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Animation for Thinking Adults: An Interview with Bob Sabiston

by Dan Heaton

Bob Sabiston served as the Art Director for Waking Life, Richard Linklater's remarkably unique 2001 film. It showcased his rotoscoping technique that involves painting over previously shot video footage. The result is stunning animation that brings colorful energy to an intriguing discussion about dreams and philosophy. Sabiston has also worked on numerous short features, including the award-winning Snack and Drink and the PBS series Figures of Speech. digitallyOBSESSED! recently spoke at length with Sabiston about the intricacies of the Waking Life production and his inventive process.

dOc: How did your involvement in Waking Life begin?

Sabiston: I'd been making short films with my friend Tommy Pallotta for a few years, and Tommy's a pretty good friend of Richard Linklater. He kept him up to date on what we were doing. We got involved with a different project, a TV show pilot, which didn't happen. Because of that, Rick was trying to think of different ways to use the animation. I know that he had ideas for Waking Life a long time ago, but had just forgotten about that and couldn't think of a good way to tell that story.

dOc: How far along was Richard Linklater's concept when you became involved?

Sabiston: We were actually working out of Rick's offices on a PBS project. I think he was just thinking about what could be an animated project. We had been working there for about three or four months when he came to me with a rough script: a collection of notes and dialogue. He gave a copy to me and Tommy to look at. The early form of it was there then. I'm not sure how long he'd been working on it. I don't think he really started thinking seriously about doing that movie until he had already decided to do something with the animation. dOc: So the animation came first?

Sabiston: We were weighing our options between doing a children's movie or this kind of artsy, experimental movie. He asked me about that, and I was in favor of the experimental one.

dOc: And the children's movie would have the same kind of animation?

Sabiston: Yeah, he was saying that if we were going to make an animated feature, would you rather do a bigger-budget kids movie or a low-budget, art flick?

dOc: What were your primary goals for the visual style of Waking Life?

Sabiston: They went ahead and shot and edited the video, so we could pretty much watch the whole movie on video first. My impression was that the best way to animate it would be realistically, not trying to do too much crazy stuff with the animation. You would just illustrate their real lives, and that would be the best way to get it across. To that end, we had everybody stick with a natural color palette, pretty much taking colors off the video itself. It only breaks with reality every now and then.

dOc: How did you go about choosing the large group of animators for the project?

Sabiston: Some of them were already working with me on other projects. I got the rest of them through word-of-mouth. A lot of the animators were painters, and they had friends who were painters. We put up some fliers. I've always gotten people by just putting up fliers at art-supply stores and coffee shops.

dOc: And that works pretty well in Austin?

Sabiston:Yeah, it works pretty well. A lot of people showed up that we didn't use. I looked at their artwork and tried to get a feeling for how quickly they would be able to learn the software and how we would get along. I didn't really have that many people come in for it. We took a good percentage, though.

dOc: So what was the daily atmosphere like among the animators involved?

Sabiston: It was great. That's really what I try to set up: a free atmosphere where there's not a lot of rules placed on them. No one has a desk and people just come in and work four-hour shifts. They would just take whatever computer was available since all the computers were networked. Each computer was basically the same, and there were different groups of people sitting together on different days. You would go through these patterns where a certain group of people would sit in one room for a while, and it was interesting. Everybody always commented that we had a really great, diverse group of people.

dOc: There were so many different types of artists, too.

Sabiston: Luckily, we had a project that would allow that kind of person to work on it. That didn't have to have a lot of computer training.

dOc: You touched on this a bit about the colors, but do you set many boundaries for the animators before they started working?

Sabiston: We had some meetings where we talked about it looking realistic. They went through an approval process for the design of their characters, where they would draw a still of how they would do it before we had them spend any time actually animating. They would print out how they would do it, and I would have a meeting with Rick and Anne (Walker-Mcbay). Once they were okay with it, we would go ahead and start. dOc: How much input did Richard have in the daily animation process?

Sabiston: Not a whole lot of daily input. He didn't spend a lot of time with the animators. I think he wanted to have a little buffer there. He wasn't around from day-to-day. It was more of a weekly meeting, where I would show him everything that everyone had done, and he would talk about what he didn't like and what he wanted to be different.

dOc: How much of the animation did you do yourself?

Sabiston: I did about seven or eight minutes of it. It was about as much as any one person could do. It was about the same as the other people.

dOc: Which specific scenes did you create?

Sabiston: I did the section with the little kids at the beginning. I did the stuff at the end with Wiley floating off, and the guy that's writing a novel in the bar, but I didn't do the girl. Other than that, I just did the solo Wiley stuff, like when he's looking at the clock or taking his shoes off to sleep.

dOc: How much time overall did it take to animate the film?

Sabiston: I think it was about 10 months. For one person, it was good if they could do 15 seconds a week. Maybe a minute a month, or something like that.

dOc: Wow. Let's talk about the Waking Life DVD. How did you enjoy the involvement in the DVD?

Sabiston: It was pretty fun. It's weird because we worked so hard on the movie, and it didn't seem to end. We had to do the credits, and then we had to do the DVD stuff. In a way, I was kind of getting tired of working on Waking Life. But it was fun to put the stuff together and to know that the people that were really into the movie would enjoy seeing all that stuff. We had saved a lot of the animation that didn't get used, and it was cool to get that together and know that some people would see it.

dOc: As far as DVDs go, I think it works really well.

Sabiston: Oh yeah. The commentary was fun; we just sat in a room and talked about the movie. I did two: the one with Rick, Tommy, and Wiley, which pretty much was in real time. It took about three hours. There were places were he paused and talked. The one with the animators took all day. It took like 12 hours, because the animators all had scheduled times to come in and talk. That was grueling, but it was fun.

dOc: So you stayed the whole time while all the animators came in?

Sabiston: Yeah, I stayed the whole time. I was curious to see how they would edit it because people just talked for so long. People that animated 30 seconds would talk for 10 minutes. And I thought: what are they gonna do? I think they did a pretty good job.

dOc: I think it worked out pretty well. You actually want to hear more with each animator; it's so quick.

Sabiston:For the most part, it's pretty accurate. There's a couple of places like in the movie where all the TV scenes are. Each shot on the TV was usually done by a different animator. What they did on the DVD was just focus on one. The woman who drew the cat ends up talking for about two minutes on the cat, and it's only on the screen for about five seconds.

dOc: Do you have much of a personal DVD collection or interest in the format?

Sabiston: I don't collect them. I do rent them. I like to watch extras on DVDs. For a lot of movies, I'll end up watching them twice to hear the commentaries. That's really cool. I like the fact that you can make your own DVDs now. You can make your own movies that are just as good.

dOc: In a similar vein, what are the types of films that you really enjoy?

Sabiston: I like alternative films. I've been getting into Werner Herzog movies and watching DVDs of those. It's kind of like books; you just find a director who's really good and watch all of his movies, usually older things. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of new stuff that's been very good this year.

dOc: It seems that the last few years, the crop of movies has been even weaker than the years before it. I'm not sure why.

Sabiston: I can't remember the last new movie that I was really excited about. I did like Amelie and Monsoon Wedding.

dOc: In fairly straightforward terms, can you describe the rotoscoping process and how it works?

Sabiston: The basic idea behind the fancy word is tracing over video to get the most accurate drawing as possible. Originally, it was frame-by-frame, where we would just project a film onto a piece of paper and trace over it. My technique expands on that because you start working with the concept of time, and you're doing many frames of basically the same thing. So, you treat your drawing as a set of lines that extend through time. That's kind of a complicated way of saying it. You might draw all the eyebrows first, and then all the lips, and then all the ears. If you do it that way, you can skip over the frames that don't really change that much. And you can make up the in-betweens. This gives the animation a really floating look to it. It also saves a lot of time.

dOc: Especially when it takes so long to just do a few seconds.

Sabiston: Yeah, if you were doing every frame, not only would it not look as good, it would take forever.

dOc: You probably couldn't do a 90-minute feature film that way.

Sabiston: A lot of people talk about Ralph Bakshi in the '70s who did that Lord of the Rings version. They did a lot of tricks in that movie to avoid having to do too much tracing. There's a lot of silhouettes in it. Not a lot of detail.

dOc: Is the software constantly evolving? Are you constantly improving it?

Sabiston: Yeah, I make changes, maybe not every day, but every week I make a small change here and there. We keep using it, and there's a lot of bugs in it. Also, a lot of new things get added.

dOc: What did you add specifically for Waking Life?

Sabiston: I spent about a month just intensively making changes before we started animating. Primarily among that was transparency where you could have layers or shapes that had some level or capacity to them. This allowed animators to get a more sophisticated image than anything we'd done before. Everything before that was just bright, solid colors, and with Waking Life we had all these different levels of shadows. I also had to make what seems like a simple change, but I had to go deep inside the programming to change the screen width for the film. Everything was set up for video and all built-in, and we had to go back and push all the interfaces so the image would fill the whole screen from side-to-side. There was a lot of interface programming for that.

dOc: Where do you think the software can still be improved?

Sabiston: There's some tools that people use to do solid objects that were kind of annoying, like the big, flat shapes that don't change. It has more to do with the person using it. You have to give them more practice. I'm more interested in forms of animation, not so much what needs to be fixed, but different ways in doing the animation altogether.

dOc: How are you able to balance your artistic side with the technical elements?

Sabiston: I think it all starts from the artistic side. I'll want to animate a certain thing, and I'll figure out technically what needs to be added. Every little technical change in the program is usually for a specific, one-time use in the film. After that, people start using it for other things. The technological development is totally guided by whatever project we're doing.

dOc: This was your first feature film. Besides the obvious length of time involved, what are some of the major differences in making a feature film as opposed to the shorts?

Bob In a feature film, the biggest thing was people management. You have so many more artists, and they're all working at once. They all have technical problems you have to take care of, and it's like a big management sort of deal. It's hard to tell people that a certain look is not going to work. In a short film, you may get by having it look really crazy. You can be more experimental. In something like Waking Life, if something looked like it wouldn't fit into the film, it needed to go. You had to maintain a certain level if what they were doing is not good enough or different.

dOc: I noticed with Snack and Drink that it seemed much crazier and less realistic.

Sabiston: Yeah. Waking Life was really the first thing I worked on where I made myself say at all to someone that they had to lose something. In everything before that, whatever a person did, I without question put it in—sometimes to the detriment of the film, but I just didn't want to do it.

dOc: How did you discover Ryan Powers for Snack and Drink?

Sabiston: I was with Tommy in a coffee shop, and we met his mom. She was asking us if we knew any places to rent and places to live. We just ended up talking to her. She volunteered him and said he would be a good subject for animation because he was obsessed with this one cartoon anyway. He wasn't in town at that time, but she called us when he came into town. We just went over there and interviewed him.

dOc: Can you describe the idea behind the Figures of Speech series?

Sabiston: That was essentially the same idea as Snack and Drink, which was actually a test short for Figures of Speech. They're just longer interviews with people, and they're animated in the same method where the video's broken up into lots of little pieces, and each animator does a separate piece. There's 11 of them, and they all focus on one person. They're like eleven little documentaries. They're very experimental, and I didn't do much control over the artist. In a way, it's good because you get to see all these wild styles. I don't think it really works as one whole program, because it just has too short of an attention span.

dOc: Let's quickly go back to Waking Life. Was it at all disheartening to see that it wasn't nominated for Best Animated Film when they nominated Shrek, Monsters, Inc., and Jimmy Neutron?

Sabiston: Yeah, it was pretty annoying. I got really mad. I didn't think about it a whole lot until the day when the announcement came out. Like Rick said, the worst thing isn't not being nominated, but all the people coming up to you and saying "Aw man, you got screwed!" It makes you think about it.

dOc: That was the one that stood out for me more than any other nominations that weren't given.

Sabiston: That was annoying, but it really just proved to me how political things can be. I can't really understand that Jimmy Neutron nomination, although I didn't see the movie.

dOc: Neither did I. I had seen the other two, and I thought they were well done.

Sabiston: I had a feeling that those two would. I figured that Waking Life would only because it was something different. I never really thought it would win, but I did assume that we would be nominated, so it was weird that we didn't get it. It's not that big of deal, though.

dOc: It's just the Oscars®. Are you currently working on any projects or making plans to start some?

Sabiston: Right now, we're doing a project for PBS. A TV show called Life 360. It's kind of similar to Figures of Speech. It has about 10 little animated segments.

dOc: When will it air?

Sabiston: I think they start airing next month. I think June 13th is the first show. Each week the show revolves around a different topic.

dOc: Do you plan on working on any feature films in the near future?

Sabiston: We would like to. We were trying to get another one off the ground with Rick, and it seemed like it was gonna happen, and then Warner Bros. wasn't interested in doing it. I don't know if it's gonna happen or not. Everybody involved really wants to do another one.

dOc: Did you have much of an idea of what it would be about?

Sabiston: Yeah, it was already decided, but I better not say what it was. It definitely was not for kids, which is why they didn't want to do it. They didn't think there was really an adult audience for it.