Director Richard Linklater released two experimental pictures in 2001, one right after another. "Tape", a one-room play on film, was released about a week after "Waking Life", an animated picture that actually has the animation painted over live-action film. There was an interesting reaction to both; while each picture was highly praised, there was a minority of the viewing audience for each that strongly disliked each. My thoughts were, oddly enough, similar to the works of other recent directors (Robert Zemeckis with "Cast Away" and "What Lies Beneath"; Barry Levinson with "Wag The Dog" and "Sphere") - I liked one "Waking Life" and strongly disliked the other "Tape".
"Waking Life" is arguably the more experimental of the two, not only for the animation aspect, but for the fact that it does also not offer a great deal of plot. It, like Linklater's wandering "Slacker", still remains interesting. The movie stars Wiley Wiggins (of Linklater's "Dazed and Confused") as a nameless hero who returns to a small town. Even he does not really have much of a story; he remains as the observer to a series of oddballs and intellectuals who discuss the meaning of life and dreams, as well as talk about previous writers and artists who have provided interesting philosophies on who we are. The one element that's strung throughout the film is the Wiggins character pondering whether or not he is in a dream state and if he can actually wake up into what we consider reality. Reportedly, the actors improved much of their dialogue - while their thoughts are insightful, thoughtful and often fascinating, I would not envy having to remember several paragraphs of very heavy dialogue.
The film's animation is really like nothing that I've ever seen before in a feature film; it's certainly not Disney and it's not anime. It's a really beautiful, fluid style that seems like a slightly dreamlike, surreal reality. Some scenes have backgrounds that slightly wave around, like the sea. While this may be a bit unsettling for those who can get sea-sick, the effect isn't constantly seen and it does work for the discussion of dreams and reality. A team of about 30 animators worked on this feature, with each sequence being worked on by a different animator; while the style sometimes changes here and there, the scenes still tie together well.
The film does not always offer time to ponder its discussions of existence and many will likely want to go through the film a second time to catch some comments that they've missed. While a film of people talking about life may not exactly sound enjoyable, Linklater's discussions are uncommonly interesting and really drew me in and held my interest throughout. You may or may not agree with what all the characters are saying, but I didn't find anything here that wasn't thought-provoking. As with Linklater's previous films, which all also contain much discussion about the meanings of life and love, he has created a series of enjoyably out-there characters and brought together a series of strong actors to deliver them. Characters from the director's previous films, such as the Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy characters from "Before Sunrise", also return here.
"Waking Life" isn't quite for everyone, but I really found it very enjoyable and thought it was a successful experiement. It's a rare film (well, considering the kinds of films that are out there today) that really sticks with you and will likely fuel debates and discussions between viewers.
VIDEO: "Waking Life" is presented by 20th Century Fox in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Simply, the presentation seemed to be a flawless representation of the intended images. The animation was sharp and well-defined throughout, with none of the usual flaws. There were no instances of pixelation or edge enhancement, while the print used was perfectly clear and crisp. The film's color palette also looked terrific, with no smearing or other problems. Nothing much to say here, aside from that this is fantastic effort from Fox.
SOUND: "Waking Life" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film does not use sound agressively or even that actively, nor does it really need to. The majority of the film's sound is focused firmly in the front speakers, as the film is almost completely dialogue-driven. Still, while the film is dialogue-heavy, there are some nice instances of ambient sounds. Dialogue, certainly the most important element of the audio, remained clear and crisp, as did the lively score.
MENUS: Most of the menus provide enjoyable animation and the score playing in the background.
Commentary: There are three commentaries included on the disc - one text-based, while the other two are audio commentaries from the filmmakers. The audio commentaries include director Richard Linklater, animator director Bob Sabistan, actor Wiley Wiggins and producer Tommy Pallotta on the first track and the film's animators on the second track. There is also an additional subtitle fact track that provides some pretty informative comments on the on-screen events throughout. The Linklater-lead track provides a relaxed and informative discussion of the making of both the live-action picture (done with two light-weight digital cameras) and the animation process. In addition, there's also some fun little stories about the film and some discussion and jokes about the inspirations for the film. The animators provide a fun track of their own, chatting about their approach to the particular scene they worked on.
Live Action Greatest Hits: These are clips from the live-action film that was done before animation of the scenes began. While it's fascinating to see this digital video footage, it would have been really nice if multi-angle was used to be able to easily go back and forth to compare the animated and live-action material.
Animation Software Tutorial: Animator Bob Sabiston provides a look at the software that he developed to bring the animation of "Waking Life" to life. The animator shows the process of taking the live-action footage that's on the computer and using the rotoscope process to cover it with layers of animation.
EPK: While an "Electronic Press Kit" featurette doesn't exactly sound promising, this is actually a very informative and interesting little piece that provides a lot of interesting information about the animation and live-action production process while also comparing a few of the live-action/animation scenes. Interviews with animation director Bob Sabiston and director Richard Linklater, among others, are included. While this featurette is only about 4 1/2 minutes, it's very to-the-point and packs a solid amount of info in within a limited time.
Animation Scrap Heap: This is a section that provides 19 small bits that were not used in the final film: some are simply alternate versions, some are deleted scenes, some are tests and some are rough versions.
Also: The director's animated short "Snack and Drink" along with the "First Pass" animation tests.
Trailers: A trailer for both "Waking Life" and the upcoming Goldie Hawn/Susan Sarandon ex-groupie comedy "The Banger Sisters" are included.
Final Thoughts: "Waking Life" is a fascinating and lively film that provides not only visual interest in the unusual and often beautiful animation, but also a lot of thought-provoking discussion of existence. Those who are already fans should certainly pick up Fox's DVD edition, which provides a terrific presentation of the film, along with a lot of extras. Those who haven't seen it, but are interested, should definitely at least give it a try as a rental.