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PP-Supervisor-A Scanner Darkly

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“When I was a kid, I saw Blade Runner,” recalls producer Tommy Pallotta. That was long before he knew he’d grow up to produce the film version of another Philip K. Dick book, A Scanner Darkly. He was struck by that work’s vision of the future, with giant television screens and hovercrafts, all reinforced by the space-age ideology suffusing his native Houston, headquarters for NASA.But then, when he actually found himself 20 years into the future, relocated to LA, but still producing films out of his native Texas—especially those helmed by Austin’s Richard Linklater—he realized that in this actual future, “people were still driving the same shitty cars.” Not a hovercraft in sight.And so, in the middle of the rotoscoped, Linklater-directed animated fantasy Waking Life, when Pallotta and his director found themselves talking about these other “Dickensian” works and hatching a plan to try and bring Scanner to screen, Pallotta realized that he and Linklater not only had a method for capturing the woozy, drugged out feel of the book—with the rotoscoping—but they also had come up with an aesthetic, a way that film should look.Dick’s “altered reality,” Pallotta says, “was something we were interested in.” So when the project was written and cast, there was a brief phase of filming the live action at sets around Austin, standing in for a dystopian Orange County where trade in the illicit Substance D keeps the economy—both licit (cops, drug rehab) and illicit (all the jobless on the streets)—humming along.Keanu Reeves plays the lead(s), a character known both as Fred and Bob Arctor, a cop who is so far undercover that he becomes a Substance D abuser, and his personality eventually becomes so split that he winds up investigating himself. The idea plays neatly into the author’s recurring motifs of paranoia and betrayal, the latter, often self-betrayal, since “self” is another constantly shifting “precept” in Dick’s universe. Robert Downey Jr. is his jittery friend, who may—or more likely, may not—be what he seems, and Winona Ryder is the D-using girlfriend, whose “real” personality, like everyone else’s, is likewise up for grabs.Most emblematic of this are the “scramble suits” worn by the police, a garment that is a constantly shifting array of faces and body types, so that the detectives appear more like a gray blur to anyone watching them (and finally, of course, to themselves).The suits were “a lot easier to describe in literature,” Pallotta observes, but translating them to film was a key part of the postproduction, emblematic of how that phase was organized for the entire picture. Indeed, it’s hardly fair to call it post, since the animating took around 18 months. It was “like making two films,” Pallotta agrees, and the live-action phase, where microphones could be left in shots and crude props made to stand in for the eventual animated ones—sweat pants were scramble suits—was more like a brief preproduction period leading to the animation.Since there was no “post house” to take this kind of animation to—since, indeed, the “post” was the point of the process—Pallotta and Linklater kept everything in-house, at the director’s Lone Star headquarters, using much of the same gear from Waking Life but few of the same people.That gear included Wacom tablets for drawing and rendering, and software designed by MIT-trained, but equally-Austin based computer animator Bob Sabiston—a Macintosh-based application which, as one of MIT’s own blurbs will tell you, “interpolat(es) hand-drawn lines and shapes over video footage.”And while Sabiston returned from Waking Life to oversee this latest use of his software, he might be the first to tell you the machines can’t interpolate a darn thing: lines were laid over discrete QuickTime files of specific scenes as work unfolded—unless there are initial lines to begin with—hand-rendered visuals over the raw footage.And for that, you need animators. Or, at least artists. “We put out a call,” Pallotta says, “everywhere—on the internet and all around.”One of those answering that call was Sterling Allen, an artist who works with drawings and photography, and sometimes both together. His rise was swift. He was promoted to be one of the supervising heads of the five main animation groups, each being charged with a particular sequence of scenes, or, in the case of the scramble suit group, a particular effect.Each group would get its scenes in QuickTime, and go to work with its Wacom tablets, sending roughed-out scenes back to the computers, where after making lines and color choices on, say, frame 10, and then drawing out where and how they wanted those same choices to look in frame 20, Sabiston’s RotoShop software would take over and provide services of a modern, digital animation ’tweener, filling-in between frames.But that wasn’t the only posting happening in Linklater’s building, which Allen describes as “a rundown place off the freeway.” The director’s other films, Bad News Bears and Fast Food Nation were being edited there, along with the rotoscoping—all of which provided a nice hum of activity, and convivial company for a Shiner Bock or two at closing time, in about 2,500 square feet of space.“Everyone was so excited to be working on a project of this scale,” Allen says. And why not? It was the kind of place where people brought their dogs to work, he adds.Allen worked on a lot of the close-ups of Downey’s frenetic character, using RotoShop’s vector-based line tool, as well as its polygon tool, which could extrapolate color and shading to an immediate area.Since other people were working on long shots of characters, or backgrounds in given scenes—and since scramble suits walked in and out of those scenes—each team would periodically check footage from the others.“I would review QuickTime [files] daily,” Allen says. “As stuff was finished, you could piece together the movie.”The size of the teams, and the overall level of personnel, changed depending where the postproduction pipeline was. “As the film went on,” Allen notes, “I was one of two [supervisors] who saw the thing through.”“This project was unique because it was in Austin,” Allen concludes. Certainly the ability to ramp up from almost scratch, and the willingness to train new people, make Scanner unique among Hollywood offerings. (The film is released by Warner Classics.)Now that Allen is back to doing his own, gallery-bound work, he notes that he isn’t necessarily waiting for the next film gig to come along, but he’s glad for the experience. “Any job you work is gonna change your art,” he states. As for the film, and its disorienting, yet appropriate, look, “I think it worked out.”

Written by Mark London Williams

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