How Netflix’s Apollo 10 1/2 Came to Life

“Apollo 10 1/2” (currently streaming on Netflix) is the latest time machine from Richard Linklater.

Instead of traveling to the immediate past (like “Boyhood”) or the 1970s (like “Dazed and Confused” or “Everybody Wants Some!!”), Linklater instead sets his sights on a suburb of Houston, Texas, in the late 1960s. The space race is heating up, the Apollo missions are about to begin, but there’s one problem – they built the space capsule a little too small. That’s when some NASA guys (Glen Powell and Zachary Levi) enlist a kid named Stan (Milo Coy) to be the actual first man, er, child, on the moon. Lovingly narrated by Jack Black, it’s just as much a catalogue of the time as it is a pint-sized space odyssey – everything from what was running on television to the way people drank their beers is lovingly detailed.

And what makes it even more vibrant and alive is the fact that it’s animated in a painterly style that is both impressionistic and true-to-life. spoke with Tommy Pallotta, a producer and animator on the project, about what it took to bring “Apollo 10 ½” to life, how it’s different from the previous two animated features Linklater and Pallotta worked on together (the dreamy “Waking Life” and sci-fi “A Scanner Darkly”) and how an unmade project from Linklater’s past informed his latest.

Could you talk about your relationship with Richard Linklater and how it’s evolved over these several films?

Well, we’re friends and we’re good. And I think that sort of makes it all easy, in a way, but it also kind of blurs together because when we’re not making films together, we’re still hanging out and talking about films and every project that I work on that he’s not directly involved with or movies that he’s working on, that I’m not directly involved with, we still always talk about them to each other. It feels a bit like he’s an older brother.

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When did he first mention this project to you?

He mentioned it a long time ago and if you know Rick, he gestates ideas for a very long time. He pretty much puts the work of the film in before production starts, and he figures them out. We both lived temporarily in the exact same suburb, and exact same neighborhood called Forest Bend, right outside of Houston, which really is in the shadow of NASA. I think when he was conceiving this movie, he would talk to me every once in a while, about childhood experiences and things like that, that we’re going through. And the whole time I was very interested in the story and had hoped that he wanted to do something or collaborate in some way with me. But also knowing Rick I’m not presumptuous or think that.

Then several years ago he started talking about it. And it went through further things and he was developing it. And I know Rick enough to know his process is pretty complicated and he has a lot of patience. But then finally when he called, he said, “Hey, I’m thinking about animation. I’ll send you over some stuff.” And I devoured it. As soon as I got it in and called him back and I was like, “Why did it take you so long to think about it animated in this way?” And he kind of laughed and was like, “Well, you know me, it’s sort of the process. I have to figure out how to tell the story.”

I was interested in the idea no matter what form that it would’ve taken, really. But when I read it, I knew even in script form, the blurring between fantasy and reality… I knew that was the key into the animation, that sort of subjective point of view.

You’ve worked with Linklater on “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly,” two more outwardly out-there pieces that perhaps seem, at least superficially, more suited for animation. From your point of view were the challenges and opportunities of this project?

Every project is always an immense undertaking and always poses so many challenges. And I think maybe storytelling is, if I were to reduce it down to simplistic way, it could be very binary. It’s about the choices that you make on every single level. It’s always difficult. Again, I think that there’s something that ties together, this project… There is that subjectivity, I think that that animation can be a great platform for expressiveness beyond the objectivity of traditional film, or I’d say photo-realistic film.

Animation can really elevate that. And I suspect, and I hope, and I try and I’ve been attempting to create animation to really immerse the audience in that subjective point of view. I think that animation can be as immersive as a voice-over in film. The very first time that somebody put together images and put voices and the audience saw it and were like, “Oh wow, it can be inside their head.” I think that’s really exciting. I think that’s something that’s… that visual component plus the audio component of it all really is interesting to me. And I think animation, I’ve been striving to sort of find that balance and find that way into that subjective point of view. And I think really “Apollo 10 ½” is all about that. And that’s sort of what’s similar with “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly” as well. They’re all very subjective.

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Can you talk about what the actual process was? Someone described it as not being rotoscope in one of the reviews, but is it rotoscope? Can you talk about that?

Yes, there are rotoscope elements to that. I think it differs from “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly” in that those were completely rotoscope movies.

They were shot on location, cues were taken from every single aspect of it, the world around it and even the shapes and the coloring and all that stuff, were all sort of rotoscoped. And they were interpolated rotoscoping, which means that the computer aided the line. Say I draw your eyebrow on frame one, and then I draw your eyebrow on frame five, the computer would fill in those lines. That’s why you get that sort of waviness of “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.”

In this process, we filmed actors as reference, and then it’s different because we basically approached the rotoscope in the same way, old Walt Disney and especially old Fleischer Brothers did in that you use it as reference, you make a key frame and then you basically hand draw the in-betweens.

If you look at the rotoscope in this, as opposed to the others, it looks very different. Added to that, all of the coloring, the lighting, the entire world around it, everything that you see is completely animated. That world is completely made up. The only thing that’s really rotoscoped are the performances and it’s more reference.

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You also got to do some cool stuff where you actually reproduced scenes from movies and TV shows. What was it like animating a scene from “2001: A Space Odyssey?”

Well, Rick was really excited by it all and he really loved that aspect of it. And I was excited by it, but I also saw the pitfall, which was you take something that’s really common and in “2001” for me, Kubrick’s just a cinematic genius and is without peer. It’s hard to mess with that kind of stuff. But I also realized that it had to be re-contextualized, and everything had to be cohesive and in that world. Everything had to be animated and touched and to really fit.

It was exciting, but “2001” was interesting. If you look at it, it looks sort of realistic from far away because it’s a really wide shot. But if you look at it very closely, it’s just colors in shape in a very expressive way, which was interesting. Because a lot of the times with the archive… I kind of thought that the movie was going to succeed or fail in how we approached all the visuals that weren’t part of Stan’s world. Everything that was a montage, archive, all those things. And we really saw it as an opportunity to express ourselves creatively. And the way that we would talk about it is Stan’s storyline was much more stable and designed. That was more “Scanner Darkly.” All the other sequences were really more “Waking Life” where that fun of creativity and not knowing how it was going to come next was going to be the surprise. Each shot we looked at as a completely different thing.

For all the amazing movies he’s made, Linklater has had some fascinating movies that never happened. Were you working on “The Incredible Mr. Limpet” that he was doing?

Yes. We were doing that and we were just having a blast with that. And I think in a lot of ways, it got us thinking about… After “Scanner Darkly,” we didn’t want to do another rotoscope feature. We were like, well, where do we go from here? And “Scanner Darkly,” technically when I look at it today and it was over 15 years, I wonder how the hell did we do that. You know? And I was really intimidated by it in many ways.

When we were doing “Limpet,” it was really more of a 3D-animated project. But I started to approach it in a 2D way. I was doing all of the design work and all of the posing and everything, I’d hired these old-school 2D folks in Hollywood who are really talented and 2D is not really what it used to be. There’s a lot of really talented people looking for work. And I think just that experience helped open up and think outside of the traditional rotoscope and the things that we’d been done before. So, in a way I’m really grateful for that project cause it gave us a lot of R&D and really, this project it’s 2D-animated project but it has… there’s some 3D stuff in there. And I think it just helped to open us up to where we could take this look and that’s sort of the realistic vibe, but to make it more animated, I think.

“Apollo 10 1/2” is now streaming on Netflix.

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