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DRAWING FROM DREAMS RICHARD LINKLATER'S NEW FILM REVOLVES AROUND THE SUBCONSCIOUS APPEAL OF CARTOONS.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

Richard Linklater may be in the wrong business. But it's the only thing he knows.

``Some genres you go into, but with others, I try to make films about ideas and thoughts that just aren't movies,'' says the 41-year-old, Texas- based director who made a big splash in the independent film scene 10 years ago with his Austin talkfest ``Slacker.'' ``I always feel kind of cursed: Film is my medium, but I have all these things I'd love to express and film is not the place to express them.

``I wish I was a novelist sometimes,'' adds Linklater, who's also known for the unusually realistic teen party comedy ``Dazed and Confused'' and the cerebral one-night-stand-picture ``Before Sunrise.'' ``There's a film I want to do about childhood and I thought of writing a novel about it, but the more I got into it the more I realized that I have to work on it in cinematic terms. That's all I really feel like I can do.''

Linklater has done it like never before with his new feature, ``Waking Life.'' As were ``Slacker'' and ``Sunrise,'' it's a grad school bull session of a movie that involves both actors and fascinating real-life characters speculating and philosophizing about the universe, politics, art and the general nature of existence.

But this time, it's all presented in easy-to-follow cartoon format.

Toons for adults

That was a joke. While ``Waking Life'' is indeed computer animated, its free-form visuals and conversation-first/plot-comes-second narrative structure make it anything but a typical cartoon entertainment. In fact, it's that rarest of breakthroughs, an animated film pitched squarely and solely at inquisitive adult minds.

``It's definitely not a kids film,'' Linklater confirms. ``I like animation, but you can't really take the genre too seriously, subject matter-wise. Because cartoon features cost so much, usually, they've got to be things that kids want to see eight times and all of that stuff. It was fun to be outside of those kinds of restraints.''

``Waking Life'' exists outside of most other movie restraints as well. It's one man's journey through his subconscious, where he encounters a variety of thoughtful, wacky or alarming people. Slightly surreal effects such as wavering backgrounds and odd color and light shifts give way to amusing physical transformations, people turning into machines or clouds and whatnot. Eventually, the protagonist - voiced by and modeled on ``Dazed and Confused'' star Wiley Wiggins - realizes that he's trapped inside of a dream from which he cannot awaken.

``I thought of it as this collage of ideas,'' Linklater explains. ``I was sort of going back, in my personal life, to these early ideas that you realize are kind of these eternal mysteries that you never really answer, but just sort of move on from. I thought a dream narrative was the proper place for these notions.

Dream vs. reality

``And it's personal - I actually had this experience a long time ago, these different levels of reality,'' he adds. ``Some people say, 'Oh, you left your body,' but no, you didn't. It's a dream, a product of your brain. We tend to say that an experience you had that wasn't real is worthless, but I never made much of a distinction between the real and nonreal world of consciousness. I always thought that if something profound happens in a dream, the ideas related to it should be taken on as real.''

``Waking Life's'' form similarly blurs the lines dividing reality and other dimensions. Over 25 days on store-bought video cameras, Linklater shot people talking and walking (one day, an extraordinary 22 pages of script were recorded). The live-action footage was then edited and turned over to a 30-plus crew of Austin animators headed by art director Bob Sabiston. Sabiston had been perfecting software that enabled artists to adapt live images into a computer animated format, a process not unlike rotoscoping, in which artists trace filmed actors' movements onto cartoon cells.

But Sabiston's software's abilities extend far beyond tracing.

``I never thought of it as rotoscoping, but as a way to make animated films based on real people's actions,'' Sabiston explains. ``I wanted to record the weird things that people do that would be very hard to make up. So I wrote this program to draw lines on top of videos that I'd scanned into the computer and, in the process of doing that, I realized that the computer could make smooth in-betweens, lines between the brush strokes that you draw.

``That's the main innovation of the program,'' Sabiston adds. ``It saves the animator time, rather than making him hand-trace every frame. And the software does have its own, sort of floating look. The big difference is that it's so close to painting that you can take advantage of individual artists' styles. You can have really nice, thin lines that don't have any computer jagginess to them, and there are also transparencies for shadows and layering up colors and images for a kind of watercolor effect.''

Linklater and Sabiston matched animators with different videotaped speakers, then allowed each artist to reinterpret the person in his or her own style.

``This whole notion of shooting live action and then artists rendering it, it seemed like the way your brain reconstructs memory or a dream,'' the director says. ``The film is about other levels of consciousness and I wanted it to be perceived like that, and live action would be so boring, it just wouldn't work.''

That said, Linklater's main directing task once the animation commenced was to make sure that each artist designed his or her character in a way that captured the essence of the real-life subject.

As for directing the flesh-and-blood players - who besides Wiggins included actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprising their ``Before Sunrise'' roles, the director and his 8-year-old daughter Lorelei, and assorted friends, fellow filmmakers, UT professors and local Austin burnouts - knowing that they were all going to be reanimated had a liberating effect.

``Usually, when you're shooting, the image is everything,'' Linklater notes, ``the light, the reflection, color coordination. But this was like, ahh, if there are any problems, we'll animate around 'em. Boom mike in the shot? Who cares? And I think everybody liked the idea that they were going to be animated, though I wanted them to be real, no one acted differently or anything like that. They got a kick out of it; many brought paintings or caricatures of themselves.''

Despite the relative speed of Sabiston's software, it still took more than a year to animate ``Waking Life.'' During that time, Linklater made another movie, ``Tape,'' based on a Stephen Belber play Hawke brought to his attention. That movie opens in L.A. on Nov. 2.

The making of `Tape'

Shot on digital video in a single, motel room location and in real time, ``Tape'' is a three-hander in which Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard play high-school buddies, reunited during a film festival 10 years later, who try to come to terms with their unresolved feelings - and then some - about the girl (Uma Thurman) they both had relations with as teen-agers.

``It's very different,'' Linklater points out, unnecessarily. ``We did it very quickly. The animators were making about 15 seconds a week, and all I was doing was going, 'OK, looks good, see you next week.' But I was still involved with sound and music on 'Waking Life,' so I couldn't have taken on a bigger film. 'Tape' was perfect. We rehearsed it for a few weeks and then we shot it in six days. It was a big challenge, technically, to make it work in one room. But it kept me alive; it would have been a really torturous year if I had just been sitting around waiting for animation.''

Now, with both unusual features on their way to theaters, Linklater's reputation as the most independent of indie filmmakers seems pretty secure. His future making movies that shouldn't be made, however, is an entirely different matter.

``It might appear so, but it's never really easy,'' Linklater shrugs. ``I mean, I was lucky that I got funding for some of these films at all. But I'm always really responsible and frugal. 'Waking Life,' for all the 2 1/2 years that went into it, it's low-budget. I would never waste resources on something that I didn't think would make its money back. I think you get in trouble when you spend too much money on experimenting; it's almost unethical.

``But it never really gets easier.''

CAPTION(S):

6 photos

Photo:

(1) no caption (Richard Linklater)

Aaron Harris/Associated Press

(2) Richard Linklater, as rendered in ``Waking Life'': ``This whole notion of shooting live action and then artists rendering it, it seemed like the way your brain reconstructs memory or a dream.''

Aaron Harris/Associated Press

(3 -- 6) Scenes from ``Waking Life''
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 17, 2001
Words:1477
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