Animators put Keanu in a 'rotoscoped world'
by Roger Moore
Keanu Reeves' beard "was just a disaster to try and animate," says Sterling Allen.
The 25-year-old lead animator found himself pulling out his own hair as he and the other animators tried to master the Keanu stubble for Richard Linklater's new film, "A Scanner Darkly."
"It's not a full beard, so you can't animate these big chunks of the frame," Allen says. "You can't draw in the individual hairs. We actually had a 'beard team' that came in and cleaned up his beard in every shot in the movie."
Linklater, the Austin filmmaker, director of "Before Sunrise" and "School of Rock," fell in love with animation when making 2001's "Waking Life." He made "A Scanner Darkly" the same way. It's a sci-fi film that uses real actors, shot on real locations, which are then painted over. Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson all look like themselves - cartoon versions of themselves, with heightened colors and stylized movements. That's where animators such as Allen came in.
The technique is called "digital rotoscoping" or "interpolated rotoscoping." A film is shot, usually on digital video, and it is then turned into an animated movie, with the help of artists playing around with colors, movement and effects - and computers.
"If you draw a line on frame one of a shot, and jump ahead and draw another line on frame ten, the computer interpolates the eight frames in between, filling in the movement and everything," Allen explains.
While rotoscoping - the act of painting over frames of celluloid to turn conventional film into an animated movie - has been around for years (remember Ralph Bakshi's "Lord of the Rings," or "Cool World") - the computer has truly revolutionized the process, Allen says.
"The budget on this film was tiny, like $8.5 million," he says. "We could never have animated it doing it hand-drawn for that little. This software speeds up the process so much, because you're paying attention to every frame, but you don't necessarily have to draw each single line for each single frame.
"For instance, I'm talking right now. If we were animating me, my mouth would get a lot more key (human drawn) frames, but my shoulders won't be drawn every frame. You can let the computer do 39 out of every 40 frames. And by letting the computer do it, you don't get that jittery rotoscoping feel. It's smooth, lifelike."
Allen, an Austin fine artist, had never done animation before hooking up with Linklater. He described the software, called ColorEngine or RotoShop, as "very easy to learn. If you can draw, your learning curve will be really steep, and it allows you to make an animated film with just a very few people."
Plus, he adds, "It looks really cool. The movie (based on a Philip K. Dick novel about the human cost of drugs and the war on drugs) is sci-fi, but it doesn't have a lot of sci-fi elements. Just this 'scramble suit' (an electronic disguise gadget), and things like that. You can't pull those elements off without them being cheesy without animation.
"The animation puts you in a different reality, a rotoscoped world, and it allows you to pull off things like the scramble suit, make them believable. The animation allows you to get into the characters' altered states, too. You get their paranoia, that uneasiness, as if you're on drugs, like they are. Hallucinations come off beautifully using this."
Where "Waking Life," Linklater's earlier foray into rotoscoping, was a dream trip, "A Scanner Darkly" mimics a drug trip.
Linklater has said he used 50 animators, working on home PCs, putting in roughly 500 man-hours per minute of finished film for the movie. Critics have largely praised the film as "a mind bender" (USA Today) and "visionary head trip" (Rolling Stone). But this animation style is not for everybody, Allen admits.
"Even I notice that when you blow the movie up for the big screen, it's harder on the eyes," Allen says. "Watching as you're making it on monitor is one thing. Seeing it on a TV screen will be easier on some people than seeing it in a theater."