It’s been a long trip since Snow White. Released in 1937, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-length animated feature in color and with sound ever to be produced. The world took notice. The film wowed audiences, succeeded at the box office and garnered an Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field.” That new field—the animated feature—instantly became a staple in children’s entertainment, and over the next 50 years Disney used the Snow White formula to crank out 26 more movies. If Snow White was the Classical period of animation, then everything from 1940’s Pinocchio to 1988’s Oliver and Company were its long Middle Ages. Lots of good things were made, but nothing new.
The year that Oliver and Company was released, though, something new did emerge. And it didn’t come from Disney. The trio of Martin Luthers—Touchstone Pictures, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis—marched up to the door of Hollywood and nailed to it two theses:
1. Animation can be seamlessly combined with live action.
2. Animated movies are not just for kids.
The result was Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a movie in which Toons and humans interact with decidedly PG results. Here, live-action detectives fire cowardly cartoon bullets, and voluptuous cartoon women try to seduce live-action men. Children enjoyed its slapstick, adults enjoyed its more mature humor and all marveled at the smooth blend of actors and Toons. The entire entertainment industry was forced to reassess their ideas about how animation should be done, and for whom.
What followed was animation’s Renaissance. Disney, startled out of its complacent slumber and determined not to be outdone on its own turf, released The Little Mermaid in 1989. The previous year had seen Oliver and Company look essentially like every Disney animated movie before it. But The Little Mermaid was different. Its colors were brighter, its characters more clearly defined, its music simply better. Disney had broken its inertia in the world of animation technology and (after briefly dipping back into uninspired territory with The Rescuers Down Under) proved it by following The Little Mermaid with a trio of features which dazzled audiences by combining traditional hand-drawn animation with computer graphics. Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King had the sharp brilliance of The Little Mermaid and then some. Computers made a sky full of stars, an Arabian cityscape and a wildebeest stampede all the more breathtaking. To top it all off, these three films were wildly successful at the box office and in merchandising, boosting Disney’s animation department out of its medieval lethargy.
The next giant leap for toonkind came from this revitalized Disney powerhouse, in conjunction with the upstart tech wizards at Pixar. In 1995 the animators dropped their pencils and turned exclusively to their computer screens, creating the first completely computer-animated feature, Toy Story. Just as they had in 1937, audiences were exposed to something stunningly unlike anything they had ever seen and, once again, they loved it, and threw their money at it. Filmmakers outside the Disney machine now realized that they could no longer afford to ignore the money-making potential of animation.
What followed was the great War of the Studios. In 1998, DreamWorks attempted to preempt Disney’s release of the computer-generated A Bug’s Life by turning out their own insect story, Antz, a few months earlier. Disney won the Battle of the Bug, but in 1999 DreamWorks was back with the very Disney-esque animated musical epic The Prince of Egypt. This effort was more successful than Antz, but only by about $10 million; it grossed $101 million (compared with $300+ million for The Lion King).
One by one, the studios have given animation their best shot and been crushed by Disney. Warner Brothers and Fox even closed their animation studios. The question, as we look back on the Disney-dominated 90s and ahead to this decade is this: Does Disney have the animation world, including its new technologies and fruitful market, all to itself?
The answer, in 2001, appears to be: not quite. Another Luther has appeared, in the form of writer/director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused). With his new film, Waking Life, which opens today, he reaffirms the two theses of Roger Rabbit and adds two more:
3. Indie films can be animated, too.
4. The line between animation and live action can be blurred.
Seeing Linklater’s name, along with those of the Independent Film Channel and Thousand Words, juxtaposed with the word “animation” is indeed double-take material. But the animation of Waking Life is not Disney’s animation, nor anyone else’s for that matter. It is the next step in the evolution of animation.
Waking Life is a movie about dreams, and Linklater, along with art director Bob Sabiston and producer Tommy Palotta, has hit upon a way to visually evoke the dreamlike sense of things being almost, but not quite, real. It is a technique called digital rotoscoping and, though it is not new in that it has been used for short projects like the interstitials Sabiston and Palotta made for MTV beginning in 1997, this is the first time it has been applied to an entire feature-length movie.
All the scenes were shot in live-action with digital cameras, and then the Waking Life animation team turned to a software program of Sabiston’s design to, in a sense, digitally paint over them. It was tedious work (about 250 hours of animation work went into each minute of film), but the effect is astonishing. What we see is like a moving painting, at times very representational, at others more blockish and abstract. Each of the animators has been assigned a separate character or scene, and their different styles come across in the varying levels of surrealism. Some scenes simply look like grainy photographs, while others are dizzyingly wacky. Lips float off of faces. Walls refuse to hold still. As we follow the nameless central character (Wiley Wiggins, an alumnus of Dazed and Confused) through a wiggly, trippy dreamscape, we begin to wonder along with him whether it is all real. We recognize the famous faces and voices of the likes of Ethan Hawke, Steven Soderbergh and the director, but we wonder: Is that really them? Or an animated representation of them? The technology tells us it’s both. It is this paradox that makes the dreamworld from which Wiggins finds he cannot escape all the more intense.