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San Francisco Gate

Tech Takes Center Stage at Sundance Festival buzz on special effects and advanced animation techniques

Ruthe Stein, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Anticipation is high for tonight's premiere of Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" at the Sundance Film Festival. Touted for "Dazed and Confused" and "Slacker," Linklater is the kind of innovative filmmaker this festival was created to showcase. And he's stayed on the cutting edge with "Waking Life," a saga of one man's strange encounters, real and imagined, told through a new computer animation technique.

Linklater shot and edited "Waking Life" like a traditional movie, then spent a year working with software that can digitally paint over the movements of his actors. The effect is like seeing animated painterly images.

"My film is radical and experimental on every level," he said. "It's a new look for a new kind of story, a floating random narrative that wouldn't work as live action."

What's new at Sundance this year is the number of filmmakers like Linklater using state-of-the-art technology to tell stories. Special effects and advanced animation appear in several buzzed-about festival entries. Technology pushes their budgets way past the six figures of past Sundance films. "Waking Life" cost about $15 million. "Donnie Darko" -- a special-effects extravaganza about teen angst -- ran $6 million.

Several distributors have expressed interest in this first film from 25- year-old director Richard Kelly. " 'Donnie Darko' looks good to me," Miramax head Harvey Weinstein said at a late-night party Friday. There are also said to be bids on "The Business of Strangers," a smart thriller about corporate women produced by San Francisco's Scott McGehee and David Siegel, and on "Trembling Before G-d," a documentary about Hasidic Jews who come out as gay. But so far the only consummated deal is MTV's purchase of the concert documentary "We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n' Roll."

Independent cinema is in transition, said Sundance Artistic Director Geoffrey Gilmore. "I used to define it by saying it was the cinema with no resources, no major stars, no special effects or animation. But it's a positive trend that our films now have all those things."

On the star front, Julia Stiles, Cameron Diaz, Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke, Elizabeth Hurley, Samuel L. Jackson, Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet all have films at Sundance. "My First Mister," which opened the 11-day festival on Thursday, boasts a big-name director, Christine Lahti. The movie is a reverse- gender "Harold and Maude," with Leelee Sobieski as a disaffected teen who becomes infatuated with a middle-aged haberdasher played by Albert Brooks. "I chose Albert because he is sexual without being aggressively so," Lahti said. "He doesn't come off as someone who would hit on a 17-year-old. He's a safe sexy guy."

Special effects are used as in "Ally McBeal," to illustrate the heroine's fantasy life. For instance, as Sobieski stares at Brooks, he morphs into a bodybuilder.

"The special effects were always in the script," said Lahti, who won an Oscar for directing the short "Lieberman in Love." "They're an important part of the story, showing the subjective point of view. We had to do them the most low-budget way we could. There are ways to do effects with computers that make them a little more cost-effective."

Working on "Donnie Darko," Kelly found effects companies willing to cut their prices because they believed in his film. "The project can be a calling card for more work for the company and a future working relationship with the director."

But the most important person to believe in him was Drew Barrymore, who agreed to produce the film and take a supporting role as a progressive high school teacher. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the troubled Donnie, who may be able to travel through time, and Patrick Swayze appears as a self-help guru.

The substantial special effects, including a dramatically falling jet engine, were not easy to pull off. "It's like having a brand-new paintbrush," Kelly said. "You've got to sit in front of the computer screen and communicate with up-and-coming special-effects people so they do what you want to make the effects organic to the story. Otherwise, you wind up painting ugly pictures."

The amount of animation at Sundance is part of a trend. Spurred by "Toy Story 2" and "Chicken Run," 10 animated movies are due for release in 2001.

Like many of the Hollywood products, the animated films at Sundance are not meant for children. "Mutant Alien," from Sundance veteran Bill Plympton, is a science-fiction saga about a sabotaged space mission. "It's more of an adult film, like 'South Park,' " said Plympton.

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which arrived with a distributor and great advance word, mixes live action and animation in telling the story of a blond, bewigged transsexual rock 'n' roll singer from East Germany. John Cameron Mitchell wrote, directed and stars in the film, based on his hit off-Broadway show.

Animation is used to illustrate an ancient Greek story of the origin of love: that people were born with two sets of arms, legs and faces, but that the gods cut them in half, leaving them to seek their other half. "We wanted to do the old-fashioned animation, not the newfangled computer animation, which has a slightly inhuman look with its too-clean patina," Mitchell said. " 'Hedwig' is very much handmade patchwork." Emily Hubley, daughter of "Mr. Magoo" creator John Hubley, did the charming drawings.

"Wave Twisters,'' by San Franciscans directors Syd Garon and Eric Henry, uses tradi- tional cell animation, 3D CGI and photo collage in an attempt to find a visual style comparable to the cutting and scratching of a turntable DJ. The film, which premieres at midnight tonight, is about turntable champion DJ Q-Bert. The filmmakers Garon and Henry worked at home on ""Wave Twisters'' for more than two years, teaching themselves about computer animation. ""Computers finally got powerful enough and cheap enough that you can do feature-film-quality work at home,'' said Garon. ""We have the same software they use at Pixar, and we don't use anything you can't buy at Circuit City.''

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