A dialogue-driven, full-length animated film exploring the philosophical depths of our dreaming state sounds esoteric at best. That such a project could actually appeal to the masses seems nothing short of delusional.
But “Waking Life” is such a film.
Writer/director Richard Linklater conceived of a new direction in animation. Teaming up with Bob Sabiston, who developed a signature software package to animate over the top of live-action film, Linklater handpicked a cast to actualize his vision. The criterion for involvement was unconventional. As in several of his previous films, including “Slacker,” Linklater wanted a mixed cast of actors and non-actors to make the dialogue dynamic. He sought interesting, smart people with lots on their minds.
Many of those chosen for “Waking Life” had worked with Linklater on previous projects – Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in “Before Sunrise,” and Wiley Wiggins – the film’s protagonist – in “Dazed and Confused.”
“For the most part [previous cast members] are very loyal to [Linklater.] When he first approached me … he had a very rough outline of the film,” Wiggins said. “He thought that perhaps the concept [of “Waking Life”] would be too ambitious but he tried it anyway. … It seemed like an incredibly exciting project to me. In one sense it was something I had been waiting to do for a long time and in another sense it was [Linklater] returning back to his roots with more free-form stuff.”
The project, from conception to final production, took approximately two years. Shooting the live action was the shortest part of the entire process. Linklater, producer Tommy Pallotta and a small filmmaking crew shot the scenes in an impressive 25 days. The finished product was given to Sabiston and a team of more than 30 artists to begin the painstaking job of animating every frame of the movie.
“We shot the film and then auditioned animators in a similar way to how we auditioned the people who are in the film,” Wiggins said. “Very few of the artists had any previous experience with animation, or computers for that matter, which was good because [the animators] weren’t coming up with the actual movement. What we really needed was people with good design sense, good color sense and good drawing skills, more than technical skills.”
The software Sabiston designed produces a unique, albeit labor-intensive product. The animation can be as abstract or realistic as the artist desires while maintaining the natural movement from live-action film.
“It took animators about 250 hours to produce one minute of footage, and I was going a lot slower than that,” Wiggins said. “I worked for about three months and got about 15 seconds of animation. I was doing a lot of very laborious frame-by-frame work. It is interesting though, after a while you go into this sort of Zen mode. You know that feeling when you swim in the ocean and then at night when you fall asleep you still feel waves. When I went to sleep [during that project] I could still feel my arm drawing.”
Wiggins is confident the techniques developed in “Waking Life” could be used in future animated projects, but is guarded about how easy it would be to break the Hollywood stranglehold on animation.
“It is difficult at first, especially in the animation world, to be taken seriously if you’re not part of the Hollywood Pixar/computer-generated consortium. At the Oscars we thought we had a sure bet for a nomination, if nothing else, but a Nickelodeon film got [the nomination] instead,” he said. “”This is a field where there is so much money involved in toy franchises and also there is still a sense that animation is just for kids.”
Wiggins believes the big studio domination is due to the large cost generally associated with the production of animated feature films, rather than a lack of audience appreciation for different forms of animation.
“I tend to be a little too cynical about what American audiences are going to like. Sometimes they end up surprising you. I think it is important not to underestimate audiences; I think that’s what studios do a whole lot,” he said. “What we are doing is making an animated movie that costs less than $2 million, so the merchandizing isn’t necessary. You can make whatever sort of films you want. So hopefully this software frees up the field a bit for some more artists.”
“Waking Life” itself is not plot-driven: It is filled with dream sequences, false awakenings and philosophical brainteasers – Am I free? What is the meaning of the word love? Am I sleepwalking through my waking state or wake-walking through my dreams?
“The philosophical ideas discussed in the film are pretty much in keeping with conversations I’ve had while hanging out with [Linklater] for the past couple of years. Spending a lot of time sitting around getting up to no good, getting drunk and shooting the bull,” Wiggins said.
But before the film collapses under its own cerebral weight, Linklater injects well-timed, albeit surreal, humor. “Waking Life” is far more than an incomprehensible existentialism class that you mistakenly signed up for; it is smart social commentary disguised as an expressionist painting come to life.
“One of the good things about ‘Waking Life’ is that even if it tires you out listening to people talk as much as they do in the movie, you’ve always got the visual part to fall back on,” Wiggins said. “That’s one of the things I like about it; it’s a very rich movie.”
“The constant sense of movement in the film is a byproduct of the individual artists’ styles. I think it works really well for this project because if it’s meant to be a dream … and it’s all extrapolated from one person’s mind, then the environment, all the trees, everything around is all basically alive. It’s all pieces of one character. It’s nice to have the whole thing breathing and pulsating. That’s what gives the film that nice shifting, mercurial feel.”