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Blurring the lines in 'A Scanner Darkly'

Animation technique usually reserved for life-like special effects gives Philip K. Dick adaptation drug-induced ardor. Images: The hazy world of 'Scanner'

In the sci-fi thriller "A Scanner Darkly," the main character, played by Keanu Reeves, appears as a hazy, shape-shifting mass of ever-changing skin tones and features.

A reluctant undercover drug enforcement agent, Reeves' character Bob Arctor spends his off hours as a drug dealer hooked on a futuristic, meth-like drug called Substance D. The character weaves in and out of his two worlds until they become intertwined in a paranoid struggle of forces as indistinguishable as the often-blurred comic-book-like animation overlaying the characters on film.

A Scanner Darkly

The cloudy, half-dream/half-reality in the movie, which is being released nationwide on Friday, was achieved by digital rotoscope animation, a time-consuming process of transferring live action video footage into animation, frame by frame. The technique--which has been around for years, but has received a boost with recent software advancements--is typically reserved for creating more life-like special effects and enhancing visuals in small segments of film.

"Scanner" director Richard Linklater "has taken a radically different approach to digital rotoscoping by making an entire feature-length film," said Aaron Muszalski, a digital rotoscope artist and visual-effects instructor at San Francisco's Academy of Art University, who did not work on the film. "Getting consistency out of rotoscoping is tedious, expensive and slow; the only reason to do this would be if the artist feels this style is vital to telling the story."

Indeed, the fuzzy, animated borders surrounding the characters act as tracers, poignantly illustrating the drug-induced surrealism portrayed in the classic 1979 Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel on which the film is based.

"'A Scanner Darkly' has a kind of hypnotic visual appeal, and there's something very appropriate in how a chair in Bob Arctor's kitchen appears to hover above the floor, replicating the kind of time-space visual dislocations that can be produced through the consumption of hallucinogens," The New York Times wrote in its review of the film.

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Video: Sci-fi springs to life
Watch a segment of the film "A Scanner Darkly."

Digital rotoscoping consists primarily of using animation software, such as Apple Computer's Shake 4.1, EyeOn's Fusion and Adobe's AfterEffects, to repeatedly trace lines through a series of dots called splines, or mathematically defined curves connected by groups of points outlining an image.

"Rotoscoping is this amazingly torturous kind of almost unbelievable, complex, unseen task," Muszalski said. It's the type of job usually reserved for entry-level animators that he jokingly refers to as "rotoscope monkeys."

Linklater, whose other films include "Waking Life," "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused," used a unique and proprietary rotoscope software program called Rotoshop, which simplifed the rotoscope process, according to Muszalski.

Connecting the dots
Rotoshop applies a painter-like interface to the customary spline-oriented rotoscope base in the other roto-programs. So instead of hours and hours of connecting the dots (so to speak), a simple gesture like a brush stroke creates the strokes of light, color and transparency found in the vibrant, Technicolor-like hues and wobbly figures that characterize "Scanner."

"Rotoshop allows for the same mathematical precision as the other software programs, but it's the only one that makes an entire feature-length film in rotoscope feasible," Muszalski said.

The software program was designed by Bob Sabiston, an MIT grad in visual effects and the owner and lone employee of Flat Black Films, the Austin, Texas-based production company that owns the rights to Rotoshop.

"My original intention was to trace everything by hand," Sabiston said. "My idea was to do sort of gestural hand drawings over people's faces to capture people expressions, so in the course of writing the software I came across tools that save time."

Although animation continues to become increasingly prominent in Hollywood with hits like "Cars," "Chicken Little," "Madagascar," "Corpse Bride" and "The Incredibles," techniques such as CGI, anime and stop-motion largely remain the territory of experts. Animating an entire film can be a maddening task.

To create digital rotoscoping effects, the animator, or "rotoscope monkey," spends hours connecting the dots in each frame, drawing the animation onto the film, then coloring it in, usually with the aim of creating realistic action sequences or adding emphasis to visual effects.

Bob Sabiston
Bob Sabiston, Rotoshop designer

Sabiston, Linklater and "Scanner" producer Tommy Pallotta first ventured into feature-length digital rotoscoping animation using Rotoshop with the 2001 movie "Waking Life," a critical success but not a commercial hit.

For "Scanner," their second venture, Linklater and Pallotta envisioned a more realistic, uniform look than the one presented in "Waking Life," a trippy, unreal ponderance of reality displayed in a series of vignettes that change aesthetically from scene to scene. Some appear heavily painted over, while others are more life-like.

That wasn't the only difference.

When shooting for "Scanner" began in the spring of 2004, Sabiston began applying extensive updates to the software, such as blurring, warping and color gradience, to produce the comic-book effect.

"I added a lot of this particular effect that created all the changing layers and stuff specific to the scramble suit (worn by the undercover drug agent)," he said. "I knew it was going to be a complicated movie, and there was a list of effects we would need so there was very specific software written to make all that easier."

Since the film was going to be rotoscoped, there were no early morning make-up sessions and no elaborate scenery to be constructed. Filming was complete in six months, but the animation took more than a year. The picture's original release date, scheduled for September 2005, had to be pushed back six months because of the animation, then pushed back again. The point of the artistic endeavor, Sabiston said, was to create an animated film that would appeal to adults and kids alike.

But things went south quickly after the edited movie was sent to be rotoscoped. According to a story in Wired magazine, Sabiston and the original crew of animators were let go four months after rotoscoping began because of missed deadlines and what Linklater perceived as a lack of uniformity in the images being produced.

In February 2005, according to the story, Sabiston and his crew went out for coffee and returned to find the locks to the studio doors changed and their work stations seized. Sabiston was replaced with two local artists, the budget was pushed up from $6.7 million to $8.7 million. Linklater, who could not be reached for comment, was given another six months to finish the movie. When asked about the incident, Sabiston said, "I'm not really allowed to comment."

He did however, offer extensive views on animation.

"If possible, I would like to see animation used as a fine-art form," he said. "Most of the time when you see animation, it's not in that context. It's for kids, so I'm standing up for the idea that animation could be used for adults in an artistic context."

Images produced by a primitive version of Rotoshop first showed up as short black-and-white animated interview shorts on MTV in 1997. After that, Sabiston and some friends created the MTV show "Roadhead" and some 15-minute films.

As for any future projects, Sabiston said he is working on a short film called "Fuzzytown," with a team of two brothers from his native town of Austin.

"It's a real absurd comedy in the tradition of 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Twin Peaks,'" he said. "We have a script and a five-minute animation sample; we're trying to find a movie studio to help us get it made."

For now, Sabiston and whatever team of freelancers he hires are the only people licensed to use Rotoshop--and it looks like it's going to remain that way, at least for a while.

"It's good for us to be the only ones that can do it," he said. "We get to decide how it gets used. It's only used with things I'm OK with, so it's not everywhere. I think people would get real tired with it if they saw it too much."