Apollo 101/2: A Space Age Childhood–Linklater’s New Animation

Linklater’s Evokes  Childhood and the Animated Houston of ‘Apollo 10½’

Apollo 10 1/2
The Houston of Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, which premiered April 1 on Netflix, is both a loving depiction of the city as it once was and a vision of a place that never quite existed.

Translating live-action elements into its animated scenes, the film, written and directed by Richard Linklater, explores the 1969 moon landing.

The momentous event is seen from the perspective of an ordinary kid, Stanley, played by Milo Coy, racing through vignette after vignette of life in the city with painstaking specificity.

But the overall look is one of palpable nostalgia — that the viewer is watching Linklater’s wistful recollections of his own childhood.

“Memories can be deceiving,” says animation production designer Vincent Bisschop. “Certain parts can be crystal clear and other details get lost or twisted through the years.”

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The majority of animation for “Apollo 10½” was done by the production company Submarine.

According to Submarine co-founder and producer Femke Wolting, the animators started storyboarding the film well before the live-action shoot, working from winter 2019 to early this year.  In creating the aesthetic for the film, the animators were inspired by the look of old Kodachrome film to achieve an appropriately vintage look. Some rotoscoping was done, but it was mostly used as a reference for the animators, who built their scenes off performance capture.

Production designer Bruce Curtis says many of the live-action shots were done on green screen sets, and he focused on making sure there were reference points for the animators to use while translating that footage to 2D. For Stanley’s family home, he selected wallpaper designs, the colors of the countertops and the print of the linoleum. Curtis says his instinct for the home was always to infuse more color and go larger than life, but Linklater instructed him that the house needed to be almost painfully average and dull — to reflect the film’s everyman framing.

“That’s not in my world,” Curtis says. “I don’t see banality; I choose to not look at it. So, he really taught me, from all of the things that we’ve done, that beauty in sadness.”

The team at Submarine used the live-action footage as a springboard for their work. Bisschop was in charge of finalizing the film’s look, and focused on making foreground elements detailed and background art hazier and unfocused, reflecting the ways memories function. He relied on research Curtis did in 1969 Houston, and often met with producer Tommy Pallotta to help develop the subtleties. One of the challenges for Bisschop, as someone who grew up in the Netherlands, was understanding the intensity of sunlight in Texas and how it would alter the look of the film.

Some of the animated sets created by Submarine were recreated through archival footage and photos, and some were constructed from scratch. For the scene where Stanley goes to AstroWorld amusement park, Bisschop and his team designed the majority of the alpine sleigh ride with only a single photo and Linklater’s memories, a challenging process that he says helped add to the themes of nostalgia that dominate the film.

The animators also traced real-life TV broadcasts the characters watch, from “The Wizard of Oz” to a musical performance from Joni Mitchell. According to Submarine co-founder and producer Femke Wolting, the artists experimented with different styles and tones to distinguish the footage from the main world of the film. “Vietnam [war footage] is a bit harsher, darker colors, rich, sharper edges,” Wolting says. “Kind of how he would remember looking at that footage at the time. And then the movies are more fantastical, colorful, rounder.”

“Apollo 10½” flirts between reality and fantasy. When Stanley goes into space, real-life slips away into a more obvious dream. The moon and space were greenscreens, but Curtis and his team designed important props such as the hatch and ladder for the spacecraft and the main console. Then, Wolting’s team designed the moon set, using hues of white, gray and black, with a focus on making the environment alien yet still inviting for a child.

The sequence contains Bisschop’s favorite scene in the film, where Stanley, upside down in his spacecraft, stares in contemplation at the void beyond, a streak of sunlight across his face.

In a film that flirts between reality and fantasy, Bisschop’s favorite scene is when Stanley, on the way to the moon, is upside down in his spacecraft and stares in contemplation at the void beyond, a streak of sunlight across his face.