A Scanner Darkly

This month our panel discuss Richard Linklater’s innovative adaptation of the Philip K Dick novel, A Scanner Darkly



Philip Hunt is a partner and director at animation house, Studio aka.

A self-confessed Dick-head, Fred Deakin is a co-founder of design studio Airside as well as being one half of the band Lemon Jelly.

A Scanner Darkly was adapted from the Philip K Dick novel. Directed by Richard Linklater, whose earlier films include Waking Life, it tells the story of Fred (Keanu Reeves), a undercover police agent who wears an identity-concealing outfit. He is asked to spy on drug user Bob Arctor, who just happens to be himself. Confused? You will be


CR: What were your initial impressions of the film?

Philip: I think the film started really, really well – the opening scene with the bugs. It set up something which never really developed. The film really became about conversations and paranoia. I’d like to read the book. The film had, I thought, a certain quietness and steadiness to it that was interesting but would perhaps have been more interesting had they not drawn all over it. There is a cheap joke that the technique probably added more to Keanu Reeves’ performance than was originally there on film.

Fred: It’s a good joke! It’s interesting that the cast, they’re all big names – but they’re all slightly past their prime. They’re all playing teenagers – or early 20-somethings for sure – yet they’re probably all in their 40s so I’m sure the technique was a plus here.


CR: Does the Rotoscoping technique work for you? Was it done well/convincingly?

FD: I felt very comforted by watching this multi-million pound Hollywood blockbuster. Having made lots of Rotoscoped motion image myself I know that it’s a fucker getting perspective right during a camera pan – and they couldn’t solve it either. Parts of it look pretty amateurish really, very clunky. And the scramble suits were not very convincing either.

PH: Visually the effect of the scramble suits felt really annoying because you stop believing that anyone would be able to cope with this without the entire office going insane – if everyone you’re talking to looks like that then I don’t know how you’d get through the day! There were scenes where they’d rendered the backgrounds in 3D and it held true, and others where it was like watching Mr Ben.

One of the most annoying things to me was the feeling that someone was just sitting there desperately going through available filters and that weird posterising thing going on – which sometimes bugged the hell out of me. I felt that someone was desperately playing with what a machine could do for them rather than honing a particular look. The whole Rotoscoping idea is ancient and perhaps you can automate it to an extent, though I bet it was bloody hard work on this.

FD: I don’t think it’s automated at all. If you automated it I think it becomes garbage. I’ve personally tried and seen other people try and fail. When a computer is doing it, that’s not drawing, that’s processed video.

PH: Like when you watch motion capture and all you can see is the actor – it renders the whole thing pointless. I feel cheated. One thing I’d say about this film that did work for me is that the technique’s so overwhelming that I stopped worrying about the fact that someone was trying to hide live action from me.

I just watched a film called Immortal – a French science fiction film based on a comic strip. They pitched live action characters in with 3D characters and made no attempt to bring them together. It’s so jarring – it doesn’t work at all. You’re looking at the 3D characters and realising/seeing all the flaws in them ­– all you can see is what’s wrong. And all you can see in the actors’ performances is also what’s wrong – none of them have eyelines or seem to know where anything is and the whole thing breaks apart. Unlike that film, I felt that this actually held together.

FD: I thought one thing they did get right was the character animation – the black outline style is very strong and the stills from it look fantastic.


CR: Leaving aside technical aspects, did you enjoy it?

PH: Not especially. Did I hate it? Not especially. It left me on a very even keel. I still can’t quite work out why they produced it in the way they did. During the first scene I thought, “ah, this is why they’ve added the post-production – this is taking the film into another realm that only comic book interpretation can achieve, an added layer of dramatic staging.” But really I feel they could have shot this on tape and, as a piece, it would be pretty much the same. Maybe the look rendered the film more plausible – because it was in a comic book form – but I felt that, dramatically, it only got interesting in the last five minutes, when the conspiracy is revealed. I just don’t know why the film was done in this way.

FD: I’m coming from a different critical perspective in that I am, as they say, a Dick-head – I’m a bit of a fan of Philip K Dick’s work and there are several things you can see in the brief, as it were, for this film that they sat down and nailed to the floor. One – this is the first time one of Philip K Dick’s books has been rendered in any way faithfully in the form of a movie. The plot and the structure are incredibly and uncannily close to the book. I think that clearly there was the thought that this time, we’re going to do it right, this time we’re going to do it justice. They didn’t change the ending or anything. Normally what they do is gut his books. Dick was amazingly prolific, he wrote dozens of books and he’s very “stream of consciousness”.

So that was thing number one: let’s make this film faithful to the book. And then, I don’t know if you saw Waking Life, the Rotoscope film that Richard Linklater did before, but clearly he went “let’s go crazy” on Waking Life. But here, the look just takes care of the science fiction element. If we had just seen the photographic version of this – and I’m sure it must exist somewhere as they must have edited it first and Rotoscoped it after – we’d be asking “Where are the bells and whistles? This is a science fiction film, it’s Philip K Dick, we need to see an amazing visual cornucopia.” So I think that the decision to Rotoscope but to not go crazy with the technique is a very clever one.

PH: There could be a really interesting DVD extra there: a version with the effects switched off. It’d be like watching King Kong with the greenscreen switched off.


CR: So, what is this film – animation? Or something else?

PH: Is it possible to successfully refer to this film as being animation? I tend to look at animation two ways – it’s a catch-all term for loads of techniques which you can’t get too precious about OR occasionally I reverse that position and think no, that’s not animation, that’s something else. And I did feel that this film is an exercise in brilliant post-production and post-effects – there’s a word missing for what this is – but I didn’t feel that this was something that was being animated in a very literal sense. It’s manipulated.

FD: I think you’re right. In a way it’s trying to adhere to too many agendas at the same time – to be true to Philip K Dick’s book, make a Rotoscope movie, make a Hollywood film… Actually Waking Life is a much more frantic exploration of the Rotoscoping technique, even though I think it’s a complete mess: I enjoyed watching it hugely but it’s not exactly coherent that’s for sure. They took Rotoscoping as a starting point and then all had a go: about ten different animators took sections of film and did their thing so five minutes is brilliant, five minutes is shit and so on. That was, to my mind, much more an animated film than this one.

What’s exciting about this is that, clearly, animation is now huge: it’s big bucks and Pixar has changed the entire landscape in Hollywood. That Richard Linklater could get this film made at all, considering the way that it’s made, to me is the most exciting thing about it. The technology required is now accessible and Pandora’s Box is open…

PH: Thank God there’s a film in the cinema that isn’t about cute animals in peril…





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