Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 8 (Aug 2006)

On Edge


By Barbara Rebertson
Artists drawing over live-action footage 
 
It’s difficult to imagine a more finely drawn picture of the woozy world of drug addiction and paranoid hallucinations than the moving illustrations in Warner Independent Films’ A Scanner Darkly, based on a Philip K. Dick novel. The distorted backgrounds and twitchy characters in the rotoscoped animation reflect the characters’ blurred mental states and relationships.
 
Take the film’s lead character, for example, played by actor Keanu Reeves. He’s an undercover narc (Officer Fred) whose covert identity, Bob Arctor, becomes the subject of his own sting. When he’s Officer Fred, he wears a “scramble suit” that turns his image, as seen by others, into a constantly fluctuating amalgam of people—long-haired man, woman, and so forth. When he’s Bob, he’s himself, albeit a stoned, increasingly addicted version of himself. Bob imbibes too many purple “Substance D” pills, as do Bob’s druggie friends, James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), and Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder), who is also his supplier.
 
 
To create A Scanner Darkly, director Richard Linklater again applied the animation style he introduced to feature films with Waking Life: Artist-animators draw and paint over live-action footage and convert it into a slippery cartoon. The medium is the metaphor. Bob Sabiston’s Rotoshop animation software fueled the medium, as it did for Waking Life, and in the dual role of animation designer and head of animation, Sabiston helped lift the project off the ground.
 
Linklater shot A Scanner Darkly on location and on set with prosumer video cameras. Even though the crew shot the footage only as reference for animators, they     had sets built as they would if they were shooting a live-action film. “We had thought of using blank rooms with black outlines on the walls, but we opted to go with real sets,” says Sabiston. “The process picks up the real-life stuff, so Rick [Linklater] decided it would be better to have real sets with cool junk on the walls.”
 
While Linklater was filming, Sabiston prepared the way for postproduction by auditioning hundreds of animators and upgrading his vector- based painting software. “We looked for illustrators,” he says of the talent search, “people with a fine-line comic-book style.” Teams of four artists at a time spent four hours learning the software before demonstrating their skills during the audition.
 
Evan Cagle, a lead animator on A Scanner Darkly, survived this audition process, as did 30 others. Cagle, an Austin-based animator who had worked for game developers and on commercials, had experience with both 3D and 2D animation software, but not with Rotoshop. “The first auditions were about how fast we could pick up the software because [Rotoshop] is proprietary,” he says. “After that, it was showing our level of expertise in animation using the software.”
 
Sabiston’s first incarnation of Rotoshop was a program that could do interpolated lines. Next, he added polygons and multiple layers. More recently, to upgrade Rotoshop for A Scanner Darkly, Sabiston added features that helped the artists give the film a more coherent, detailed look than Waking Life (see “Life Lines,” February 2002). “This film had more sophisticated image elements,” he says.
 

To maintain consistency and optimize the work flow, theheads of animation and the animation leads worked with director Richard Linklater to createstyle guides for eachof the characters,including Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), aka Officer Fred, pictured here.
 
Artists working on Macintosh computers with Wacom tablets affect the weight and thickness of a line through the pressure and tilt of their pen. They can draw a line in one frame, step forward 10 frames or so, and see the line as a ghosted image in the last frame. When they draw a second line, the software connects the strokes, interpolating lines in-between. Any new lines inserted between the first and 10th frame become new keyframes.
 
To provide the artists with further line control for A Scanner Darkly, Sabiston upgraded Rotoshop so they could choose whether to use a smooth, highly filtered line, an accurate line that captured every hand tremor, or something in between. “The quality of the line work we could achieve with [Rotoshop] is unparalleled,” says Archer. “Before it sounds like I’m hawking Bob’s software, you should know it isn’t for sale, although God knows he could make a pretty penny from all of us. When you see one-offs with people doing the same sort of thing in Flash, the gig is up almost immediately. The line doesn’t have the same smoothness or nuance.”
 
In addition to improving line control, Sabiston gave the artists more control over image stability. “In Waking Life, a lot of the background objects bounced around and everything was disconnected,” Sabiston says. “That was because the software had only one way to interpolate things. So for Scanner, I added finite control of interpolation curves to give the artists manual control if they wanted it.”
 

Charles Freck (actor Rory Cochrane), a substance “D” addict, faces judgment day in a scene that
illustrates how the painterly style of A Scanner Darkly enhances the live-action content.
 
Sabiston also incorporated such features common to image editing programs as color gradients and masking. With masking, artists could delineate an area on one layer and fill it with elements from other layers, a technique that helped them more easily add shadows. “I’m progressing toward a full-featured paint program,” Sabiston says, “but one that works in time.”  
 
But, Sabiston is also progressing beyond paint programs. With a new warping tool, artists could more quickly handle problems inherent in translating 3D camera moves into sequences of 2D images. If a camera swung around the front of a building, for example, the artists could drag points and stretch the image to match the changing perspective. Another new tool that Sabiston calls “true underdraw” helped meet the particular needs of rotoscoping animators. “In most paint programs, you pile paint on top of paint,” he explains. “You fill in the background and paint on top. But if you’re rotoscoping, that’s awkward.” If an artist colors a face, for example, the color hides the details of the face in the video image. With underdraw, though, the painter could work backwards— drawing an eyebrow and eyelids and filling in the color beneath—all on one layer. “It saves steps and is a more natural work flow,” Sabiston says. “The artists don’t have to turn off a layer and make a new layer.”
 
The Dream Begins
The artists began with a final cut of live-action footage that incorporated visual effects. “We edited the film on an Avid Adrenaline system, just like a live-action show,” says Richard Gordoa, visual effects supervisor. Effects included surveillance footage, highway scenes composited into backgrounds, set extensions built in Autodesk’s Maya, and so forth.
 
The surveillance shots were among the most complicated. In these shots, Officer Fred (Reeves) and other agents, all wearing scramble suits, sit in front of monitors that play footage from several scanners. Sometimes all we see is Reeves staring at a bank of monitors on his desktop, but in many shots, we can see other scramble-suited agents sitting at their monitor- laden desks or walking in the background. Rather than give animators one live-action plate with the scanner footage already inserted into the monitors, the effects crew provided separate elements and composited the painted footage into the scenes later using Adobe’s After Effects.
 

At top, Officer Fred (Keanu Reeves) watches the scanner footage of
Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) and his friends. Compositors inserted the
footage, animated separately, into the final frames. Middle, Officer
Fred’s deteriorating mental condition is evaluated by the doctors
Medical Deputies 1 and 2 (Chamblee Ferguson and Angela Rawna).
At bottom, Bob Arctor with his girlfriend and drug supplier, Donna
Hawthorne (Winona Ryder). Some artists became adept at using
delicate lines to preserve Ryder’s femininity.

Most of the shots, however, were cleaned up and composited before reaching the artists. “The animators tended to be loyal to what was on the reference footage,” says Gordoa. “Unless you specifically told them to eliminate wiring, a piece of a crane, or a light, they might put it into the final shot.”
 
Director of photography Shane Kelly color-graded the plates, before the animators worked with them, using Synthetic Aperture’s Color Finesse, an After Effects plug-in. The effects team separated the footage from the color-graded plates into layers— foreground, background, and so forth, scaled the footage up to HD resolution, and moved the layers, linked together in QuickTime, into Rotoshop. “This allowed the animators to step through the layers to trace any element in the composite,” says Gordoa. “And, the scaled-up HD resolution gave them bigger pictures to look at.” The scaling didn’t need to be perfect; artists used the footage only as reference.    
 
Timing is Everything
Cagle, for example, started by drawing rough outlines on the raw footage. “The rough outlines gave me a sense of the movement and spacing of keyframes,” he says. “I wanted to nail the timing of the thing. Then, I’d go in and build up the drawing from the line work step by step.” Cagle continued adding detail until he was happy with the way in which he had fleshed out the line rendering of the elements, and then he began filling the elements with color.
 
Jason Archer, who joined the production in process as a head of animation with his partner, Paul Beck, organized the animation team, which had grown to around 50, into five groups. “Four of the teams had around eight animators, and the scramble-suit team had roughly 18,” he recalls.
 

Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) messes with Freck’s drug-addled mind. To handle the film’s sophisticated
imagery, Bob Sabiston added line control and other features to his Rotoshop software.
 
The scramble-suit team had three times more animators because for each suit, the artists needed to create three different characters. “Say that I had a piece of folded paper with half of someone’s face,” Archer explains. “Then, I turned it over and handed it to someone else. They drew the other half. So when you opened it up, it looked totally asymmetrical.” To create the ever-changing appearance of a person wearing a scramble suit, the animators did the digital equivalent. They faded parts of three characters in and out every 30 frames, changing opacities to make the transitions subtle and retain a slight hint of the underlying character wearing the suit. The trick, for the animators, was in being careful that the scramble suit never revealed the person underneath.
 
With the exception of the scramble-suit team, each group of animators tended to follow a scene through production, although some animators specialized in particular characters or types of backgrounds. “Only a few people could get Winona Ryder’s look,” Archer says. “It took delicate lines to make her look feminine and beautiful.”
 
To help the animators maintain consistency for the characters and scenes, and to optimize the work flow, Archer, Beck, and the lead animators worked with Linklater to create style guides that helped the crew stay “on model” and preserve the actors’ look while interpreting the performances artistically. “We wanted to make the characters recognizable,” Archer says. “One of the big problems throughout the animation process had been Keanu’s beard. Sometimes it looked like it just sat on his face. Also, in some scenes Woody Harrelson looked like Popeye.”
 
Although the software interpolated lines between keyframes, the artists still painted on most of the frames. “You don’t get as much of a free ride as you’d like,” says Gordoa. “You might set two keyframes and get lucky, but if your element changes in every frame, your keyframes don’t work so well.”
 
In fact, it was a painstaking process. Cagle, for example, led a team that worked almost exclusively on Room 203. In that room, two doctors would evaluate Officer Fred’s progressively unstable mental state. “It was quite an experience being stuck in the room with two crazy doctors and Keanu for over a year,” says Cagle. “But, that’s animation—the perfect marriage of tedium and artistry. Like all animation, it requires a great deal of patience. You can’t turn off and turn into an automaton. Some days are tedious, others are absolutely fascinating.” Although the process is different from other forms of animation, Cagle believes it has helped him become a better animator. “It may seem something of a cheat, rotoscoping, but it really does inform your view of how things move and how things should move to look right, so that was a great help with my timing,” he says.
 
The result is different from other forms of animation, as well—by design. “This is a good example of the type of movie I like to see the software used for,” says Sabiston. “We’ve all seen enough talking-animal movies for a little while.”
 
Indeed. With such films as A Scanner Darkly and Columbia Pictures’ Monster House, we’re seeing another step in the evolution of US animation as it bursts free from the constraints of family comedy.
 

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at BarbaraRR@comcast.net.
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