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‘Scanner’ turns live-action into animation

Could rotoscoping even give Keanu Reeves a personality?
/ Source: The Associated Press

With rotoscoping, anything can made animated, even Keanu Reeves.

It is this tracing animation that director Richard Linklater has again turned to — just as he did for his dreamy 2001 film “Waking Life” — for the new “A Scanner Darkly,” a faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1955 paranoid, futuristic novel.

In “A Scanner Darkly,” which opened in theaters Friday, Reeves and co-stars Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson are themselves, but also not. A viewer quickly recognizes their facial gestures, voice and manner, but they are instead colorful, two-dimensional representations.

This was accomplished using an animation technique called interpolated rotoscoping, specifically made with a program called Rotoshop designed by Bob Sabiston. Sabiston, who was the art director on “Waking Life,” has honed a process that transfers live-action footage into a painterly animation. (It is a patented software that Sabiston’s company, Flat Black Films, also used for those Charles Schwab commercials.)

For “A Scanner Darkly,” it took 50 animators 15 months to trace the film frame by frame — a painstaking process that progresses at a rate of roughly 500 man hours for every minute of screen time.

So why would Linklater go to the trouble? Why, again, make a movie twice?

“When we went out to talk to people, trying to get financing for the film, that was always the first question,” recalls producer Tommy Pallotta. “‘Why can’t we make this live-action? There’s not an audience for adult animation.”’

Scrambling to make ‘scramble suit’“A Scanner Darkly,” which cost about $9 million to make, began with Linklater filming — for the most part — just as he would any other movie. The 45-year-old director, who’s known for independent films such as “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused,” worked quickly and finished shooting in his hometown of Austin, Texas, after 24 days.

“Scanner” is one of the most famous novels by Dick, whose bleak sci-fi books are constantly adapted by Hollywood: “Total Recall,” “Minority Report” and “Blade Runner,” among them. It takes place in the near future, where a drug called Substance D is becoming an epidemic and the target of a broad police investigation.

Bob Arctor (Reeves) is an undercover cop who appears at police headquarters only in a “scramble suit” that constantly alters his appearance and keeps him anonymous to his boss. He’s assigned to investigate his drug-abusing friends — and in twisted turn, himself.

The difficulty of visually producing such a suit was one of the primary reasons for animating the film, though Linklater also believes the slightly futurist world is best represented as a slightly alternate reality.

“Film is so literal; it’s so real,” he says. “The pitch of the story really fits better in this off-kilter, one-step-closer-to-hallucination form. I think the bluntness of reality would have seemed a little off.”

Knowing the digital film would be transferred to animation, Linklater didn’t need to concern himself too much with lights or makeup.

“You don’t have to worry about the perfection of the image,” he says. “Any flaw in our production, we can just not animate.”

Once shot, the 100-minute movie was edited — but far from finished.

‘You’re just tracing’Sabiston, who remains credited as head of animation on “Scanner,” was to lead the digital adaptation from live-action to drawing. Soon, though, Pallotta and Linklater became concerned at a lack of consistency in the visual style, so instead, Pallotta managed the teams of animators.

Thus, the movie was made with Sabiston’s software, but without Sabiston. He and Pallotta, who had been friends and collaborators for years, now are not speaking.

Sabiston, though, remains perhaps the chief expert on this style of rotoscoping, which he first pursued to bring hand-drawn animation to the computer age. (Pen and paper rotoscoping has been practiced for decades, from Walt Disney’s 1937 “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” to the Norwegian band a-ha’s 1985 classic video for “Take on Me.”)

Sabiston often relies on local Austin artists with little animation experience — an approach that worked for the episodical “Waking Life,” but was a component of the difficulties with “Scanner.”

“The whole thing with rotoscoping is that you’re just tracing,” Sabiston says. “There’s hardly any making up of the motion, so really what you do need is painters and illustrators and people with really strong visual experience ... because the motion is all there in the video.”

Though Linklater says he has no plans to again pursue an animated feature after the long production of “A Scanner Darkly,” he remains a proponent of digital rotoscoping.

“This technique lends itself very well to the face and to the dialogue,” he says. “I found it kind of accentuates an actor’s features, their physicality.

“You can’t help but feel the 500-plus hours someone spent drawing that face.”