Death, Dreams and Transcendence: Inside Waking Life

“I see this as a realistic film about an unreality. The gestures, the sound, the human expressions all seem real, but reality is re-interpreted artistically. It becomes a kind of moving painting.” -Richard Linklater, Wired magazine Waking Life Cover Images

We sat in a dark room.

The kitchen light flickered as everyone waited in silence to watch some movie Jake and his girlfriend were raving about.

Jake stood before us; a young crowd of punks, miscreants and arty types seated on couches and the floor.

He bent down and carefully placed the disc in the player, stood back up, reached for the lighter and inhaled a huge bong hit.

Jake exhaled a long plume of smoke as he spoke to us:

“Ahem. {cough} I just want to warn you guys that this shit is heavy.  Like, the content is kind of hard to follow the first time you watch it. But it’s awesome.”

Jake pressed play and the film began.

We watched in rapt silence, awestruck from beginning to end. We wondered aloud what the hell just happened. Jake had sent us on the craziest trip of our lives, but none of us had eaten acid.

Music Scene internets

Inside the mindscape

Waking Life is about a dream experience that weaves science, history, and philosophy into a mesmerizing parade of sensory input. The film combines existentialism and other themes with visually stunning animation.

Director Richard Linklater shot the entire movie using a handheld camera. After completing the live-action footage, he hired a team of artists to paint over each frame using a technique called rotoscoping.  The result is realistic animation – an effect Linklater describes as a “mindscape”.

The main character (Wiley Wiggins) doesn’t know his own name or identity, but viewers watch him float through various scenes where he encounters dream characters. The characters eventually begin to talk about lucid dreams and he realizes what’s happening. He discovers he’s trapped in a dream and fears he’ll never wake up.

20171228_231334Linklater’s handheld camera magic enhances the surrealism; the camera often pans into scenes at weird angles – zooming into rooms, zipping across an orchestra scene, floating over rooftops. Linklater and his crew shot footage from a hot air balloon to capture scenes where the main character floats over suburban neighborhoods.

As a viewer, you become absorbed in the wild visual flow while attempting to follow complex insight with your ears. Classical music and tango heighten the beauty during scene transitions.

The major theme is awareness; accepting the moment and making the best of a situation within our limited toolbox.  The film showcases activists, teachers, and thinkers of all ages. People in different phases of life may take different lessons away from the film.

Main Guy Listening to Science Guy Cropped

You are the main character

Waking Life boasts many achievements, but the most impressive is the way Linklater pulls you into the film. The main character doesn’t remember his own name or identity; he could be anyone. He could be you. One character tells our young star that the image of himself he views inside the dream is only a “mental model”.

You haven't met yourselfThe dream characters directly address your thoughts and feelings about the movie as you watch. It’s part of the film’s spooky genius.

In one scene, a blonde lady (Kim Krizan) speaks about the history of communication and the difficulty of expressing abstract emotion:

“So much of our experience is intangible, so much of what we perceive cannot be expressed – it’s unspeakable. And yet when we communicate with each other and we feel that we have connected, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion… and that feeling might be transient, but I think it’s what we live for.”

Blonde Lady CroppedAs you watch and listen, you experience what she’s talking about. The visual and thematic elements coming at you in this film are unspeakable. She relates directly to your experience as a viewer, and she simultaneously provides insight into something important in your life. All those clusters of emotion in the past; times of trauma or perhaps elation when your personal experience escalated beyond what you could express in words.

She also delivers you into the “spiritual communion” aspect of her speech.  You feel that uplift because she’s communicating a new insight into your mind. Here’s a human being expressing something either forgotten or never known… but now I know, or I remember.

Your brain lights up, electrical impulses dancing around as this stream of information enters the “conduit” she discusses. The animator illustrates your experience on-screen by drawing a crude visual conduit.

20171228_211639This is your dream.

This is also the brilliance inside the mind of Richard Linklater.

I read the script (found here) and realized the script is amazing on its own. Watching the film, however, is an additional layer of experiences and emotions that words on a page cannot replicate. In the “Holy Moment” sequence, two characters discuss this issue.

Our main character sits in a theater and watches a film of two men talking (Caveh Zahedi and David Jewell). One of the men is a director who discusses cinema, expanding in detail about the way time and space transform a script and create a new dimension of art. The director goes on to explain that film captures “the holy moment” of existence in a unique way.

2 Gods internetAs you watch, you realize you’re a part of this “holy moment”. The main character watches these two men intently on the first screen; a film within a film. You watch all three characters on a second screen. When the two men decide to purposely envoke a holy moment with each other, you become a part of that holy moment.

Cloud Gods 2 CroppedLater on, the main character discusses his dream experiences with a new dream character. He describes feeling engaged in an active process. This confuses him because he’s been quiet and “passive”.  She responds that listening is not necessarily a passive act. Once again, this is also about your viewing experience.


Moving paintings – the dream comes to life

“This film uses dreams as a kind of operating system for the narrative, the hitch for most of the ideas. The realism of live-action film would have canceled out the ideas… This style of animation allows you to see a different state of reality.” –Rick Linklater, Wired magazine

“It’s different from traditional animation; it’s on the computer, but it still involves a lot of hand drawing…it’s pleasing for people to recognize real motion and real expression but have this added layer of an artist’s sensibility. I wanted a very painterly look. With rotoscoping, you’re not required to come up with any original motions. You have to draw people’s facial expressions, have a good sense of color balance and design; all the skills that painters have.” – Bob Sabiston, Rotoshop creator and Waking Life Art Director

Animators have used rotoscoping since 1915,  but Waking Life’s animators used proprietary rotoscoping software created by Linklater’s friend and collaborator, Bob Sabiston. While working on a different project, Sabiston demonstrated his Rotoshop software to Linklater and “something clicked”.

The animation conveys a coffee shop style of art; shades of brown and red mixed with yellow and blue. Sabiston limited the color range available to the artists to keep the appearance of the film consistent. Each artist showcases a different style throughout the film, but the colors stay within an earthy palette.

Sabiston’s Rotoshop software is notable because the program features important advantages over traditional rotoscope. The first upgrade is interpolation.

Interpolation is a difficult concept to understand until you watch an animator demonstrate the technique. In a featurette, Sabiston demonstrates interpolation; he traces a line in one frame that will show up off to the side in the following frame. Doing so allows him to approximate the exact line or shape again on the following frame for consistency.  The result is consistent lines in important places – such as chins and necks – and the animation flows more smoothly.

Monkey on the micAnother advantage this software has over traditional rotoscoping is “layering”.  Sometimes a specific house or nature scene is required across many frames. The animator colors over the house once and places it inside one layer within the program, and that same layer can be used across multiple frames.

The result, like interpolation, saves animators time so they don’t have to redraw the entire scene in each frame. Despite these upgrades, rotoscoping still requires a tremendous effort. According to Wired Magazine, each minute of Waking Life’s footage took up to 250 hours to animate.

20171228_225537.jpgLinklater granted the animators creative freedom if they had good ideas. One animator came up with the idea of drawing shadows of Lady Gregory and similar cartoons on the brick wall behind a dream character played by Linklater himself.

Linklater approved the idea, allowing shadows to demonstrate his character’s narrative on the wall behind his head. It’s difficult to imagine the scene being as good without the shadow animations.

main guy car floatThe featurette also provides an eye-opening glimpse into some of the film’s mysterious non-animation effects. The crew achieved a scene in which the main character floats above a car by suspending actor Wiley Wiggins with cables attached to his body.

Traverse the light and shadows

“I didn’t start out with such a set idea about what it was going to be like. The film is so much about its own process. It unfolds, and you kind of accept it the way your own life unfolds. Things come at you, and you either incorporate them or you don’t”. -Linklater AV Club

The film’s content is optimistic at times, neutral and questioning at other times, and occasionally the subject matter is dark. It’s a mirror of our thought cycles as we pass through our days. The optimistic characters shine with luminescence; light pours through their eyes and they emit an aura. They speak with their hands, palms up, gesturing with openness and freedom. The animators absorbed Linklater’s vision and did a phenomenal job using their talents to breathe life into the film.

Black Guy Cropped .jpg20171228_230808old lady painting croppedYoung guys old menOil Painting croppedpresents him to himselfI enjoy the film’s ambiguous spirituality. At one point the main character questions where all this new information is coming from. Is it being transmitted to him from an outside force? Christian viewers might see the information as sourced from God and the other dream characters as angels and demons, or perhaps ghosts.

Alternately, a science fiction enthusiast might interpret this dream as alien abduction. Maybe he’s been abducted by aliens and they’re tinkering with his brain while he’s asleep, using tools to activate specific memories from his readings of D.H. Lawrence, Sartre, science class, and the bible.

Maybe when he floats up to the sky he’s about to wake up, or maybe he’s about to die.

Maybe the aliens are bringing him out of the dream.

Main character awakes croppedBy working with a team of artists and animators to manifest his vision, Linklater created a film that is also a learning tool. The themes would be fascinating enough as a collection of quotes or classroom talking points, but Waking Life stretches beyond the man-made borders of the literary and academic worlds.  Like an actual dream, it bursts through confines of academia and elitism to reach a universal audience. The vehicle is art, but the driving forces are curiosity and fear of the unknown. The film entertains, but it also delivers viewers into introspection.

According to a commonly accepted plot interpretation, the dreamer is either dead or he’s about to die. A cruel irony unfolds as dream characters deliver useful insights; it’s too late for the main character to apply this insight to his life. This is frustrating to watch, until you realize it’s not about him.

It’s about you, and you’re awake and alive.

Or are you?


If you liked this, you might also like The Trip: A 60’s Film Odyssey

About ZeroSpace

little boy looks up at sky cropped .jpg

“The reason why I refuse to take existentialism as just another French fashion or historical curiosity is that I think it has something very important to offer us for the new century. I’m afraid we’re losing the real virtues of living life passionately, a sense of taking responsibility for who you are, the ability to make something of yourself and feeling good about life… the more you talk about a person as a social construction or as a confluence of forces or as fragmented or marginalized, what you do is you open up a whole new world of excuses. And when Sartre talks about responsibility… he’s not talking about the kind of self or soul that theologians would argue about. It’s something very concrete. It’s you and me talking. Making decisions. Doing things and taking the consequences. It might be true that there are six billion people in the world and counting. Nevertheless, what you do makes a difference. It makes a difference, first, in material terms. It makes a difference to other people and it sets an example. In short, I think the message here is that we should never simply write ourselves off and see ourselves as the victim of various forces. It’s always our decision who we are.” – Robert Solomon, University of Texas philosophy professor

crowd in boat - good example of shadows realistic look“It’s not like I’m having a bad dream, it’s a great dream. But it’s… so unlike any other dream I’ve ever had before. It’s like THE dream. It’s like I’m being prepared for something.”

Science Man Big Bang Cropped

“When it was over, all I could think about was how this entire notion of oneself, what we are is just this logical structure, a place to momentarily house all the abstractions. It was a time to become conscious, to give form and coherence to the mystery, and I had been a part of that. It was a gift. Life was raging all around me, and every moment was magical. I loved all the people, dealing with all the contradictory impulses. That’s what I love the most — connecting with the people. Looking back, that’s all that really mattered.” –

Richard Linklater animated
Richard Linklater

“So, this whole episode is kind of creepy, right? And he’s telling his priest about it, you know, describing how he wrote this book, and then four years later all these things happened to him. And as he’s telling it to him, the priest says, “That’s the Book of Acts. You’re describing the Book of Acts.” And he’s like, “I’ve never read the Book of Acts.” So he, you know, goes home and reads the Book of Acts, and it’s like uncanny. Even the characters’ names are the same as in the Bible. And the Book of Acts takes place in 50 A.D., when it was written, supposedly. So, Philip K. Dick had this theory that time was an illusion and that we were all actually in 50 A.D., and the reason he had written this book was that he had somehow momentarily punctured through this illusion, this veil of time, and what he had seen there was what was going on in the Book of Acts. And he was really into Gnosticism, and this idea that this demiurge, or demon, had created this illusion of time to make us forget that Christ was about to return, and the kingdom of God was about to arrive. And that we’re all in 50 A.D., and there’s someone trying to make us forget that God is imminent. And that’s what time is. That’s what all of history is. It’s just this kind of continuous, you know, daydream, or distraction.” – Rick Linklater




One thought on “Death, Dreams and Transcendence: Inside Waking Life

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