A Scanner, Before and After

An interview with producer Tommy Pallotta and animators Jason Archer and Paul Beck

Viewed in the context of the times we live in, Philip K. Dick's novel A Scanner Darkly, first published in 1977, seems remarkably prescient, with overtones of government surveillance, corporate malfeasance, and jagged bursts of paranoia that, in the end, are entirely warranted. It's almost as though reality is finally catching up to Philip K. Dick's fevered bad trip of an imaginaton.

"I don't think that reality is catching up to the film; I think that public awareness is catching up to [the reality depicted in the] film," says A Scanner Darkly's producer, Tommy Pallotta. "And that reality has always been there. Philip K. Dick was writing about the 1970s, the Nixon administration paranoia, and I think that was an issue even before then. Technology is a double-edged sword, and I think it's pretty agnostic: It's good and bad. We need to be aware of how it's being used, and I think that with this current administration, there's been such blatant disregard for our rights that the public has become more aware of the issue. Something that Rick and I talked about going into this film were those sort of post-9/11 PATRIOT Act issues. Philip K. Dick's book is about a war on drugs and, to me, the war on terror is starting to feel a lot like the war on drugs in the 1980s."

However you choose to look at it, A Scanner Darkly is just that: dark, oppressive, blanched of both sanity (in the progressively downward spiral of its genuinely tragic main character) and, literally, color. That last aspect, one of several particularly Dick-ian touches the film boasts (alongside, notably, Graham Reynolds eerily evocative score; see "Tone Setter" sidebar), is the work of heads of animation Jason Archer and Paul Beck, who were called in to take over the post-production reins after Bob Sabiston exited the film in a post-production flurry of controversy.

"We used solid colors that were kind of muted which gives the film this weird tone," Beck says.


"Yeah, that's it! I was about to say 'sickly,' but that's not the right word. It's kind of like –"

"– Bleached," interjects Archer. "It looks like it's been left out in the sun for too long."

So how did Beck and Archer pull the film out of what was, by all accounts, a logistical and financial tailspin? Says Beck:

"We were contacted by Tommy because we had worked as animators on Waking Life and done some music video work [that he had liked]. I think one of the primary concerns [on A Scanner Darkly] was the budget. It's an indpendent film, so we had to figure out how to make the labor necessary to produce this film fit within that budget. That was the major focus. To me, when we were first approached, they had clearly started the process of making the film – it was already shot and edited – but couldn't figure out how to get [the animation] done. They basically told us, 'Here's the amount of money you have: Now, how are you going to do this?' And we laid out our plan, fit it into their budget, and made it work. Because it's an independent, the budget is low, and we only had a certain amount of time, and we only had so many [animators] working on it. Right off the bat, we told them, 'It's going to be close. There's going to be no mistakes allowed, basically.'"

"There was no time for anybody to get sick, for anyone's relatives to die, or anything," Archer adds. "I was told they originally had a completion date set for June of 2005, but at the end of January, 2005, all they had was a trailer that was less than three minutes long. So, they had roughly four months to complete the other 92 minutes of animation. As soon as we came in, we hired 25 additional people, which brought the total number of animators working on the project to 50. Bottom line, we got the job done, on time and on budget, and that's something we're really proud of."

"I think any time you're dealing with such an ambitious project," Pallotta concedes, "and you're dealing with so many creative voices, and it takes so much time to do it – 18 months of animation – it's inevitable that you're going to have a difference of opinion somewhere along the line. Some of the animators had a difference of opinion, and some of them left the production because of it.

"And, really, this movie is unprecedented in the scope of what we're trying to achieve and the budget level we're trying to achieve it at."

Ultimately, A Scanner Darkly is unique in the annals of filmmaking, the first adult-oriented animated film since 1981's Heavy Metal that, for all its surreal situations and mega-bad-mojo storyline, feels beautifully, nightmarishly real.

"When you have a movie like this," Pallotta notes, "which is pretty much unproven territory, as far as adult animation and the type of film that it is, it's really hard to point to a precedent. Hollywood is all about formulas. It's 'this movie meets this movie, and it's going to attract these people and make this much money in the first week,' you know? Everybody knows that Pirates of the Carribean 2, no matter how bad that movie is, that's going to make X amount of money that first weekend. It's a known: With certain movies, they're able to quantify it.

"I don't really concern myself that much with that opening weekend, because one thing that I learned from Blade Runner is that it really depends on the legacy that the movie had. When Blade Runner opened up it wasn't really a critical or commercial success. Almost 25 years later, it's considered one of the all-time greatest sci-fi films ever made. Rick and I were very conscious while we were doing this movie of how it would be seen 20 years later. And I think it has an evergreen quality to it." end story

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A Scanner Darkly, Tommy Pallotta, Jason Archer, Paul Beck

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