaged in a constant struggle, teasing us with the possibility that there is a ‘live’ world beyond it that cannot be directly defined and portrayed. In Waking Life, Wiggins’ differently styled narrative encounters are just ruses to disguise the fact that his subjectivity is an illusion and he should just ‘wake up’ from this animated everyday world. The film unites the dream world as a world of difference. Final Fantasy narratively separates dream and reality but without a perceptible difference. There is no visual distinction between Aki’s dream sequences and her waking sequences – they are both portrayed using the same carefully coded stylistic conventions. So what can she ‘wake up’ to? What lies beyond the dream world of the carefully preserved stylistic conventions of reality cinema?

This article was based on research supported by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board.