Animation brings life to 'Scanner Darkly'
by Bruce Kirkland
LOS ANGELES -- If you have seen Richard Linklater's Waking Life, you have a visual inkling of what you will experience in his new film, A Scanner Darkly.
But it still may blow your brains out.
Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly are both "painted" animations. Each was shot as a live-action film, but without the usual polished sets. Then each frame was painstakingly painted over using computers. Backgrounds, environments, props, clothing and even expressions were created or at least exaggerated. It took 500 hours of work by one animator to create one minute of finished film.
In the case of Scanner, you instantly know you are watching Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson and company on screen. But they are impressionistic cartoon characters, not quite themselves, as you see the complex sci-fi story about drug use, extreme paranoia and Big Brother government surveillance play itself out.
"It's not real, but it is real," Linklater says of the technique, which is a computerized variant of an old animation trick called rotoscoping. In the early days of hand-drawn cel animation, Walt Disney used rotoscoping to create the human figure of Snow White in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Animators traced over live action footage of an actress performing Ms. White's motions in the studio. In the more sophisticated, modern version that Linklater is using, everything everyone does on screen is processed through computers by the animators.
After doing Waking Life, Linklater realized he could finally bring the late futurist Philip K. Dick's novel A Scanner Darkly to the screen using this kind of animation. He had been obsessed with the book for two decades but could not imagine it as a conventional film.
But the animation technique he employs was perfect for the novel, Linklater says, "because Philip K. Dick is always asking, 'What is reality?' And this technique puts your brain the the right place to take in this particular story, because it seems real. You recognize these people. It sounds real. Their gestures are real. It seems like the real world.
"But it's not. It's this painted world. So it's probably the right kind of split-brain thing going on in your head as you watch. Hopefully, you just take it in as a movie and you care about the people in the same way, if not more, than you would in live action."
It was the content, not just the technique, that inspired Reeves to join the cast, in his case in dual roles. He plays a secret police interrogator and surveillance officer who works in disguise. He also is living in a household of lunatics who are under surveillance because of suspected drug use. As the story develops, Reeves begins to suspect himself as a possible drug abuser. In the film, it makes sense, sort of.
"I was really attracted to the material," Reeves says. "I think it's got a lot to offer -- cautionary commentary on the world that we live in. That was the grand inspiration. And, as a character, it is very interesting to play someone who wants to change their life."
Reeves, always a voracious reader, admires Dick, whose works include Blade Runner. "He tells great stories. I relate to the situations I find his characters in. I like his writing. He's funny. He's wickedly funny. I like the context ... situations that suddenly are not what they seem. He tells really good romantic stories. There is a kind of flesh and blood. People are greedy. People are angry. People are needy. People are scared. And I relate to the worlds that he creates."
Besides Blade Runner, Dick's writing has inspired films such as XXX.
Reeves claims A Scanner Darkly is "the first true adaption of a Philip K. Dick work. This is the best one."
Linklater, sitting with Reeves and Ryder for the interview session, is embarrassed by the accolade. "It's the most authentic to its source material," Linklater allows, "but I'm saying that doesn't necessarily translate to 'best' one."
"But it is!" Reeves insists.
Ryder agrees: "Yeah, it is. It's the best!"
With this mutual admiration society in full swing, Ryder admits the material is challenging, to say the least.
"I feel that, if we were making this movie forever, I don't think we would ever fully (understand it)," she says. "It was endless. It was really scary."
It was also her return to her career after the disgrace and notoriety of her bizarre conviction for shoplifting, a court case that turned into a media circus. For the interview session on Scanner, it is no accident that she is grouped with Reeves and Linklater, who are there to protect her. Publicists have already made it clear she will leave if any "personal questions" are asked -- an obvious reference to her past legal problems.
Indeed, Ryder does seem edgy, her voice wavering, as if waiting for something awful to happen. It doesn't. Reeves also protected her fragile sensibilities on set in Linklater's home town of Austin, Tex.
And nothing bad happened there, either. "I felt very safe," she says of working with Reeves for the first time since they shot Dracula together. "And Keanu helped me especially with the material, because it was very challenging."
In a separate interview about A Scanner Darkly, Reeves admits it will be difficult for audiences to figure out just what the actors did in the live action shoot, because the animation obscures some of it, correcting mistakes and creating the milieu and environments they live in. Viewers may not give the actors credit for the emotional work they did, for the gestures and expressions seen on screen, he says.
"And, you know what, I don't even care. I still find the film is an emotional film. I find it haunting and moving. I get goosebumps at the end of that movie all the time. So that's all that really matters, you know. If it's me or the animation, as long as people hopefully respond to it, then that's great."