In July 1999, in the midst of shooting his seventh film, Waking Life, in the Central Texas town of Lockhart, Richard Linklater found himself at a cinematic crossroads.
Two years earlier, Linklater had been at the same location for The Newton Boys, which was funded by 20th Century Fox. The crew for that film numbered about a hundred, and the budget was $27 million. This time around, though, Linklater was filming on a simple, cheap digital camera with a crew of just two others: producer Tommy Pallotta and boom operator Mike Brennan. Most scenes had only two actors, with Wiley Wiggins playing the unnamed protagonist opposite a rotating roster of other characters (including one played by Linklater himself).
“There was no makeup. No crew. Just a couple of people,” Linklater tells Texas Monthly. “You can look at that two ways. It’s like, ‘Oh well, I’m getting a chance to make a movie.’ Or, you can go, ‘God, what a loser! My career is going in the wrong direction.’” Anyone who has followed Linklater’s journey, from kickstarting the rebirth of independent cinema in 1991 with Slacker to becoming one of the most celebrated American filmmakers today, will know his answer.
“Every day I wake up I am getting to make this crazy film!” he remembers thinking. “How lucky am I?”
Waking Life, which was released twenty years ago this month, is a particularly crazy film. After footage was shot on digital video, a team of animators painstakingly stylized each frame and sequence using rotoscope animation. This process creates animated sequences by tracing over every frame of live-action footage. Rotoscope animation results in a surreal and shifting style that was perfectly suited to the project, which Linklater wanted to feel like a dream. Waking Life was the first feature film made via digital rotoscoping
The film revolves around Wiggins’s protagonist as he wanders through a dreamscape, discussing philosophical topics like the nature of reality, free will, and existentialism with various other searchers. The movie is, no doubt, not for everyone. If you’re looking for a riveting plot or fast-paced action, look elsewhere. But two decades after its release, Waking Life stands as an engrossing example of how cinema can examine weighty ideas in a unique, deeply reflective, and thought-provoking manner. Released just over a month after September 11, 2001, it came at a time when the world was wrapped in fear—moviegoers were looking for a departure from reality. Now as we start to emerge from the very different but also quite dark period of the pandemic, Waking Life’s musings on the meaning of life might provide comfort and purpose to fans who are feeling a little lost and alienated.
Waking Life was both a departure from and a return to roots for Linklater. After the success of Slacker, which he’d mostly self-funded and had shot in Austin for $23,000, the budget for his films had steadily increased. But in 1999, he’d just had two back-to-back flops, SubUrbia and The Newton Boys. This meant that studios were no longer willing to fund Linklater’s movies. “I was just trying to get another film made,” he remembers. “But one didn’t get off the ground. Then another didn’t. And another. And these were kind of low-budget studios.” It was time to try something else.
Wiggins, who’d previously worked with Linklater on Dazed and Confused, says the director was probably going through a “mini creative crisis” at the time he began work on Waking Life, which is why he decided to “go back to some of the things that worked on a really DIY scale.”
Linklater agrees. “I’ve always proceeded through the world knowing I have a lot of films in me. I have a lot of ideas and scripts and things I want to do,” he says. “If something is not working, I can jump to something else. Because my main thing is to express myself in this medium. I don’t give a shit about money.”
The real origins of Waking Life actually go back to 21 years before production began, when Linklater was in his senior year of high school. A natural lucid dreamer from a young age, he says he had the ability to know when he was trapped in a dream. “I just couldn’t wake up from it. I would think I’d woken up. I’d go about my day. Then eventually you realize, ‘Oh, shit, I’m still dreaming.’ It just kept going and going, for what felt like days.” These dreams often included intense, exciting conversations about ideas and books—or “a series of dreams within a dream within a dream.”
Years later, when he was in college at Sam Houston State University and pondering a career in filmmaking, Linklater still thought the concept would make for a wild movie. But he also knew he needed to incorporate another cinematic element to Waking Life, since a live-action format would be too literal and unbearably pretentious. But what would that be? Not only was he not an animator, animation was too expensive. So he tucked the idea away—for two decades. Finally, in 1998, Pallotta, who’d met Linklater a decade earlier, introduced the filmmaker to the work of his roommate Bob Sabiston.
An animator and computer scientist, Sabiston had become fascinated by interpolated rotoscoping, a technique that converts a live-action movie into one that (almost) appears to be drawn. That’s why he designed the software program Rotoshop to speed up the process. Even after seeing it in its most primitive form, Linklater recognized the “otherworldly yet realistic” world that rotoscope created. “It just puts your brain in some interesting spots,” he says.
This was enough to give him the impetus to start going through his old notebooks and turning his ideas for Waking Life into a script. He even decided to replicate the approach that had worked so well on Slacker when writing.
“I call Slacker a kitchen-sink movie,” Linklater says. “It’s a movie about ideas that don’t necessarily connect to one another in a narrative sense. … Themes develop within these disparate pieces. I’m looking for a narrative structure to cram ideas into—ones that wouldn’t fit into any other film, or advance the character or story. Instead of the Hollywood structure, this would be all digressive scenes that have no place in any movie. … For me, that’s when I get excited about moviemaking as a form.”
Soon, Linklater, Pallotta, and Wiggins were on their incredibly lean shoot in Austin, shooting on the fly at the Paramount Theatre, the Monarch Food Mart, and Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery. The low budget meant less pressure and more creative freedom. “[Linklater] just seemed like he was having a good time,” says Wiggins. “It was a fun project where we experimented, threw everything at the wall, and saw what stuck.”
Linklater was so dialed in while making Waking Life that he started to have lucid dreams again. The dreams were extremely helpful during production, too. “I was living it twenty-four-seven. I’d be floating along, realize I was in a dream, then start to think, ‘What’s the right angle?’” he recalls. “I’d be taking down details to use in filming. Even some of the conversations in the movie grew out of my dreams.”
One aspect of Waking Life that hasn’t stood the test of the time is the presence of far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in his own scene. Jones drives around, shouting vague and paranoid concerns about “the rat maze” and “systems of control” through a speaker. This monologue sounds a lot like the conspiracy theories he still spouts today on his Infowars platform.
At the time, Jones wasn’t the infamous spreader of fake news that he is today; he was an obscure public-access TV host who auditioned for a role. Linklater says Jones was a “different human being than the Alex Jones of the Trump era,” while Wiggins insists that he tried to warn the filmmakers that casting him wasn’t the best idea. Jones’s inclusion reflected an everybody’s-welcome ethos that also extended to the animation team. Linklater hired thirty animators from across Austin to do the rotoscoping, and the lead actor, Wiggins, even animated three small scenes.
While it was released to critical acclaim, Waking Life managed to gross only $3.2 million at the box office. But thanks to its distinct style and visuals, as well as its brazen, philosophical ideas, it continues to strike a chord with teenagers and college students today. The movie has a kind of timeless, existential, dorm-room quality. Certain scenes feel like they could be from the 1960s or the 2000s, such as the one in which musician Guy Forsyth strums on his ukelele and declares, “The worst mistake you can make is to think that you’re alive,” before then expounding, “The trick is to combine your waking rational abilities with the infinite possibilities of your dreams. Because if you can do that, you can do anything.”
Linklater often hears from twentysomething fans who’re just discovering the movie. “A lot of young people, college age, remind me about it,” he says. “You hope you’re making something that lasts, that there’s a deep enough thread.”
In many ways, Waking Life feels even more timely today because of the growth of the internet. Billions of people across the world now watch their lives unfold through their computer screens, and in particular social media, where we are constantly bombarded with unreliable information, causing our attention to become more scattered. Like Waking Life’s protagonist, we’re all looking for meaning and purpose in a world that’s been fogged by a digital haze.
Linklater sees this connection. “Visually our brains are up for getting assaulted. We kind of like it,” he says. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be addicted to these unhealthy things. My thinking was that [the internet] would be a self-curating bombardment. People reading interesting, smart, accredited stuff. Not just random shit. That’s where we’re at now. Our brains are trying to process, and our filter of true and false has just dissolved completely.”
He and Sabiston teamed up again to use interpolated rotoscoping on 2008’s equally experimental A Scanner Darkly, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s book starring Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr. This time, though, rather than hiring umpteen animators, they picked one style of animation and stuck with it. “We wanted it to be really sort of polished,” says Sabiston. “It was seen as a single and more traditional story and needed a more cohesive look.”
After his work with Linklater, Sabiston was offered various other rotoscoping projects, but he began to notice that filmmakers wanted to use it as a shortcut. “We’d get calls from filmmakers, saying, ‘We shot this documentary or film and it’s not working. Can you run your process on it to make it look better?’ Sometimes that’s a good idea. But mostly it’s just people who are desperate to save their project,” says Sabiston. Perhaps rotoscope is a technique best used sparingly.
Meanwhile, Linklater is putting the finishing touches on Apollo 10½, another animated movie, this time for Netflix, which will use a technique similar to rotoscoping. Unsurprisingly, Waking Life has loomed large throughout production. “I can’t help but directly relate Apollo 10 1/2 to what started in Waking Life. It looks very different,” says Linklater. “But it’s still related. It’s in the chain. So I’m having to think about it a lot. The animation process from Waking Life to A Scanner Darkly—it’s all around me. Waking Life is just kind of always there.”