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A scanner rotoscoped


Yesterday, I received a review copy of the upcoming (due out on April 10th) HD DVD release of A Scanner Darkly, from DVD Pacific.

Back when this film was released on DVD, I was interested to see it, due to director Richard Linklater’s rather odd choice of shooting it in live action and then applying a “cel-shading” effect to it, to give it the appearance of hand-drawn animation (a look initially popularised by video games like Jet Set Radio, although that particular title, of course, wasn’t shot in live action). It’s really the latest iteration of rotoscoping, a time- and cost-saving measure initially attempted by legendary animators Dave and Max Fleischer in the 1930s. The Fleischers quickly determined that rotoscoping simply wasn’t worth the time of day, because the results it produced, while requiring considerably less time and skill on the part of the animators, were, to put it bluntly, not good. Nonetheless, it would appear that many filmmakers have yet to learn the lessons that the Fleischers learned more than 70 years ago. These tend to be live action directors, who don’t really understand the point or potential of animation as a medium, and approach things from the frankly ludicrous perspective of trying to make it emulate live action as much as possible. This results in films that range from merely being stilted and clumsy (see Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, which, unique and at times impressive as it is, falters when it comes to the sloppily traced character animation) to downright grotesque (Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express, among others).

A Scanner Darkly, sadly, falls somewhere between these two extremes. Characters, objects and even details like eyes and facial hair “swim” around the screen in a distracting and at times nauseating manner, movements strobe rather than looking organic, and the main question on my mind was “what was the point?” Why did Linklater go to the trouble of shooting all this material using real actors, only to scan his footage into a computer and slap what looks like a silly Photoshop effect over it all? What does the film gain by being animated (and I use the term loosely, because I consider rotoscoping as illegitimate a form of animation as motion capture)? The answer is nothing. Linklater sees the medium from the perspective of a live action director, and thus isn’t able to harness its unique qualities in the way that a proper animation director could. The end result is merely a gimmick - a “hey, it’s like a real-life cartoon” affair that is probably better suited to a technician’s demo reel rather than a commercial movie or (HD) DVD.

As for the quality of the plot itself (which, given that it is essentially just a live action film masquerading as animation, is ultimately the most important element)… well, I have to admit that I was really tired last night, and didn’t have the energy or patience to get through the whole thing, but, from what I saw… eh, it just wasn’t gripping me. It was okay, I guess, but I felt strangely uninvolved. Since I’ve got a four-day weekend (it being the time of year when Christians celebrate the death of their leader - go figure), I’m going to give it another shot when I’m feeling more awake. Well, I’ve got to - I need to review the damn thing. So far, though, my reaction has been one big “meh”.

Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2007 at 5:52 PM | Comments: 5
Categories: Animation | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Technology



So, what about the Transfer? Good, bad, mediocre? Or is it just like "UltraViolet" with it's smartblur effect, that it's hard to tell if the image quality is good or not.

Posted by: Kamyar-MZ, April 6, 2007 1:44 AM


It's certainly interesting to see the different criteria people put to movies when they judge them. I would have never even begun to consider those aspects. I was for the most part, indifferent to what you nitpicked, and I believe I will stay so. That's probably because I'm not as much of an animation enthusiast, or stickler for animation conventions like you. My view is broad, and I can obviously tell that products such as 6Teen and even family guy are animation atrocities.

Anyway, when I watched it, I was more interested in the actual content, and how it compared to the Phillip K. Dick novel it was based on. From an animation jargon and conventions illiterate perspective, I found the rotoscoping crucial. To be fair, I would have never have imagined it to be that way while reading it, and to be fair, the more I watch movies and the more I read books, I've come to realize that film and literature are two completely different art forms... as simple as that sounds. So a book can get away with and do things a movie can't and vice versa. So as a film, being about paranoia, drugs, hallucinations, and conspiracies, I found that the unreal "graphic novel" look first off, helped in the detachment/disorientation I needed to feel, and the "distracting" shakiness helped in it. I doubt Richard Linklater is any sort of animation crusader as say John K. and I don't think he needs to be. I think animation, if a bit gimmicky, was good for being borrowed as a mere technique in conveying the hallucinatory context and... tone, for lack of a better word, of the tone.

As for the story itself, I'll admit, it's not conventional, straight-forward, or plotty, that could do with the source material but I won't use that as a defense. I think once again, it's more about the ideas presented than anything else. Most of the people I've shown it to, tend to say they didn't "get it", but they're more trained in seeing conventional linear 3 act stories, where as this was more random and abstract, and where things don't come together until the end. I admit, I'm a bit of a detached person, my crime, but I personally enjoyed not really being involved in it, only sharing the confusion with characters, as it's how I feel about life and take things in. I'll leave it at that, before I ramble any further, but that's my 2 cents.

Posted by: Todd S. Gallows, April 6, 2007 5:41 AM


Mr. Gallows:

That’s actually a good point about the disorientation conveyed by the unusual look. Perhaps it will work better for me when I give it another go. I suppose I’m just so aware of the technique that it ended up taking me out of the film itself. In any event, I know for a fact that Linklater has used this technique in the past, seemingly without any intention of conveying feelings of disorientation and detachment, which is why I’m suspicious that he simply applied the effect for the sake of it.


Wow, can’t believe I didn’t mention the transfer. You’re right, it’s one of those films where the visuals make it rather difficult to appraise. The opening logos look a bit soft, if that’s any indication (my brother said that “so far, it basically looks like a very good DVD”), but I can’t really see any explicit problems with the film itself. Then again, the visual style is so basic anyway that I’m not sure that it really benefits a great deal from high definition. That said, it certainly doesn’t have any of the rampant compression artefacts that I’ve seen in screenshots of the standard def release.

Posted by: Whiggles, April 6, 2007 4:27 PM


Fair enough, I have seen Waking Life which did have animation as a gimmick to just make it not seem boring that it's a movie about people talking.

Posted by: Todd S. Gallows, April 6, 2007 5:03 PM


I loved the Fleischer's use of motion capture, especially the SUPERMAN cartoons.

Posted by: Marcus, April 6, 2007 10:17 PM

Comments on this entry and all entries up to and including June 30th 2009 have been closed. The discussion continues on the new Land of Whimsy blog:


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