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."

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