Growing up in the NASA hub of Houston, Richard Linklater remembers the pervasive impact the first moon landing had on his childhood. He fuses those memories with fantasy in his new movie, the animated “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” (currently streaming on Netflix).
Linklater even likens it to a cinematic scrapbook: It’s both a nostalgic snapshot of the ordinary suburban childhood he experienced and the extraordinary scientific achievement he witnessed. In fact, he describes it as “A Portrait of a Free Range Childhood,” in which his alter ego, fourth grader Stan, fantasizes about making his own secret trip to the moon.
“Getting to do this was wonderful in a ‘You Are There’ realism,” Linklater said, referring to the Walter Cronkite-hosted educational TV series about American history. “It was a significant moment in time that will be remembered forever: when humans first left the atmosphere of their own and traveled to [the moon]. I wanted to capture a pretty analog world, but obviously through digital means—what it was like to live in a pre-smart phone world when you were forced outside just to feel like you were doing anything. And how fun it was to be in a neighborhood. Parenting was different, everything was different back then. It was like a Charlie Brown world.”
Linklater originally conceived “Apollo 10 1/2” as a live-action project, but realized early on that it needed to be animated to capture the Kodachrome-like vibe he had in mind. Linklater’s previous animated features, “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly,” had achieved their trippy, rotoscoped looks by utilizing computer software to animate over live-action footage. “Apollo,” on the other hand, needed to be more grounded, with a handmade, 2D look that could incorporate all of the period textures, color palettes, and graphics associated with its realistic characters, environments, and pop culture references.
The germ of the idea was planted 18 years ago: While researching the second year of his coming-of-age epic “Boyhood,” Linklater realized how personally invested his own childhood was in the NASA ethos. But it was an unrealized live-action/animated update of “The Incredible Mr. Limpet” in 2010 with actor Zach Galifianakis that provided the inspiration for the traditionally animated look of “Apollo.” “Warner Bros. gave us R&D money for some 2 1/2D tests for the look and feel and it made me realize that we had to create this world [for ‘Apollo’] that doesn’t exist, and it’s so much easier to create it in an animated world,” he said. “We were sitting on archival material and photos, and I hadn’t really seen that in an animated film as straight narrative.”
Aiding Linklater in this nostalgic Boomer odyssey was Tommy Pallotta, his animation guru on “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly,” who he first met when they both attended the University of Texas at Austin. Pallotta has taken computer rotoscoping even further as executive producer of the Amazon series “Undone,” which has a very graphic, hyper-real look. He was able to tap the two studios that work on “Undone” — Minnow Mountain in Austin, which handles the roto, and Submarine in Amsterdam, which does the majority of animation for characters and environments. However, Pallotta devised a custom-designed pipeline and workflow using the same TVPaint 2D software for what he describes as Saturday morning cartoons meets anime. This meant that Minnow Mountain cut back on the roto to accommodate more 2D animation from Submarine, allowing a more organic style for their handiwork to be recognized.
“The starting point was that youthful optimistic perspective of a time and place, and that approach was always a thing that we went to,” Pallotta said. “What is the visual language of our memory? A lot of my most vivid memories seem to be around photographs. And that notion of Super-8 movies. Memories are sharper because there weren’t as many photographs taken during the analog period.”
The challenge of the animation was coming up with a timeless look and having the environments and backgrounds blend in cohesively with the character animation.
“I can see the math in most computer-animated films,” Pallotta said. “And what we wanted to do was to have a timeless look to make it feel like it didn’t come out today. Yet all the tools we used were from today. We looked at each shot and each segment and came up with a different way to approach it as a hybrid, but primarily in 2D. But, of course, using roto for some of the performances, and 3D, and compiling it into a 2 1/2D world. Our rule was we came up with creative solutions over technology.”
For example, when the kids play on the beach and have to clean the oil off their feet, Linklater and Pallotta wondered how to best represent that. “That was a dingy beach, but to us it was paradise back then,” Pallotta said. “So we looked into that subjective viewpoint.”
Minnow Mountain began with performance capture shoots on a green-screen stage, which roto artists turned into keyframes as digital black line drawings. These were enhanced by other artists with color midtones, shading, and lighting. At the same time, Submarine built and animated the environments and backgrounds and also completed the character animation with final color and lighting. Additional 3D animation was reserved for complicated props and vehicles, such as the family car and the opening of the Apollo capsule.
“We wanted much more control over what we were building,” added Pallotta. “The background was digitally painted, but it was broken up into three levels: midrange, closeup, and background. And in that we would place the 3D elements to give it depth and perspective shift of a prop. The Alpine sleigh ride POV [at the AstroWorld amusement park] was done in 2D layers built into the 3D space.”
The majority of scenes take place in the family house, which production designer Bruce Curtis created with loads of minutiae culled from period research and Linklater’s childhood memories. Linklater even consulted with his sisters about the family menu: “They told me not to forget the canned ham,” he said, which appears in a delectable montage of preparing weekly meals. “It was really hard to get the Jell-O mold to jiggle just right.”
The other challenging animation involved re-creations from such movie classics as “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Sound of Music,” and, of course, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” These were handled through simple, abstract, geometric colors and shapes coming together to create the illusion. “It’s wild to be animating such known images,” Linklater said. “I just thought it’d be fun to see familiar images in all of our consciences kind of reinterpreted in the spirit of the movie or show through animation. I had a section of Saturday morning cartoons that was never animated. It was just Bugs and Daffy [from the introduction to ‘The Bugs Bunny Show’]. But animating animated characters is interesting and fun.”
The fantasy moon landing with Stan was also difficult, since they replicated the look of the grainy broadcast through degrading. “I knew that would lean into what we could do well, and I was very excited about the lighting and color and the journey that we would make to get there,” Pallotta said. “How do we recreate that murkiness, weird frame rate, and ghosting? Surprisingly, these lower fidelity type images are the hardest to recreate in a medium that does images very clearly and graphically.”
“I was trying to get the dynamics right where you don’t see stars and you’re not sure if it’s daytime or nighttime,” Linklater added. “Why is that? What would it be like if you’re there? The upside of all of it is obvious about cultural history and technology being there as an information tool. Even for people who weren’t even near being born it’s been fun hearing back from them about what they think of the [moon landing].”