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Forum Insights: Waking Life
Below are insightful posts from Digital Media FX forum posters on the subject of Waking Life: Has Anyone Seen This Movie?. Some posts have been edited for length or spelling and grammar.

Post by Durrien on November 5, 2001:
I have seen this movie - twice, in fact. I liked it very much. With regards to movies yet to come to theaters, I'm not too interested or "worried" about Jimmy Neutron breaking any new ground, in terms of artistry or story; but I am looking forward to Metropolis. Of all the films I have seen this year, Shrek and Monsters included, I would have to say that Waking Life is my "favorite." If I was a member of the Academy, I would certainly vote for it as Best Feature Animation. While the other movies are great technological achievements, and funny, they do not seem to me anything very outstanding or meaningful.

As to the question of whether Waking Life is "real" animation, I mean, jeez, is computer animation "real" animation? Is motion capture? Is Flash? With all of the data interpolation, camera moves, frame tweening, and whatnot, are digital animators "cheating"?

Like someone else pointed out, Waking Life uses just another "technique." The character design and environments are created/fabricated - whatever you want to call it. If you see the movie, you'll know what I am talking about. On more than one occasion, the director Richard Linklater had scenes reworked because the style of the animation, and the emotion, was not correctly captured by the animator - or it was not "communicating" properly.

I have a friend who takes photographs - live-action still-frame photography - *gasp* - and then she uses these images as a template to paint her artwork. The photograph does not translate exactly into the painting, but it is the obvious foundation. Should I break the news to her that she is not creating a painting? Is her work any less valid if she paints in Photoshop?

Maybe we should discount all animation that uses footage of live-action film or video as reference. Edward Muybridge set a bad standard. Or if tracing is the gripe, then I don't want any animator ever to trace any picture ever again, ... not one.

I love animation, and I love the craft of hand-drawn animation. But I don't buy into this whole "elitism" that animation is any one anything. Animation, in my thinking, is the single-frame-by-frame creation of some narrative or non-narrative idea - whether I'm using legos, paint, sand, zeroes/ones, plasticine, graphite, or human beings (god bless Norman McLaren). For me, Waking Life meets this criterion.

Having said all of that, I can easily see that the Academy would vote for Monsters, Inc. as the first ever Oscar winner. Why? It is a good, entertaining, enjoyable film. It looks like it will be a huge success. And it allows the Academy to honor Pixar for its superior, pioneering work, while at the same time tipping its hat to Disney - which, of course, for all these years, has been the benchmark and touchstone of American animated movies.

Post by Penanimate on November 6, 2001: (in response to post directly above)
Before Durrien irrevocably plants his flag in the moral high ground, let me address some of his (admittedly rhetorical) questions.

Yes, Norman McLaren used humans in his animation. The difference is he shot them a frame at a time, or used optical printing techniques to create art from the live action (Pas De Deux is one of my favorite films). What Linklater did with Waking Life isn't significantly different than what was done in Traffic with the scenes in Mexico. The images are digitally manipulated to give them a different look, but it's still live action. Or, to put it another way: In his attempt at an animated version of The Lord of the Rings, Bakshi employed a process where he shot live action, printed it high contrast to create black on white images, had those images transferred to cels and painted, then shot them onto film. This technique certainly uses the tools of animation, but calling the work itself "animation" is a big stretch. Same thing applies to Waking Life.

Which brings me to Durrien's question, "are computer animators cheating?" Of course not. There is far too much work - creative, artistic work, that goes into creating characters, environments, props, lighting, and all the other minutiae in a CG scene to suggest that CG artists are "cheating" by using the computer as a tool. While the artists that painted over the live action in Waking Life certainly did have control over the colors and techniques they used, they certainly didn't have any input into where to place their characters or what poses they took. If you boil it down, these artists were glorified ink and paint folks, working from the poses handed to them. And for this they want an animation Oscar?

It's interesting that Durrien seems to think that the best animated feature Oscar needs to go to a film that has "meaningful" content. If that 's the criterion, then there are quite a few Oscars that need to be recalled. Did Titanic have meaningful content? Did Shakespeare in Love? How about Marissa Tomei's Oscar for her meaningful role in My Cousin Vinny? And of course, in between its gory combat scenes, Gladiator taught us much that was meaningful, most of which can be gleaned from the average after-school special.

I laughed out loud when Durrien's post suggested that Waking Life has character design. Please. The only character design that took place regarding that movie was by the actor's parents years ago, and even that wasn't a process they had any say in.

I don't hear anyone taking an elitist attitude about animation being any one thing, and I resent the suggestion. I do see lots of folks suggesting that they recognize what animation *isn't* when they see it, and for us, Waking Life fits *that* criterion. See, the problem here, Durrien, is that WL doesn't fit the standard that you yourself have established. It's not the frame-by-frame creation of a narrative or non-narrative idea. It's an experiment in image manipulation - an interesting experiment, to be sure, but that doesn't make it animation.

All of the above aside, the question one needs to ask is "could this movie have been released without the digital image manipulation and still stand on its own?" In the case of McLaren's work, the answer clearly is no, as the live action was a means to an end. In the case of Waking Life, the answer clearly is yes - the live action footage constitutes a movie in itself. If you believe otherwise, then we should look forward to seeing Attack of the Clones nominated next year for the Best Animation Oscar, since many of the characters, most of the sets, and a majority of the footage will be digitally manipulated in one way or another.

Posted by Gordg on November 6, 2001:
This debate is certainly *animated*.

I'm going to tip toe through this mine field. I haven't seen 'Waking Life', but it's on my must see list.

It's my opinion competition and art are not compatible.

The very nature of art (or entertainment) requires deconstruction of preconceived ideas. An artist, director, writer, etc. seeks to find new insights by breaking down established patterns. These insights can evoke meaningful reflection or spontaneous laughter ... it depends on the point of view adopted by the creator.

In addition, an artist's (i.e.. film makers) focus is content (i.e.. story), communicated through process. The artist is constantly experimenting with process to more clearly state content. In affect process is the artist's obstacle to clarity of intent. Because of this conflict, I think it's imperative that process remains unfettered by arbitrary designations.

Competition (such as the Academy Awards) demands art be categorized. The category definition influences the way a work is perceived. A perception that is external to the work itself.

Art does not neatly fit into categories. You could watch a Western (genre) about "a boy's passage into manhood" (theme), or watch an animated movie (genre / technique) dealing with the same theme. But rather than these two both being judged as "rights of passage" movies, they're judged by genre or technique. Why is one designation favored over another?

Competition is geared toward the advancement of business objectives, rather than the advancement of the art form. Artistic value is innate, while competition is a cornerstone of capitalism.

So what's my point ...

We as artists shouldn't quibble about process, we should embrace it in all forms. We should be knocking down the walls, not reinforcing them.

Posted by Durrien on November 6, 2001: (in response to Penanimate's post)
To address your points, Penanimate ... yes, Waking Life, similar to Ralph Bakshi's work, makes use of a kind of rotoscoping technique, from previously shot, continuously rolling live-action footage ... which has always caused animators to wince, as cheating. I think this is the point of contention - at the level of the camera. If I manipulate an image or a block of wood, in the natural world or in my computer, one frame at a time, click click click ... then I can rightfully call this "animating." However, if I let the camera do all the EASY work, of just recording events before the lens, and then later I use this layout, set design and lighting as a template for my animation ... well, then I am no longer animating. Perhaps we could think of the live-action footage as a very-detailed storyboard that the animator faithfully recreates: because the animator *is* recreating and interpreting the footage, frame by frame by painstaking frame.

Again, it seems to me that the level of where these decisions are being made is maybe the crux of the concern. A director making creative decisions on environments, acting, poses - if these decisions are made before or after a scene reaches an artist's hands, then this is the distinguishing factor between an animator and a "glorified ink and paint" artist?

This also goes for character design. If you have seen the film, which I am guessing that you have not, then you will recognize that the live-action actors are not merely cartoon versions of themselves. There is an element of stylistic decision making

Ultimately, the overarching criticism that this movie, Waking Life, is just an interesting experiment in digital manipulation of images, I would have to disagree with: along the lines of what Gordg has said. I disagree with you that what the film becomes is "still live-action." Would the film work on its own? Technically, yes, the live-action footage could be shown on its own. But from an artistic and thematic standpoint, the film would not work, it would fall flat on its nose, if it was not ... (dare I say it?) ... "animated."

As for the movie being meaningful, I was saying that it was one of my favorites of the year for this reason, and that I would therefore vote for it - not that "meaningfulness" is a criterion, or that it should be, for Oscar victory. There is a distinction.

Regarding ATTACK OF THE CLOWNS... Welcome to the brave new world, as the lines blur between traditional live-action and animation. It's the end of animation history as we know it. Run for the hills! [insert Jim Hill article here].

Posted by Penanimate on November 6, 2001:
Interesting theoretical and semantic distinction you make, saying that the "animator faithfully recreates" a very detailed storyboard via the frame-for-frame live action. I don't buy it, but we're into opinion and belief at this point, so if you want to think of it that way, by all means...

You'd be incorrect in assuming that I haven't seen this work, and I never claimed that the actors were merely cartoon versions of themselves. Naturally there will have to be stylistic decisions made when you're slopping digital paint all over a live action frame. But character design? Interesting how Ethan Hawk is recognizable as Ethan Hawk...

We're free to disagree over whether this film is "animated" or not. My concern is over whether films that are traditionally regarded as "animated", for which this category of award was created and is intended, will lose out to a film that, I suspect, was entered into this category in an attempt to garner a high-profile award with the knowledge that it didn't stand a chance in any of the "mainstream" categories. Or, to put it another way - when it was submitted to festivals, was it submitted in the animation category, or some other?

With respect to Gordg's thoughts about competition among artists - in a way I agree; we should be pushing the boundaries and trying new things. However, Hollywood in general and the Oscars in particular aren't really about art; they're about commerce. How else does one explain Titanic winning against competition such as L.A. Confidential, a better film in every way imaginable? Or the "Disney formula", which only now is apparently being tossed aside, as the box office for each film drops lower than the last one? Competition between artists may be bad, but since the Oscars aren't about art, shouldn't we be interested in the commercial ramifications of who wins the Feature Oscar?

The studios understand that an Oscar win means more cash in the coffers, and I've never heard of an actor's asking price going down after an Oscar win (unless they're doing an art film to practice their craft, of course). As long as artists and animators continue to approach the Hollywood moneymaking machine as an artistic pursuit, we'll continue to get trampled under the wing tips of those who understand that it's first and foremost a business.

Posted by Durrien on November 6, 2001:
Yeah, truthfully, I don't have much respect for the Oscars, -- or rather, I don't put much stock in them -- though naturally, like you said, it does have financial benefits for those actors and studios who win.

Oscar winners have "drawing" power...

However, on the potential upside, if a movie like Waking Life is nominated for the Best Feature Animation category, it helps to chisel away the stereotype that animation is only for the kiddies (Waking Life is rated 'R', I think, and its subject matter is a bit weighty, unlike the satirical fart humor of the South Park movie, also rated 'R') ... or that there is only one viable style or formula for animated films (a la the Disney musical, or the increasingly formulaic, comedic CGI flick*).

* may "The Spirits Within" rest in peace...

Posted by Gordg on November 6, 2001:
Well, it's nice to see you two get together ... it's unfortunate it was to pick on me.

I see, you're not discussing art, you're discussing business. The integrity of the film isn't in question, it's the bottom line.

It's irrelevant whether it's a quality film, it's only a question of whether it will receive Oscar notoriety or not. It's all about money .... I got it.

I guess I should have checked with my CPA before posting.

What's funny is you both agree box office isn't important, yet at the same time you're stating an Oscar will increase the movies "drawing power".

So which is it, important or not important. If neither the Oscar win nor the box office returns have any relevance to the quality of the film, why as *artists* are we concerned?

Sure more money in the bank will allow the artist some freedom to create, but if they're only manufacturing movies to fit present box office pundit's theories on "drawing power" .... what's the point?

And if the artist is creating their work regardless of whether it's Oscar material or a potential "money maker" ... your discussion has no relevance. And the focus should be on the quality of the movie.

You can't have it both ways.

Of course if the purpose for creating movies is to make money, and quality is unimportant ... I guess we should all become accountants.

I'll leave you to your number crunching.

Posted by Penanimate on November 7, 2001:
(responding to Gordg - "so which is it, important or not important?" comment in above post)

Which one it is depends on what hat you're currently wearing - the "I'm an artist and must create" hat, or the "I need to feed my family, so I gotta earn some dough" hat. I think the greatest failing of the creative side of the animation community is the inability of most of its members to recognize that what we do is a business. We use our art and creative skills to contribute, but at the end of the day, it's a numbers game. One doesn't have to look too long at the state of the business these days to recognize that. The two are inextricably linked, but most "creatives" refuse to see or acknowledge that fact. The only people I see who steadfastly refuse to compromise their art for the sake of commerce fall into two categories: the "starving in a garret" camp, and the "Lucas Ranch" camp. I'm not interested in the former, and have not yet achieved the latter.

(responding to Gordg - "Sure more money in the bank will allow the artist some freedom to create, but if they're only manufacturing movies to fit present box office pundit's theories on "drawing power" .... what's the point?")

The point is being able to work in a field that we love, despite having to work on drek sometimes. All I'm saying is that we need to be aware of what influences the rest of the entertainment industry, and it ain't "art", despite all the sound bites one hears to the contrary. At least that's the way it is down here - if it's different in Canada, and you have clients willing to foot the bills while artists create without constraint, then I'm packing my bags tomorrow.

(Responding to Gordg - "Of course if the purpose for creating movies is to make money, and quality is unimportant ... I guess we should all become accountants.")

I don't recall ever saying that quality was unimportant, but it's undeniable that the purpose behind most mainstream filmmaking efforts is to make money. Without a doubt, there are those (myself included) who work on film projects to express themselves, but those movies aren't what fills the multiplex, as sad as that is. And since most animators strive to work on "mainstream" projects (features, TV, commercials, games), it ends up being about the bottom line. You can dislike it all you want (I'm not happy about it either), but it's the way it is. I admire folks who strive for more creative freedom and go about getting it - I've just never heard of one who got it within the mainstream moviemaking industry without having poured a lot of cash in the coffers at some point in the past.

Posted by Durrien on November 7, 2001: (in response to Gordg)
Nope. That's just the nature of the biz, bub. If a film has a large box office draw, then the suits will follow their noses toward "greener" pastures.

Thus, a string of subsequent Puke-e-mon movies, until they are no longer profitable.

The reason animated movies try to cast big name actors is....? That's right! Box office draw. The execs are trying to lure people into theaters and to squeeze out of their investment every possible penny of return.

The thing with the OSCARS is that, even if it hasn't been a huge box office success, if a movie wins on its artistic merits or what have you, then people will be more likely, more curious?, to go see it... And in the long run, it will give studios, or directors, or whomever, or anyone for that matter, more leverage in telling those kinds of stories, in those kinds of ways.

Posted by D.E.E.P. on November 7, 2001
(responding to Durrien - "The thing with the OSCARS is that, even if it hasn't been a huge box office success, if a movie wins on its artistic merits or what have you, then people will be more likely, more curious?, to go see it... And in the long run, it will give studios, or directors, or whomever, or anyone for that matter, more leverage in telling those kinds of stories, in those kinds of ways.")

I especially agree with this comment. If there's one thing the Oscars provide is exposure to lesser known material. Remember that for a while independent films at the Oscars were much more predominant then mainstream films. Titanic was an exception, but most of the awards were usually given to low budget features that the public would otherwise ignore. And it's for that reason that we've been seeing a lot more independent films in the last five years then in the past, when low budget "art" films were almost nonexistent.

So as bad as some think the Oscars are, when they do recognize an indy film, they provide a service that nothing else can replace. How many more will see films like "Memento" if it's nominated for best film next year?

And I think that's also why a film like Waking Life should not be nominated in a category that will serve to boost the currently slow industry. Durrien, it is my opinion as well that this movie does not fall into the "animated" category. The technique used only makes the film APPEAR to be animated. The person on the computer does not actually go in and move anything, which after all is what the essence of animation is--movement. A true animator learns exactly that, how to move a drawing or a model within a virtual environment. I have always said the same about any technique that uses any form of tracing or rotoscoping, it is cheating. And I don't want to see a film that does that win an award for best animation.

If Waking Life is worthy of an Academy Award, I say nominate it in the category it belongs to, best film of the year. Films like Shrek and Monsters Inc., even though they might not be as deep and meaningful, deserve to win this one so to give the animation community the little kick in the butt it really needs. But let me say this, if Iron Giant had come out this year, then I would have voted for it in a instant. There's a film that proved art is still (much) better than commerce.

Posted by Gordg on November 7, 2001
I know how the industry works boys. As I'm sure anyone with a modem and a modcum of interest, knows how it works (or doesn't work as it were).

Your line of reasoning reflects the attitude of the "suits" (a term I don't agree with). Think for yourself. Or as the Apple computer motto suggests "Think different".

As artists we should be focused on creating, and we should leave the marketing to the "suits". Yes, management is forever meddling with creative .... but why does that mean you have to stop thinking and creating.

Our mindset shouldn't be "Oh well the suits are just going to screw it up again". Or" this is commercial work there is no room for artistic expression". That's bull!

It is our responsibility as artist , to bring the people who lack vision, new insights. Yeah it ain't easy ... but anything worthwhile never is. NO every aspect of every project may not be fresh, and original, but if you resign yourself to accepting the staus quo I'm positive it will forever be mediocre.

Part of what makes animation a more laborious occupation, is the fact that only a few people make the creative decisions. This means there are a lot of people with minimal influence, and a lot of work. But this is the nature of the art form and has nothing to do with economics.

Don't start thinking like the "suits". Stay creative.

...and penanimate, there is art in commercial work. But I'm running out of time. So why don't you start a new thread on the topic and we can have at it.

All in good fun of course.

Posted by bighead72 on November 7, 2001
OK I'm not an animator but...
95% of the work I do is in the middle grey area between "budget conscious" and "design freedom". And yes they do tend to be the two far ends of the spectrum in the architecture field too.

If I were to throw my hands up in the air and give up every time a client asked that I redesign a project in order to save some money -- I'd be out of a job. To be perfectly frank, that's real life. Yeah, I'd love to have a job where the client says "do whatever you like -- I just want to spend money" but unfortunately that never happens.

Even if I am assigned a project that is completely bare bones budget, it is still my duty to provide as much design as the project can afford. I have a friend here in the office whose motto is "Poverty is a poor excuse for bad design." It certainly helps me keep my perspective.

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