Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 2 (Feb 2002)

Life Lines

By Barbara Robertson

Images © Fox Searchlight Pictures.

This month, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences announces the first three nominees for its new Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The nominees, selected from a list of nine eligible films, will vie for the first competitive Oscar to be awarded (on March 24) to a feature-length animation. The big bucks, of course, are on the two big box office winners, Disney/Pixar's Monsters, Inc. and Dreamworks/PDI's Shrek, both animated with 3D computer graphics and each of which earned well over $200 million in 2001. But the long shot is Waking Life, an independent film directed by Richard Linklater that earned a scant $2.54 million at the box office and won the New York Circle Critics' award in December for best animation. · Calling the film "the year's most important technical milestone," Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert put Waking Life in the number six spot on his list of the top 10 films of 2001, and the movie grabbed the number eight spot on the "Best of 2001" list from Harry Knowles on his Ain't It Cool News Web site.

Introduced at the Sundance Film Festival a year ago, with a theatrical release by Fox Searchlight Pictures in the fall, Waking Life is a film about a young man (played by actor Wiley Wiggins) who at tempts to discover whether he's asleep or awake, dead or alive, by asking questions of the 30-some people he happens across during the film's 90 minutes. Writes Ebert, "The movie is like a cold shower of bracing, clarifying ideas.... Few movies are more cheerful and alive. The people encountered by the dreamer in his journey are intoxicated by their ideas-deliriously verbal.... He encounters theories, beliefs, sanity, nuttiness. People try to explain what they believe, but he is overwhelmed until finally he is able to see that the answer is curiosity itself. To not have the answers is expected. To not ask the questions is a crime against your own mind."
Waking Life art director Bob Sabiston of Flat Black Films (Austin, TX) used his custom Rotoshop software to paint frames for this scene with Wiley Wiggins, the film's hero. The rotoscoping software can interpolate lines and shapes between frames.

Some people who played the roles of the musicians, students, college professors, street people, and others encountered by the hero were actors; many were friends and family of the filmmakers. The film was shot on location in Austin, New York, and San Antonio by a crew using consumer-level digital video cameras (Sony TRV900s and one PC1), edited using Apple's Final Cut Pro running on Macintosh computers, and then converted by 30 artists into what art director Bob Sabiston calls "paintings in motion." That conversion was accomplished with the help of so-called "interpolated rotoscoping" software developed by Sabiston. Writes Stephen Holden in the New York Times, October 12, "Mr. Linklater's stroke of brilliance is his application of this technique to an open-ended fable about perception itself. I can't imagine a more powerful visual metaphor for the suspension between waking and dreaming evoked by the movie than this surreal merging of photography and animation."

A graduate of MIT's Media Lab and an award-winning animator and filmmaker, Sabiston's first short animation, "Beat Dedica tion," was shown during Siggraph's Electronic Theater in 1988. In 1995, his short film "God's Little Monkey" garnered the lucrative PrixArs Electronica Golden Nica award. Both films were created with custom software. For "Beat Dedication," Sabiston drove a 3D robot character's animation with MIDI data. For "God's Little Monkey," using software that he and fellow MIT Media Lab students developed, he created and animated an angry little 2D girl within a mechanistic 3D world. In his statement for Ars Electronica, Sabiston wrote, "I spent the first six months of 1993 working on a finished version of the opening 'machine' sequence. At the end of that period, I was fairly disgusted with the amount of time it had taken me to do just one finished scene.... I abandoned the project until January of 1994, after I had had a chance to move to Austin, Texas, and work up some more enthusiasm for the damned thing."

Rather than continuing down that animation path, Sabiston began developing new software based on the idea of what he calls "interpolated rotoscoping." "I'd done plenty of hand-drawn and 3D animation, and I'd gotten totally burned out on it," he says. Moreover, he wanted to capture, in animation, the people that he had interviewed. Although animators often use videotaped actors as reference, Sabiston wanted to do more than that. "I wanted to get the exact twitches in their faces and the weird things that their eyes do," he says. Rotoscoping, which is the process of tracing, or outlining, images in a live-action film frame by frame to create a hand-drawn animation, seemed like a possibility for speeding up the process.
In this scene, Ethan Hawke muses to Julie Delpy, "A second of dream consciousness is infinitely longer than a waking second." Katy O'Connor, an artist who had previously created many large canvases of couples in bed, painted the characters and setting

Thus, Sabiston began creating software that would soon allow him to draw on frames in a QuickTime video. By adding interpolation, he eliminated the need to draw every line on every frame. "You can draw a line on one frame, skip forward a few frames and draw another, and [the program] will connect the lines," he explains. In 1997, the software, which he's dubbed "Rotoshop," allowed only black lines on a white background, but it enabled Sabiston to win an MTV-sponsored animation contest and subsequently create 25 interstitial spots with filmmaker Tommy Pallotta for the network. "It was almost an experiment to see how it would look," he says of the software at that stage.

Their work together at MTV inspired Sabiston and Pallotta, who would become a producer on Waking Life, to create the short film "Roadhead." Sabiston enlisted 12 Austin-based artists to help him animate the film, which was based on a series of random interviews that he and Pallotta shot on a road trip from New York City to Austin. "It was an experiment in democracy," he says. "I gave QuickTime clips to the artists and told them they could do everything they wanted." He promised not to change their work, and didn't. "We just slammed all [the animations] together and saw what they looked like." The result looked good enough for "Roadhead" to win the Best Animation award at the 1999 Aspen Film Festival and put Sabiston on the road to creating a new form of animation.

"I think of this as a new technique for doing visual art," Sabiston says. He believes the technique makes it possible to create an art form different from the Disney style of animation in which, he explains, "you make up cartoon characters from scratch, and then deal with weight and how the characters move through space." Indeed, according to Sabiston, the type of animation in Shrek and Monsters, Inc. is also a different art form than the Disney style of animation. "It's related more to puppetry," he says. "It's another school of animation, and that's clearly a good thing." He also notes that Disney has tried pushing the art of traditional animation as well with projects such as Atlantis. "I really respected Disney for making Atlantis," he says. "It's beautiful."

"For me, the problem with [these types of] animation is that they're so tedious. It's so much work that it's impossible to make a feature film and preserve the individuality of the artist," he says. "You need to have teams of people that work on the film in passes, and each person waters it down a little bit and adds their little thing."

Instead, as with "Roadhead," in each of the animation projects Sabiston has directed, each artist is able to develop and express his or her own style. "I think this is more than animation," Sabiston says. "I see it as a way to make interesting art. It's really an extension of painting into time."
Because the artists and animators would paint scenes in their own styles, Wiley's appearance changes as the movie progresses. Compare, for example, this version of Wiley painted by Mary Varn and Nathan Jensen with the Wiley painted by Sabiston on page

Following "Roadhead," Sabiston gave the vector-based software color, extended the interpolation to polygonal areas that could be filled in with color, and added layers. The first film to take advantage of the new, full-color Rotoshop was "Snack and Drink," a vibrant three-minute animation that used the same techniques as "Road head" to illustrate the story of an autistic child in a 7-Eleven store. This second collaboration between Sabiston and Pallotta, which earned Sabiston a second Ars Electronica award, is part of the permanent collection in the New York Museum of Modern Art. It also brought Sabiston and Pallotta together with Richard Linklater.

"Tommy [Pallotta] knew Rick [Linklater] from acting in his film Slacker," Sabiston says, "and he kept Rick up to date on what we were doing." The three filmmakers first tried to create and sell a TV series based on "Roadhead." Although that project didn't fly, Linklater let Pallotta and Sabiston move into his offices to work on their own PBS project, "Figures of Speech," which, like "Roadhead," featured a series of interviews animated by artists using Sabiston's Rotoshop software. "We knew we were all going to do something together," Sabiston says. "And while we were working on "Figures of Speech," Rick came to me with the script for Waking Life."

While Linklater's crew was shooting and editing Waking Life, Sabiston's crew finished the PBS project, and he began preparing for the feature film. He fine-tuned the line-drawing tools, adding an antialiasing line tool of varying width that could have different levels of transparencies, and added transparency to the filled areas. "Figures of Speech and "Snack and Drink" look like they were colored with crayons," he says. "All the shapes are bright solids. For Waking Life, if the artists wanted, they could get a watercolor effect and could get more sophisticated with the shading." He also made the software resolution-independent and created database management tools to help organize the ongoing project. And, he hired 15 more artists, bringing the staff of what had become known as Flat Black Films, to a total of 30 artists. "I tried to put together a team with a wide spectrum of art styles, from comic book illustrators to abstract expressionist painters," he says. "I wanted to find artists who were doing their own paintings and putting them up in coffee shops." He found them by putting up flyers, which is how he found his original crew.

"I was buying some art supplies at an art supply store and saw this quirky flyer on the wall," remembers Jennifer Drummond, who had moved to Austin from Mississippi after graduating with a bachelor's degree in fine arts. The flyer invited artists or illustrators to work on "Roadhead." "I have been working with them ever since," she says. Like most of the artists, she had no experience creating art on a computer and no animation training. "Most of the artists were painters," she says. "We didn't know anything about animation. I think that's what's interesting about these movies. We were free to approach the work in a different way. I felt like I was painting or illustrating."
Using Rotoshop with the live-action video, artist Jennifer Drummond started with backgrounds and then worked on characters, exaggerating or simplifying elements to enhance the story. Here, the character says, "Didn't I mention? The ongoing Wow is happ

For the earlier films, the characters were painted in a variety of styles-sometimes as many as 20 or more per character. For Waking Life, Linklater and Sabiston had artists work on complete scenes; the unique characters Wiley meets on his dream quest define each scene. Thus, each major character in the film is painted in a distinct style-except the main character, Wiley. "Wiley was drawn in different ways throughout the movie. It was as if he would take on the characteristics of the character he was talking to," says Drummond.

Sabiston knew right away that some scenes would be a good match for some artists-particularly, he remembers, the scene with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in bed, which reminded him of Katy O'Connor's huge paintings of couples in bed. For the most part, however, he let the artists pick what they wanted to work on. "We sat down with Rick and Bob, watched the video of the movie, and when something grabbed individual artists, they'd pick those scenes," Drummond explains. "Then we'd sit down and start experimenting with quick little animations or with still frames with colors we might want to use."

Working with a pressure-sensitive stylus and Wacom tablets, the artists moved back and forth among frames in the QuickTime files, which had been reduced to 12 frames per second (half the 24 fps of film) and drew on any of the frames-sometimes on every frame. "The interpolation comes into play when you want [the animation] to be smoother and when you can use it to save time," Sabiston says. "You might draw one or two eyebrows on the screen, then watch how they move," he explains. "You need to draw new ones, like key frames, only when the eyebrow in the video changes direction or speed or something."

Although the artists would follow the motion of the characters' lips and eyes fairly exactly, by changing the pen size, color, and transparency of the lines, they created various styles. They took more artistic license with other parts of the body and with backgrounds. "If an artist needed to do something to emphasize a motion, we would use the video as a template and exaggerate from that," says Drummond. "Especially in the scene with the professor when his hands fly out toward the screen and he looks rubbery. But we were more conservative than in Figures of Speech. In a lot of my personal animation, I would try to simplify what was going on."

For example, Drummond animated the "Tosca" scene, which was filled with violinists and dancers. "There were so many strings and hands and instruments, I had to simplify it," she says. "Other people might make their scenes more complicated."

For backgrounds, the artists used the digital equivalent of paper cutouts that they moved around in the frames. "You can position the shape on one frame, skip forward a few frames, position it again, and the computer can smoothly in terpolate it," says Sabiston.

Drummond applied this technique to good effect to create a graffiti-filled wall for a scene near the end of the film when Wiley kisses a girl. "I drew the whole wall with the graffiti and shoved it along as the camera panned down," she ex plains. As she shoved it along, she changed the size and shape of the wall to match the changing perspective.

Just as each artist had his or her own artistic style, each approached the work in a different way. "I liked to do the background first because that's how I would paint," Drummond says. "And then I'd come in and do maybe the shape of the head and the eyes. But it's such an individual thing. Bob usually does all the lines first and then colors everything in. Another artist would do the big shapes first and then do the lines."

Sabiston estimated that it took the artists between 140 and 200 hours to paint one minute of the film, and in all, nearly a year to complete the film. "The interpolation saves some time," he says, "but we were creating 12 paintings per second, so it's time-consuming."

Some of those paintings have already been exhibited in art shows. The resolution-independence of the vector-based software allowed Sabiston to make 300-dpi prints of stills from the movie that were 32 inches across for a gallery show in Los Angeles.

"I've read articles where people question whether Waking Life is true animation," Drummond says. "Well to me, it's very creative. It's as if we're taking what we feel from the video in the same way that a painter works from a photograph. We're looking at the video and we're drawing. I think each artist's own style comes through in the movie, and the viewers can see how creative it was."

Now that Waking Life is finished, Drummond is working with Sabiston on a short animation about the demo people in grocery stores who hand out samples. "Bob and I videotaped interviews about three years ago, and now I'm editing it and painting it," she says. She's also trying to persuade Sabiston to add more tools, such as an airbrush and smudging tools, to Rotoshop.

Sabiston is, in fact, adding tools. "Instead of having software that is complex visually and does a perfect antialiased line, I'm becoming conscious of how long it takes the computer to draw each frame and about being accurate about the time as you draw," he says. "I'm looking at manipulating images in real time like musical instruments."

It's all part of the same motivation that drove him to develop the interpolated rotoscoping software and to work on projects such as Waking Life in which artists can freely express their own ideas. Although he's been asked to sell his software, he hasn't made that commitment. "I like playing around with different little software things to experiment with using computer graphics to do painting in motion. I see this as a way to have people use the computer to make interesting visual art."

And if someone doesn't want to call it "real" animation? "That's just not an issue for me," he says.

Barbara Robertson is Senior Editor, West Coast, for Computer Graphics World.