What a Scanner Sees: Richard Linklater Animates a Philip K. Dick Classic

Every middle class suburban neighborhood has that one house that doesn’t belong. In A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater’s animated adaptation of the paranoid 1977 classic by Philip K. Dick which opens this March, the house sits at the end of a sun-drenched Orange County cul de sac. An abandoned shopping cart rests on the edge of its weedy, unmowed lawn. During the day, its occupants come blinkingly into the driveway to tinker with broken-down cars; at night, you might hear gunshots fired in the backyard. Unsavory-looking people come and go at all hours.

The house is a haven for a group of friends hooked on Substance D, a fiendishly addictive new drug that now holds 20 percent of the population in its thrall. “You’re either on it or you haven’t tried it,” a character explains early on. Substance D isn’t the only thing that’s different about the world of Scanner. The film portrays an America whose citizens understand and accept that they are under constant and complete surveillance—an America where the War on Drugs and the War on Terror have converged and given way to a modern police state. Unlike past adaptations of work by the legendary science fiction author, which have sought to dazzle with high-concept techno-fantasy, this one chills with its dystopian vision of a plausible near-future not far removed from our present day.

The story’s familiar-but-strange quality is heightened by the film’s groundbreaking rotoscoping technique, the method of layering animation over live action that Linklater first employed in his 2001 philosophical ramble Waking Life. We recognize the actors—Keanu Reeves as the rapidly deteriorating undercover cop Bob Arctor; Winona Ryder as his elusive, enigmatic love interest, Donna; and Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane as his drug-addled coterie—and the settings they move through as realistic, yet the richly detailed, graphic novel-like animation style challenges that perception, suggesting that what we think of as “reality” is a construct, a fabrication. That’s a notion that’s central to the story, as it is to nearly all of Dick’s writing.

From the outside, Detour Productions, where the alternate world of Scanner was brought to life, appears as disreputable as the house in the movie. It occupies a squat, generic ’70s building that looks like it might harbor a shady insurance company or telemarketing firm, on a low-rent commercial stretch of north Austin alongside Interstate 35. Virtually the only pedestrians are homeless people holding cardboard signs asking for handouts. “We’ve found needles out here,” says Tommy Pallotta, one of the film’s producers. “It’s kind of ironic.” When I visited last November, there was also an abandoned shopping cart on one side of the parking lot.

But inside it’s another story. During my first trip to Detour, not long after the film was shot and edited, the building was nearly empty, and only a few very brief test animations had been completed. Now Scanner is almost done and the place hums with a combination of laid-backness and creative intensity you might have found in a late-90s dotcom startup. Shaggy dogs snooze
in the hallways under framed movie posters, while animators sit at cluttered workstations using Wacom tablets to trace over the famous faces on their screens. Between phone calls to Linklater and the studio, Pallotta emerges from his shared office to harass them with a laser pointer. “It’s a total garage operation,” he says, a touch of pride in his voice.


It’s no easy task to base a risky, experimental, low-budget film on a beloved novel by a cult author whose option prices can fetch millions of dollars [see sidebar]. Pallotta and Linklater began discussing an animated Dick adaptation even before the duo embarked on Waking Life (whose final vignette involves
a character, played by Linklater, relating an anecdote about Philip K. Dick). Pallotta felt A Scanner Darkly would be an especially good fit for Linklater’s filmmaking abilities, because while it is one of Dick’s darkest tales, it’s also one of his funniest. As the novelist Jonathan Lethem, a champion of Dick’s writing whom Linklater consulted on the script, puts it, “Rick would stand a chance of preserving the peculiar ramshackle hilarity of the book.” Going back to Slacker, Linklater has always had a knack for making casual and seemingly insignificant social interaction feel meaningful and culturally relevant. “Of all Dick’s books, Scanner was the one most about the personal interdynamics of a subculture—exactly one of Rick’s earliest-exhibited areas of brilliant observational talents,” Lethem adds.

“In general, sci-fi isn’t my genre,” Linklater acknowledges. “What moved me about Scanner is it always seemed personal. It felt like, ‘Oh, he lived this world.’ And it’s just fucking sad. But it’s funny though. Hilarious. It’s a lot like the real world, the reality of all of our lives.” Linklater wrote the script after Waking Life came out, in the early days of the Patriot Act, which made the panoptic surveillance society Dick had sketched out in Scanner a quarter century earlier seem that much more prescient. In his adaptation, Linklater emphasized this narrative element, while condensing certain others for the sake of conciseness, and updating some of the story’s more anachronistic ’70s aspects (most notably, its depiction of Donna) to make it feel contemporary. Otherwise, he stayed true to Dick’s tale—about a dissociative narcotics agent whose personality becomes so bifurcated through drug use that he ceases to realize he is surveilling himself—and to its central questions about identity, autonomy and reality, leaving intact long stretches of Dick’s original dialogue and exposition.

After completing School of Rock in 2003, Linklater told Pallotta he wanted to tackle Scanner next. So Pallotta, who’d been corresponding with Russ Galen, the Dick estate’s literary agent, wrote a personal appeal which Galen shared with Dick’s two daughters, Laura Leslie and Isa Dick-Hackett, who own (with
their younger brother Chris) and operate the Philip K. Dick Trust. “This was a pretty preposterous proposal,” recalls Dick-Hackett. “OK, here’s the pitch—someone wants to make a cartoon version of A Scanner Darkly. And they want you to take very little of the original option money. But it will get made.”

It was a proposition the daughters might not have even considered a few years earlier, but following the releases of Minority Report and Paycheck, two high-profile blockbusters that brought new attention to their father’s work, they’d decided to take a proactive role in critically evaluating each and every film proposal that came in, and to be receptive to unusual projects that would broaden the legacy of Philip K. Dick. Seeing Scanner as one of the crown jewels of Dick’s corpus, they were drawn to Linklater’s faithful adaptation. The project’s concrete timetable was also attractive, since a number of other Dick properties have languished for years in development purgatory. They also had a unique personal relationship to the material. “When we sat down and met, Rick pulled out the dedication page from Scanner. That’s the first thing he showed us,” says Leslie, sipping tea in a Berkeley café not far from where her father grew up. “He said, ‘I want you to know I’m adding this. I want it to be rolling at the end.’ That was it. The money was immaterial at that point, because this was so important.” She’s referring to Dick’s confessional and compassionate afterword, which includes a list of friends who died or suffered bodily harm from their drug use. A notorious methamphetamine user, Dick did indeed live the world of Scanner, which he wrote in the early ’70s after separating from Isa’s mother, his fourth wife. Her name appears on the list. So, in fact, does Dick’s own name. “It’s very close to my heart,” Dick-Hackett says of Scanner. “When I read the characters, I know they’re based on several people, but he’s talking about people who were in our lives.”

With the daughters’ blessing, the project moved ahead quickly, shooting over 23 blazing hot Austin days in late spring 2004. Dick-Hackett was a presence on set, bringing a number of Philip K. Dick artifacts, including the I Ching he consulted while writing many of his novels, which appear as Easter eggs throughout the film. Unlike the far more experimental Waking Life (or even Linklater’s non-animated digital project, Tape), the goal with Scanner was to create a consistent, detailed, realistic three-dimensional world. Since rotoscoping is essentially an exalted form of tracing, Linklater and crew had to pay close attention to setting up shots, production design and lighting, but
the simplicity of working digitally still allowed for plenty of freedom; Linklater could do as many takes as he wanted, while the quick pace made it easier for the actors to experiment while staying in character.

The cast members all approached Scanner as a passion project, working for scale to accommodate the film’s modest budget because they were drawn to the director and the material. “I’m still shaking my head in wonder, glee, disbelief that I got to be in the movie in the first place,” Ryder says. She in particular brought an intimate familiarity with Dick’s worlds, arriving with her own artifact—a letter Dick wrote to her godfather, Timothy Leary. Ryder and Reeves both faced not inconsiderable acting challenges in playing characters whose perceptions of reality turn out to be dramatically different from what the story initially shows us, while the exchanges between Cochrane, Harrelson and especially the preternaturally elastic, manic Downey Jr. produce the creepy, utterly irrational atmosphere of the drug den, where logic goes off its tracks and language becomes unmoored from meaning.

For his part, Linklater departed somewhat from the naturalistic directing style for which he is known, seeking to “tweak the knobs” on his actors, both to let the humor fly and to ensure that their performances would translate through the animation. “I felt confident that I had cracked the code,” he says. “I felt it was mine to make. It comes over you, and you just can’t shake it. I felt fate was with me. I felt Dick himself was with me. I felt I was channeling him in some strange way. I felt I was doing his work here. It sounds crazy, but there’s so much I didn’t question.”


Among the things Linklater never questioned was his choice to animate, though nearly everyone else did. While more and more creators are using animation to tell sophisticated, adult stories, the medium still has the mainstream stigma of being a children’s form. During his career, Dick was marginalized by the literary community for being a science fiction writer, and has only recently begun receiving critical respect, so his daughters couldn’t help worrying that animation might return him to the margins. Was this the gutter of the film world?

Linklater and Pallotta had no such doubts, having previously worked with animator Bob Sabiston’s revolutionary “interpolated rotoscoping” software on Waking Life (Sabiston left A Scanner Darkly early in the animation phase, though he remained a consultant on the film). “It seemed like a really elegant solution to a difficult problem,” says Pallotta—actually, to several problems. Animating allowed them to make a visually sophisticated movie on a meager budget (ultimately $8.5 million); in particular, it provided a means for depicting Dick’s one major sci-fi invention, the scramble suit, a cloaking device worn by Arctor and his fellow police officers. Animating also offered a useful way to describe a highly subjective, interior experience. “I think this animation process fucks with your brain in a really great way, similar to Bob Arctor’s hemisphere split in his brain,” Linklater says. “This is the closest you could get to injecting an audience member with a similar dissociation.”

As Pallotta often points out, the animation stage is like making a second movie. Unlike Waking Life, in which the animation changes every few minutes, the style had to be entirely consistent throughout the narrative (and because it wasn’t shot handheld, Scanner doesn’t have Waking Life’s bobbing horizon lines—“that seasick feeling,” Pallotta calls it). This required a more rigorous workflow system. During the approximately yearlong process, head animators Jason Archer and Paul Beck (who replaced Sabiston) oversaw more than 50 animators who came from all over Texas and as far away as California and New York. Many had illustration or fine arts backgrounds and arrived with little or no animation experience; Sabiston’s software is intuitive and easy to learn, allowing Archer, Beck and producer Erin Ferguson, who auditioned prospective animators together, to place a premium on artists with strong line and color skills. A facility for drawing human faces was especially important, since the animation had to accurately communicate every subtle shift of emotion on the actors’ faces.

At full force, the team produced roughly 3800 frames per week of regular animation, plus an additional 1150 frames of scramble suits. The scramble suits, which unlike the rest of the film had to be created from scratch, posed a particular challenge. Described by Dick as a “shroudlike membrane” onto which a computer projects an endless cycle of disparate human attributes, the scramble suit protects its wearer’s identity by turning him into an indistinct everyman—a “vague blur.” The team came up with various methods for representing the suit, some of which would have taken years, finally settling on a technique that showed three distinct individuals per second, introducing a new persona every 30 seconds. “Rules and color tone theories had to be banged out on the fly,” explains lead scramble suit animator Nick Derrington—no bald spots, no symbols, no bright or saturated colors that might distract the viewer from the character in the suit. In all, 18 scramblers worked to invent more than five thousand separate personas. The suits flash random facial features and body parts just long enough to be recognizable before they’re replaced by new elements. Their form provides a satisfying visual distillation of the story’s overarching themes about the malleability of identity and reality.

Scramble suit design was only one way the crew had to make it up as they went. Some 3-D animation and compositing were required for parts of the edit where the live action wasn’t sufficient, and other elements had to be tweaked—the Texas cedars had to be transformed into Southern California palms, for instance. “A lot of this, we don’t really quite know how we’re doing, and so we’re kind of just guessing all the way, and hoping everything’s going to work out,” Pallotta comments wryly. “I can’t call anyone up who’s doing low-budget, feature, computer-animated, rotoscoped movies and say, ‘What are you doing? How would I fix this?’”

Of course, that’s part of the fun of doing something bold, and Pallotta clearly relishes the challenge (in addition to Waking Life, he’s worked on several rotoscoped short films and videos). But he’s also resolutely pragmatic about the technique. “I think it’s important to view technology as a tool and not as a savior,” he says. “I refuse to let it be the thing that’s going to propel a story. If it’s not an interesting story, if you don’t have interesting ideas, if you don’t have interesting characters, then there’s no technology in the world that’s going to save that.” He could just as easily have been describing Philip K. Dick’s approach to science fiction.


Who knows how successful A Scanner Darkly will be at the box office, though the combination of Linklater, Dick and cutting-edge animation should at least earn it a cult following. But the film does seem certain to expand Dick’s legacy, as his daughters hope. That’s because Linklater’s adaptation elucidates what Dick was so good at: writing about his own time in a particularly universal way. “By describing his own 20th century experience so scrupulously,” Lethem observes, “he ended up gloriously predictive of our early 21st century world.” Ryder adds, “PKD’s vision of the not-so-distant future, however dark, is so eerily being played out, almost to the word, right in front of us.”

When asked if he was making a science fiction movie, Linklater would tell people, “We’re living in science fiction.” That’s what Dick wrote about—he was called a science fiction writer, but he really wrote about the experience of living in science fiction. In a 1978 essay, he said, “The two basic topics that fascinate me are ‘What is reality?’ and ‘What constitutes the authentic human being?’” While past adaptations of Dick’s work have focused solely on the former, Linklater’s Scanner considers both questions, and the dialectical relationship between them. Dick pronounced himself unable to answer the first question, but he thought the answer to the second had to do with resisting fraudulent realities devised by the powerful to manipulate the ordinary human beings he championed in his work. In the end, that is what Scanner is about—it’s a quixotic shout against fake reality, and an affirmation of human authenticity.

In that afterword which Linklater promised to include, Dick wrote, “This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed—run over, maimed, destroyed—but they continued to play anyhow.” A broadly spiritual thinker influenced by Gnostic philosophy, Dick appears to have had the New Testament in mind when he wrote A Scanner Darkly. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians contains these well-known lines:

   When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
   For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
   And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.

“Reality” may be a hall of mirrors—or a wall of scanners. It may be an indecipherable riddle we have constructed for ourselves. It may distort our perceptions and alter our behavior. But somehow human beings maintain this oddly incorruptible capacity for kindness, and that might be Scanner’s most enduring message of all. “That’s what it really comes down to,” Linklater says. “It’s a love letter to people that he loved.”

PKD at the Movies

Unlike many 20th century science fiction writers, Philip K. Dick’s themes gain additional currency with each passing year. Far from quaint curios of an earlier era, his stories now feel like chillingly accurate reflections of the world we live in. “What seemed like total crackpot, absurdist notions of Dick’s from the ’70s are not even questioned now,” observes Linklater. “They’re so much a part of the fabric of our lives.” Many of Dick’s central obsessions have been taken up by Hollywood in the quarter century since his death, and countless films not based on his work explore his central tropes—the unreliability of memory (_Memento_, The Bourne Identity, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), the illusory nature of reality (_The Matrix_, The Truman Show, eXistenZ) and the question of what it means to be human in an age of intelligent machines (_The Terminator_, RoboCop, A.I).

So it’s no surprise studios are increasingly going straight to the source, and with more than 40 novels and 120 short stories in Dick’s catalogue, there’s plenty of material to choose from. Seeking to help steer future film adaptations of their father’s work, daughters Laura Leslie and Isa Dick-Hackett recently formed a consultancy, Electric Shepherd Productions (they took the name from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the first Dick work to be optioned; its acronym, appropriately enough, is ESP). While some properties have already been purchased and may never become films, their aim is to match the remaining stories with creative, ambitious filmmakers who will get them made. “The ones we still have control of, those take a real level of trust in passing it off to the next artist,” says Leslie. “That’s what it is, you pass it off to the next artist and say that you trust them without stifling their creativity.”

After A Scanner Darkly, we can expect New Zealand director Lee Tamahori’s Next, another tale about precognition based on the 1954 short story “The Golden Man,” set to begin filming in March. Ocean’s Twelve screenwriter George Nolfi is at work adapting another 1954 story, “Adjustment Team,” and the Dick Trust just completed another deal which “is an entirely different
and new genre for Philip K. Dick,” promises Dick-Hackett.

So there’s lots more PKD to look forward to. For now, a complete list of the films based on Dick’s work so far.

Total Recall (1990)
based on “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966)

The ’60s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” was the only other property purchased during Dick’s lifetime; it languished for years before Paul Verhoeven got hold of it. Verhoeven’s campy intergalactic shoot-’em-up lost the subtlety of Dick’s story—and Arnold Schwarzenegger was the polar opposite of Dick’s beleaguered blue collar everyman—but Total Recall was a winner at the box office, bringing in $118 million. Dick’s name wasn’t really associated with the film, however. “I don’t think there was ever a sense that there would be another deal,” says Leslie. “It was just the deal at the time.” It would take 10 more years, until Minority Report, before Hollywood began to see Dick’s work as a valuable commodity.

Confessions d’un Barjo (1992)
based on Confessions of a Crap Artist (1975)

Biographer Lawrence Sutin wrote of Dick’s “mainstream” (i.e. non-sci-fi) novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist (written in 1959, but not published until 1975): “What Raymond Chandler did for the neon-lit Los Angeles of the ’40s, Phil did for the Bay Area teetering on the brink of the ’60s.” Confessions d’un Barjo updated the story for France in the ’90s. Never released in US theaters.

Screamers (1995)
based on “Second Variety” (1953)

One of Dick’s most influential short stories yielded one of the least seen films based on Dick material. Created on an extremely limited budget, the sci-fi/horror hybrid was more faithful than previous Dick adaptations, though it changed the setting from an apocalyptic Earth of the future to a war-torn distant planet.

Minority Report (2002)
based on “The Minority Report” (1956)

Minority Report was almost a guaranteed box office success given the involvement of Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise. “Do you know what the odds of that are?” Dick-Hackett asks. “I still marvel. It’s just remarkable. It was such a boost.” The film used the story’s central concept—of a future society in which three psychics or “precogs” are used to prevent murders in the future—and little else, tacking on a classically facile Spielbergian
(and un-Dick-like) ending.

On the other hand, it offered a stunning visual rendering of the kind of world of the future Dick envisioned, and his themes about free will and mind control were right there, if you cared to look. More importantly, as Dick-Hackett notes, “That was when you started hearing about our father in connection with these film adaptations.” Suddenly, two decades after his death, Philip K. Dick was one of the most popular authors in Hollywood—and, as Paycheck would prove, also one of the most expensive.

Impostor (2002)
based on “Impostor” (1953)

Another low-budget adaptation, Impostor was originally intended to be a 30-minute short that would be part of a three-part trilogy, but the studio, Dimension Films, was so enamored of it they turned it into a feature.

Paycheck (2003)
based on “Paycheck” (1953)

In Paycheck, John Woo turned in perhaps the most conventional action movie treatment of Dick to date. Just one of many faulty memory thrillers released at the beginning of the decade, Paycheck is perhaps most noteworthy for its option price. It went for around $2 million, or, as the Dick estate’s literary agent Russ Galen told the Wall Street Journal in 1999, about $200 a word. Dick sold the story in 1953 for $195.

A Scanner Darkly (2006)
based on A Scanner Darkly (1977)

Many before Linklater have sought to make A Scanner Darkly. One of the most notable was Terry Gilliam, who pursued it with Columbia after completing The Fisher King, but couldn’t get any development money. Later, it was optioned by Universal/Jersey Pictures, and in 1997, a then-unknown Charlie Kaufman wrote an unproduced screenplay. A director (Emma-Kate Croghan) was also attached, but this project fell through too. It’s worth noting that several of Kaufman’s subsequent screenplays—in particular, Adaptation and _Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind_–-explore strikingly Dick-esque themes on a human scale that Dick himself would have doubtless appreciated.