A decade after Slacker put director Richard Linklater on the map—and helped alter the independent landscape in general—he made Waking Life, another loose assemblage of philosophers, eccentrics, and other random sketches and anecdotes. But this time, he looked to animation to give form to both the unique visions of each subject and the dreamlike quality that ties the entire film together. For that, he turned to animator and computer programmer Bob Sabiston, an MIT Media Lab alum who had developed software for computer-assisted rotoscope animation. Put simply, rotoscoping involves animators tracing over footage frame by frame, and it’s been around since Max Fleischer invented it in the mid-1910s. With Waking Life, Sabiston and his team brought the technique into the digital age, and their shimmering images lent texture and whimsy to Linklater’s talking heads.
When Linklater decided to do an animated version of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly for Warner Independent Pictures a few years later, he again turned to Sabiston to serve as Head Of Animation, but the collaboration ended bitterly. The look they wanted for A Scanner Darkly was far more ambitious and complicated than the one for Waking Life, and it soon became obvious that the time and budget expectations were unreasonable. After months of fighting with producers and the studio—the 2006 Wired feature “Trouble In Toontown” lays out the details—Sabiston and his four lieutenants staged a walkout. Producer Tommy Pallotta immediately took action, changing the locks, seizing their workstations, and hiring replacements to finish the job.
Sabiston has since moved on to software development through his production company, Flat Black Films, which created Inchworm Animation, a user-friendly paint and animation program for Nintendo DSi. But eight years after A Scanner Darkly, Sabiston was graciously willing to tell his side of the story to The Dissolve, reflecting on the film’s daunting technical and budgetary challenges, his clashes with producers, and a completed work that only partially realizes the vision he and Linklater originally had for it.
The Dissolve: How did your collaboration with Richard Linklater on A Scanner Darkly begin?
Bob Sabiston: We had done Waking Life together, so it was kind of like, “Let’s do another movie together.” I think originally he wanted to make a different movie [an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Ubik, referenced briefly in the film—ed.], but he couldn’t get the rights to that, so they [turned to] A Scanner Darkly. There were a couple of early drafts of the script, but that was probably years before we actually started making the movie. There was a long time where he was just talking about maybe making it. And even after we started working on it, we were still wondering for several months if we were going to make the movie, because it wasn’t a done deal. He hired me and two other guys to start doing pre-production stuff and the three of us worked for about six months, and for a couple of those, it seemed really iffy about whether the studio was actually going to make it.
The Dissolve: What sort of work were you doing in that pre-production period?
Sabiston: I was working on the animation software. It really took a huge leap from Waking Life. Of course, there were a couple years between that and A Scanner Darkly, but I added a whole lot of stuff for A Scanner Darkly. I used to have a list. I don’t have it in front of me, but to handle a lot of the moving backgrounds, and perspective, and to push the capabilities of the software. Randy Cole was one of the guys. He was working on all the 3-D compositing. You can’t really tell in the animation, which is the point, but there’s places where they needed to composite in 3-D objects, which we would later rotoscope into the regular scene. And then Patrick Thornton was the guy whose style the whole movie was based on. He was doing test art and sample scenes, and stuff like that.
The Dissolve: What was the overall conceit in terms of how you and Linklater wanted the animation to look in comparison to Waking Life?
Sabiston: None of us thought that the same idea [from Waking Life] would work, which was, “Let’s just chop the movie up into a bunch of pieces and give it to everyone, and let them do what they want,” because it wasn’t that kind of movie. Everyone was in agreement that it needed to have one coherent style. The style that they settled on—which we felt was the best-looking style—was Patrick’s. Unfortunately, Patrick is the only person on Earth who can do that style to its full potential, so it made it more difficult for everyone else. It may have been a questionable decision in hindsight. Basically, the whole idea was, “Hell, if we had a whole movie that looked like Patrick’s style, it would just blow people away.”
The Dissolve: How would you define that style?
Sabiston: To me, it looks like a really polished, modern comic book in terms of the style and shading. It’s not really the style of the movie, A Scanner Darkly, for the reason I said. When you have a team of 50 people—and with what happened to the film and the production—it just didn’t really turn out that way. The close-up shot of Keanu Reeves in the suit they show in the trailer. It’s very smooth, sleek looking. That’s sort of what the style looks like.
The Dissolve: One of the unique things about Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly is that the style bridges the gap between hand-drawn and computer animation. It kind of straddles both worlds.
Sabiston: It does have that appeal, and if it’s done well, it can sort of transcend it. It picks up all these human qualities, but it’s a piece of art. It’s like a piece of really well-done graphic design. Unfortunately, it can also slide into an area where it looks more like a filter. I think with the style we chose with A Scanner Darkly, it’s tricky. When you have people that are forced to do it and have to do it fast, there’s areas of that movie look unfortunately more like a filter, or patchy maybe. That’s just due to the circumstances. I think a lot of people see that type of animation, and they think it’s a filter and that it’s done by a computer. It’s not at all, though. It’s hand-drawn, and it depends on the artist, and whether they had the time and put the care into it.
The Dissolve: Was that the primary challenge here? To get everyone on the same page, doing something that’s going to have continuity from one scene to the next? As you said with Waking Life, the animators had a little more freedom to go off on their own and do different things.
Sabiston: Yeah, I think that was probably the main challenge, to get everyone to do the same thing. The other challenge was that it was just a much more complex style overall. It took a lot more hours. A lot more shapes and lines went into each frame, and it required a lot more man-hours. We tried to address the first issue just by hiring the right people. We did a tremendous hiring process over the summer before [animation began]. We started trying to find artists who naturally excelled in that style, basically looking for comic-book illustrators. We were thinking that’s the main thing that’s going to help us here. Whereas with Waking Life, we’d hire painters, and as long as their art was cool, it was great. Their style didn’t have to be similar at all.
The Dissolve: What was the system in place to move the project forward?
Sabiston: Like I said, it started out with three of us. We were working on our three different things for about three or four months, and then we brought on two women who were leaders on the Waking Life team, Jennifer Drummond and Katy O’Connor, and the five of us were going to be the team leaders. And then throughout the summer, the five of us kept working on our individual jobs, but the other thing we had to do was hire 30 people. We staged these interview sessions where we had these computers set up in the front room, and four or five people would come in a day from the applicants pool. People sent in their artwork to apply for the job, and then we selected people who might be right for the job, and then they came in for a four-hour test session where we’d run them through the software, and then after they had left, we would look at what they had done, and called people back for a second round. We did that a few different times, and essentially assembled a team of 30 people. Aside from the five of us, most of those people had never worked with that software beyond those couple hours. That was the plan, though, to assemble a team who seemed like they’d be able to do that style, and go from there.
The Dissolve: Was there a steep learning curve with the software? Was it fairly user-friendly?
Sabiston: It’s pretty easy to learn the software. It depends a lot upon your drawing skill. If you’re not a very good drawer, then the animation is going to reflect that. If you’re good at drawing, the actual skill of the software is way simpler than something like what the Pixar animators have to deal with, with all these menus. It looks like airplane controls. Our software has barely any controls at all. It’s mostly drawing and moving back and forth frames. Out of the 30 people we hired, there definitely were a good chunk of them that just didn’t take to it well, and that was an early problem. As with any group, some people immediately excelled, there’s a pack in the middle, and then there’ are some stragglers.
The Dissolve: Was it a case where you could just never bring the stragglers up to speed?
Sabiston: Kind of. I don’t know if you’ve read about A Scanner Darkly. I don’t know what was going on with the management of the film and the studio, but there was an air of panic and worry about money from almost the first week. When we didn’t produce finished footage at the end of this first week with this brand new team of people, they were freaking out. They just didn’t understand how we worked, or how we envisioned it going. There was an immediate feeling that some people were going too slow, and had to be gotten rid of. I think if there was a more relaxed atmosphere, more time, maybe we could have worked with everyone.
The Dissolve: I’ve never heard of a feature animation process going fast. Animation takes a while, and it seems strange not to expect that, or budget for it.
Sabiston: It was weird, but even as the Head Of Animation, I was not part of the financial or organizational meetings. I didn’t really know what the studio had planned. When we started, they came to us pretty soon with a schedule for the film. They expected it to be completed in five months with 30 people. When you look at the Pixar credits… How many people are in the credits? A thousand? It was ludicrous. We just figured as we went along, it would just work itself out. We were doing the best we could. We were confident in our abilities and knew what we were doing, and, “They’ll just figure out how it goes.” It didn’t work out that way. The five people I mentioned, we left within five months of actual production.
The Dissolve: It’s surprising, given what you had done on Waking Life, that the expectations weren’t set in pre-production for how long the process was going to take.
Sabiston: That’s the problem. They were set by that. They were expecting a Waking Life-type experience, but none of us understood how much more time A Scanner Darkly was going to take. I’ll list the things I got into with them. It was kind of a perfect storm. First, the frame-rate was doubled—instead of 12 fps, it was 24. Then instead of one big talking head, like you mostly had with Waking Life, there’s like four different people onscreen at once, and the camera’s moving. That’s like doing five Waking Life scenes at once. And then you have the style, which is at least three times as complex as anything in Waking Life. A lot of it didn’t come together until the end, but we should have estimated that it was going to be three to four times the budget of Waking Life, and they budgeted for maybe twice, thinking that was being generous.
The Dissolve: Did you have any input on the shooting, and how that factors in the animation process? Did you ever say, “If you shoot this way, that’s going to cause us some problems”?
“Almost immediately, we couldn’t concentrate on the practical, artistic elements of the film.”
Sabiston: I didn’t really worry about that too much. I didn’t go to the set too often. Patrick and Randy did, because they were doing compositing stuff, and advising them on shots that were going to need compositing. That wasn’t a huge issue. We felt like we could handle whatever they shot. It was more a question of the time it would take. It wasn’t so much that they could shoot anything that was especially difficult. It was more a simple decision, like we didn’t think about how this scene would have four people instead of one big head. It was just more simple math than that. There were some camera shots that were going to be super-tricky, but we were looking forward to those. We didn’t think there would be anything too difficult. What we didn’t expect was the Hammer Of God saying we weren’t going fast enough. Almost immediately, we couldn’t concentrate on the practical, artistic elements of the film. It was about, “Oh my God, we have to have five minutes done this week, or they’re going to shut down production.”
The Dissolve: When you look at the film now, how much do you recognize? Are there scenes you see where you think, “It looks like this, but we were going for that”?
Sabiston: It’s sort of a mix. I haven’t seen it since it came out. It’s hard for me. For most people, it’s just a movie, but to us, it’s this huge injustice that can never be righted, so it’s painful to look at. When I saw it, I was satisfied overall. It held up. There are areas where it looks filter-y or it feels unpleasant. There are times where you wonder, “Why did they do this to the actors’ faces? They could have just shot it live-action.” But there’s plenty of shots in the film where it holds up and it does look really nice. I can’t say the movie looks awful, and I can’t say it’s a shining example of what we wanted. It sort of reflects what happened.
The Dissolve: In an earlier interview about Waking Life, you discussed weekly meetings with Richard Linklater to discuss progress on the film. But he was off shooting Bad News Bears in the early weeks while A Scanner Darkly was being animated. Was that costly or problematic for you?
Sabiston: We were able to meet with him a couple of times. He flew back to Austin a few times. It was only problematic in that we felt he wasn’t there to protect us and be on our side. I know he was also fighting with the studio, and had to fight for his own role—being able to keep his own director’s cut. Because he wasn’t there, it became a situation of us against the studio, and it seemed like he was staying out of it. When we were able to meet with him, he wanted the movie to look as good as it could. One of the solutions we came up with was, “If we have to go faster, we’ll just have to make it look simpler. We’ll have to move back toward Waking Life, or cut out some of this detailed shading.” That was the only way to make it go faster, and Rick [Linklater] didn’t want that. He wanted it to look as good as it could, and we were kind of stuck in the middle, because we wanted to please Rick. But in order to please Rick, we’d have to go slow.
The Dissolve: Working under a boutique like Warner Independent strikes me as almost the worst of both worlds. You’re expected to work at a tight, independent budget, but it’s still a major studio. It’s not a true independent. If you’re making either a studio production or an independent production, it seems better than being in between.
Sabiston: I haven’t thought much about that situation, but what struck me is that I could never believe we’re talking about an animated movie with four pretty big stars—Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t as huge as he is now, but still—but they couldn’t come up with another $2 million for animation that would really blow people away. The animation budget was, I think, $4 million, and I think it needed to be $6 million or $8 million. When you’re talking about $4 million for an animated movie, I could never accept that, and I got very angry about it at the time. To be fair to them, their hands were probably tied. They’re a business. They allocate a certain amount of money, and there is no money beyond that.
The Dissolve: But you did come back to them asking for time and money, right? And they denied you those things?
Sabiston: In every meeting, I would basically get in there and say, “We’re working as fast as we can. We’re working through the weekends now. We’re staying home from Christmas. We’re working through New Year’s Eve. We’re three months into production, and we’re already killing ourselves. It looks great, but the solution to this is that you need to find a little bit more money.” And I never varied from that. And it just got more and more aggravated and antagonistic until one day we walked out, and said, “We’re not coming back until you find somebody who has experience in animation who can see that we’re doing a great job for a tiny bit of money, and you’re being ridiculous.” We didn’t ever expect that we’d be walking out for good. Within three hours of walking out, they had changed the locks on the doors, and we never went back in there. They decided they were going to replace us with somebody else who could get the job done. In every meeting, I was just incredulous and what they saw as probably unhelpful, and they probably just said, “Let’s get rid of this guy.” I’d like to point out it took them another year and half, and at least as much money as we asked for [to finish the movie].
The Dissolve: That was the other thing in the Wired story. They wound up giving your replacements more time and more money anyway.
Sabiston: Before we walked out, they demanded an itemized list of everything we thought it would take to fix the film. We provided that and did our walkout, and it seems like they basically followed the list.
The Dissolve: At the same time, this is still your software. How does that work? It seems like you’d be protected a little bit.
Sabiston: As angry or fractious as the meetings got, I didn’t think I would ever get kicked off the movie, because I felt like I was its greatest asset. There were huge technical things I was fixing every day in the software. Maybe I relied too much on that assumption. I just didn’t think they’d be dumb enough to fire the five people who knew the most about how to get the movie done, and also, I trusted everyone involved. My contract was done with the same lawyers as Rick and Tommy, the producer. It was three pages long, it covered the software and myself, and it was super-vague. When we walked out, I tried to prevent them from using the software, and they threatened to sue me for millions of dollars, which they easily could have done. It was super-terrifying. I have Time Warner Cable, I thought they were tracking my modem at home. [Laughs.]
“ I just didn’t think they’d be dumb enough to fire the five people who knew the most about how to get the movie done. ”
They made me sign an agreement that said they could use my software without me. They paid me off. I got paid the same as what I would have made had I stayed, so I can’t complain too much about that, but one of the things that makes me so angry is how they treated my four other teammates. They weren’t even going to be in the credits at all at first. Patrick and Randy should have had several credits in that movie with all the compositing they did. They weren’t going to be in the credits at all. I had to really plead with Rick months before it was released, and they’re in the credits as “Thanks Also,” and “Additional Animation By.” And those are like five team leaders, people who spent six months on all the 3-D compositing. Randy did like all the 3-D compositing for the film. The whole movie is based on Patrick’s style. It’s so fucked-up.
The Dissolve: You’d worked with Rick and Tommy before. Did you feel like they were put in a position where they couldn’t help you at all? Or do you think they lost faith in you? What was your take on that?
Sabiston: I felt like Tommy sold us down the river. I had lost faith in Tommy before, from seeing what he did with Waking Life. He just didn’t do much on Waking Life. Movie producers are weird. There’s a joke about “What do they actually do?” He may have been a good producer, and I had never thought he would do much on A Scanner Darkly, and maybe our personal relationship had damaged that. We were kind of not-friendly from the beginning. His main thing was keeping his own job. He and Rick have been friends for a long time. That’s how I know Rick, is through Tommy. Ultimately, I think Rick just sided with Tommy. We never saw Tommy. He would come in every week or two, and just tell us we needed to pick it up. In meetings where we’d be yelling at each other, he would just sit there and not say anything. I haven’t talked to him since then. I’ll never talk to him again.
The Dissolve: He produced your shorts “Roadhead” and “Snack And Drink” and those sorts of projects for you, too.
Sabiston: Oh yeah, we used to be a team. He’s a very good networker, and I would not have had the success I’ve had without him. He hooked us up with all these film festivals, and he’s very good at promoting stuff. And he’s probably good as far as producers go. But as far as A Scanner Darkly, he just stabbed us in the back.
The Dissolve: I know you can see the making of the film on the screen and are still stung by the problems in production, but to me, the film still looks pretty great. Can you appreciate parts of it with some distance? The scramble-suit, for instance, is striking.
Sabiston: I’m glad to hear you say that. I don’t hear a lot about A Scanner Darkly, so I don’t know what the perception around it is. Like I said, I haven’t watched the film since it came out, and my impression of it is always turned when I see clips of it. Some clips look fantastic, and some clips look less-than-fantastic. If I see a bad one, I think, “Oh, that doesn’t look very good.” I sort of walk around thinking the whole movie looked like that. It changes back and forth. When I came out of the theater, I thought they did a good job, and I’m actually thankful I didn’t have to do all that work, because it looked like a hell of a lot of work. It held up, and I’m really proud that they made a movie that’s true to Philip K. Dick’s writing for once. You see all these movies made out of his work, but none of them have anything to do with the books. They may have the basic science ideas, but if you read his books, it’s more about his personality and his quirkiness, and [the film] got all that. I really am proud that Rick made that movie, and that it’s true to the book. When I saw it, I was impressed with it.
And you mention, the scramble-suit was like the biggest issue for us. There were so many iterations, and Rick was never satisfied with how it looked, and we finally got to one he was satisfied with. The work that went into that thing was crazy. That was another big issue. I think maybe 20 minutes of the film take place where the scramble-suit is onscreen, and that was a five-step process where you basically had to animate each part five times. I’m sure it was a nightmare when we told [the producers] which process Rick liked. I’m sure they were just like, “Oh my God.” It was destined to blow up in some way.
The Dissolve: Was there any inclination to kick it down the road? Like, “Let’s just do a bunch of other stuff first, and worry about the scramble-suit later?”
Sabiston: They had five teams, and one of them was the scramble-suit team that only worked on that footage. It wasn’t a question of kicking it down the road to where maybe it’d be easier, it was more just, “There’s so much of this to get through. We need to have people to work on it as soon as possible, and get it done.” It was definitely the toughest part of it. One thing they ended up doing is, they changed the scene where Keanu Reeves is in the doctor’s office in the scramble-suit. You don’t see him in the scramble-suit. There’s a lot of scenes in the book where he’s wearing the scramble-suit, but in the movie, he’s not. They changed it because it was too time-consuming to animate. I didn’t like that, and Rick didn’t like that either, but that’s one of the decisions they made. We had to do it.
This concludes our Movie Of The Week look at Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, which opened on Tuesday with Scott’s Keynote about the film’s animation and intention, and continued with Keith and Tasha’s Forum about Philip K. Dick’s particular obsessions and Linklater’s filmography. Next week, we wrap up animation month with Hayao Miyazaki’s spectacular Spirited Away, the story of a brave little girl lost in a spirit world full of danger and delirium.