Richard Linklater on ‘Battle’ With Academy Over ‘Apollo 10 1/2’: ‘If It’s Not Animated, What Is It?’

TheWrap magazine: Months after ruling that his film didn’t qualify for the Oscars animation race, the Academy changed its mind

Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood

A version of this story about “Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood” first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

The Academy made Richard Linklater play a waiting game with “Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood,” the playful and vaguely autobiographical fantasy of Stanley, a kid recruited by NASA to go on a trial run to the Moon in advance of the far better-known Apollo 11 mission. Initially, the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch ruled that the film didn’t qualify as animation, with the Academy’s rules displaying a longstanding antipathy toward the use of rotoscoping and other techniques to animate on top of live-action performances.  But in November, the branch reversed itself and made the film eligible.

 “If it’s not animated, what is it?” Linklater said, laughing. “Their reasoning got more into the artistic-choice realm than the technical realm, you know? And we objected to them critiquing our choice of how we wanted the film to look. The techniques we’re using are historical techniques of animation, and it was really touching that a lot of animators reached out to us with their support. We had the battle for months and months, and they almost ran the clock out on us.”

But “Apollo 10 ½” made it into the race as what Linklater called “a late entry” even though it had premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2022. And the confusion over what the film was might have been apt for a movie that was conceived not when the director of “Dazed and Confused,” “Boyhood” and the “Before” trilogy was thinking of animation, but when he was remembering his days in grade school in Houston in 1969, with the Apollo 11 Moon landing about to happen.

“We lived near the Air Force base, everybody worked for NASA, everything was about the Moon,” he said. “Three people were on the mission, two of them walked on the Moon, but 600 million people watched it. I wanted to capture that excitement and have it both ways, too.”

The element of the kid recruited for a secret Moon mission, he said, came from “a goofy fantasy I had.”

Initially, Linklater figured the movie would be live-action. “But over time, similar to my other two animated films (“Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly”), I realized it didn’t work in live-action,” he said. “We were trying to tell the story in a mashup of techniques and styles, to get across the scrapbook of memories that we all have. And it got so much more interesting if we did it animated.”

There was, he added, another benefit to animation: “We could do it on a fairly limited budget. For live-action to be successful, it’d probably be an $80 million movie. We’d have to recreate a world that doesn’t exist anymore. But we could bring it all magically back to life in animation.”

Within the basic story of the boy who goes to the Moon, “Apollo 10 ½” isn’t afraid to change the subject and spend time exploring the Earthbound details of life in America in the late 1960s, with everything from favorite TV shows to rotary phones patiently explained via Jack Black’s narration. “It’s pretty radical, even on the page, to just go, ‘Hold on a sec, let’s come back to that,’” Linklater said. “And we do it mid throw-up, too, right?” He laughed, thinking of the scene in which Stanley vomits during his NASA training, and the film uses a freeze-frame to change the subject for half an hour or so. “We just tell this whole other story,” he said. “It really is just a portrait of a time and a place.”

The whole film was shot with actors on green-screen sets and then handed off to animators headed by Linklater’s longtime friend and collaborator Tommy Pallotta. “For the animators, it felt like getting a radio play,” Pallotta said. “We’re in the editing room looking at a green screen and retroactively creating the world around those performances.”

Linklater added, “Ultimately, it’s a memory you’re watching. With live-action, there’s so much data there — but as soon as you animate, however fantastical it is, it’s pretty literal. We’re really taking it down to the basics.”

“Your entire intention,” said Pallotta, “is, ‘How can I evoke the most emotion with the simplest line?’ ‘What is the most efficient line I can draw in order to make this person come to life?’”

Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.

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Photo by Corina Marie for TheWrap