|Written by Mel Odom|
|Monday, 06 May 2002|
"Waking Life" is not a DVD that lends itself to light viewing. During the course of the animated film, concepts of life and death, philosophies on how to live, and biology and chemistry come into play. The discussions also include presentations regarding the responsibility one has to one’s society and the responsibility one has to oneself.
The striking animation of "Waking Life" is the first thing any viewer will notice. The hand gestures, the way the animated character holds his or her head while speaking, and the body language all come across as real. Dozens of animators worked to give the movie the unique look, but the foundation for all the work was the original hand-held home video shoot.
The process of drawing a new image over an existing image is called rotoscoping. Max Fleischer, known for his Popeye, Superman and Betty Boop cartoons, invented the Rotoscope. Other animation studios were quick to follow with similar processes and inventions, including Disney Studios and Warner Brothers.
Bob Sabiston, computer graphics artist and software designer, invented the software that was used in "Waking Life" to give the film the amazing look the audience sees. Sabiston had animated projects in his repertoire before Richard Linklater’s movie, but challenged himself to go even further to enable the artists with this film. One 45-second piece of the film took Sabiston three-and-a-half weeks to convert. The featurette on Sabiston and the process of how the original live-action film was converted to animation is a fascinating piece that shouldn’t be missed.
The story begins with the main character as a child. He’s playing with a girl about his age. She’s using one of the folding paper fortune-telling devices that children at that age favor, also called cootie-catchers. Choose a color, choose a number, choose a number again and the future will be revealed. The opening sets the tone for the rest of the movie as filmmaker Linklater propels the audience through the search for the definition of life and the meaning of dreams.
The audio starts subtly in Chapter 1. Cricket noises echo from the front speakers as the little boy returns to his home and watches a jet blaze by overhead. In the next scene, the hum of a train on tracks fills the main and rear speakers while music fills the center speakers(s). As Wiley enters the room with the orchestra, the violin notes come through powerfully, moving from mains to center speakers(s) as the viewpoint moves closer. The voices of the other musicians in the room shift from mains to center as well, giving the viewer the impression that he or she is inside the room. When Wiley is on the train again, the viewer hears the squeaking brakes shrilling through the center to the main speakers, giving the illusion that the train is passing by.
In Chapter 2, Wiley accepts a ride from a guy in a unique amphibious car. As the car progresses down the street, noises of passing cars echo through the left or right speaker, then through the center speaker(s), then through the opposing left or right speaker. The other passenger in the amphibious car assigns Wiley his destination. When Wiley finds a note in the middle of the street, he bends down to read the message. The note says "Look To Your Right" in block printing. When Wiley looks to his right, a car hits him and the viewer hears the sound of the car’s passage rip through the left main speaker, through the center speaker(s), and then fade away in the right main speaker.
Wiley then wakes in his bedroom. After a short breakfast alone, Wiley goes to college and ends up in a philosophy class and a later talk with the professor. Several philosophies are presented for the viewer’s consideration. From there, Wiley proceeds to a friend’s house and digs deeply into the theory of language, of how words are more symbols of actual ideas than the things themselves.
Chapter 3 moves on into the theory of evolution. On the surface, if the viewer isn’t particularly enthusiastic about these views, these discussions could come across as dry. However, Linklater’s presentation in the film and with the people used to espouse that view moves those ideas along quickly. The visual stylization is also so interesting that the viewer finds himself or herself mesmerized. As a further turn of pacing, strange and surreal things start to happen.
The commentary in Chapter 4 covers the fascination many people seem to have with death, and with the media’s place in that fascination. In Chapter 5, a young couple’s talk and thoughts about reincarnation come across as tender and exploratory because of the tonal quality of the voices. Switching from the bedroom to a jail cell, the audience is exposed to the vile voice of a prisoner wanting to exact vengeance on the people he blames for his incarceration.
Chapter 7 talks about science replacing the concept of God. The possibility of free will is questioned, from the religious aspect to the "physical system" of the human being due to physical laws. Alex Jones, an "upstart young conspiracy theorist," presents a diatribe on free will from a car equipped with loudhailers. As the car rolls through the street, the viewpoint shifts from outside the car to inside, then back and forth. Jones’ voice flips back and forth between the center speakers(s) to the mains.
The movie continues delivering information and views on philosophy and humankind’s place in the overall scheme of being. Linklater’s choices of sound vs. silence during the various presentations, as well as the everyday noises blended into the movie, lend weight to the discourses and place them squarely in the real world.
Chapter 9 offers a discussion on violence and the presence of anger and destructive acts in society. When the story unfolds and a pistol is fired, bullet holes appear on the screen in front of the viewer. The visual representation is unexpected and disturbing, making for a powerful statement.
Lucid dreaming becomes the central focus of Chapter 10, continuing the set-up started in Chapter 9. In conversation with Wiley, the character Lewis mentions the fact that a dreamer can’t switch lights on or off, read the time from clocks, or read small print while dreaming. Many viewers who see this DVD will get introduced to new information, or re-introduced to information and thoughts that may send him or her to the library or the New Age section of the nearest bookstore.
During the discussion of the "Movie is God" theory, barking dogs cycle through the main speakers, leaving the dialogue focused through the center. In Chapter 14, piano music comes through the mains while Wiley’s footsteps issue from the center speaker(s). The "ant way of life" is an interesting exposition. While traveling on the subway in Chapter 15, the music comes through the mains while the train noises echo through the center speaker(s), enhancing the animated sequence and making the situation more real. Later, on the bridge in Chapter 15, Wiley listens to Timothy "Speed" Levitch, who mysteriously appears. While they talk, the sounds of the traffic whip through the main and center speakers, constantly shifting to let the viewer know the traffic below is in motion. All of these sounds contribute to lending an air of reality to the surreal animation.
Chapter 18 shows Wiley meeting up with director/writer Linklater. Their conversation includes a discussion of the late science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick and the Book of Acts from the Bible. Linklater postulates that time doesn’t exist, and that there is only one instant that hinges on one question.
The bonus features are numerous and interesting. As mentioned earlier, the featurette with animator Sabiston is extremely informative regarding the rotoscoping process. The text commentary provides depth on the various scenes and philosophies discussed within the film. Linklater and Company’s audio commentary for the film is illuminating as well, giving insights into the film as well as the people involved.
"Waking Life" is a film that deserves all of the viewer’s attention, not something to zone out to after a hard day. Fans of exotic animation will want to pick up the DVD for their collection, as will people who want a cursory examination of philosophy and the human condition. If someone is looking for a movie to provoke thought for days provide fodder for deep conversations with friends who have an interest in philosophy and instill a desire for more knowledge, perspective and information, "Waking Life" will do all of this and entertain as well.