New doc uses unique animation to explore the emotions of the first modern mass-shooting
An animated account of a mass-shooting sounds like some sort of sick joke. But in a documentary recently released on Netflix, it’s quite the opposite. Tower chronicles the 93 minutes on August 1st, 1966 that a sniper held the University of Texas in Austin in a state of confusion, panic, and fear as he shot at random passersby from the top of the UT Tower. Built around a series of interviews with witnesses, survivors, and saviors, Tower uses animated reenactments to try and recreate the feeling of being on campus during the UT Tower shooting, to paint a picture of the event “from the ground up.”
The UT Tower shooting is considered the first mass-shooting in modern American history, occurring before the frequency of those types of events turned the country numb to their horrors. Tower’s animated reenactments ultimately break through this contemporary lack of feeling to help bring back the emotions of the situation to the viewer. But before you go picturing cartoons bleeding on the ground, realize that the documentary uses a form of animation that is not often seen in fiction film and is even rarer in nonfiction. You see, its reenactments are still portrayed by real actors but they’re simply animated over using a technique called rotoscoping.
Rotoscoping is nearly as old as animation. Invented in 1915, the animation technique of tracing over live action film has been used to assist animators and enhance special effects in dozens of movies big and small. The original Star Wars trilogy used rotoscoping to animate its lightsabers. Disney used real life actors to act out sequences that would later be traced or rotoscoped as references for films such as Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, and Alice in Wonderland. A digital method of rotoscoping, called interpolated rotoscoping, was introduced in the 1990s. Austin-based director, Richard Linklater, was the first filmmaker to really take advantage of that digital technique, using it to create the first fully interpolated rotoscoped movies: Waking Life, a philosophical look at the difference between in the perception of life and dreams, and A Scanner Darkly, a Philip K. Dick adaptation about high-tech police surveillance in a distopic future. The filmmakers of Tower followed in Linklater’s footsteps and used the same rotoscoping technique to animate their documentary.
The distinctive power of interpolated rotoscoping, though, is that it creates sense of an unreality. As the animation is created on top of real actor portrayals, the characters on the screen look just like real people…but they don’t have the skin of real people. The shadows are blotches of color. The wrinkles in their face are smoothed out. And their presence is missing weight and stability. The way interpolated rotoscoping is done, part by part, sequence by sequence, makes the people and objects seem as if are floating through space, constantly shifting as they talk and move about. When used correctly, this affect compliments the world and concept of the film. The rotoscoping in Waking Life emphasized the dream-like headspace of its philosophical concept. In A Scanner Darkly, the animation worked to create the slightly off-kilter, futuristic world appropriate for a Philip K. Dick tale. In both instances, rotoscoping was used to enhance and play off of the film’s fantastic and unnatural nature. So why, then, use rotoscoping in a documentary, a medium defined by capturing reality as it is or was?
According to Tower’s director Keith Maitland, he hoped the animation would get the story out to younger audiences. “The standard PBS documentary audience is like a 63-year-old white woman who should remember this event,” Maitland said to Rolling Stone. “But kids today don’t have that relationship to this history. Some may have a relationship to Columbine or Newtown, but I wanted them to know that it didn’t start there. Kids today live under the threat of this violence. They drill for it. Because they live under that reality, it’s easier for them to take for granted the human side of what these events create. ”
In that quote, the director, unconsciously nor not, reveals the real reason why rotoscoping is used effectively in Tower. In many ways, we have become numb to the horrors of mass-shootings. There’s a formula now, a set way to react: The initial media burst. The shock. The messages of sympathy. The vigils. The speeches of hope and strength. The media cycling through the victim’s lives and hyper-analyzing the shooter(s)’s. The attempts to find out why. The cries of “never again.” The ultimately fruitless political bickering. Move on. Repeat. Each time commentators warn us not to become hardened, not to become complacent and instead let our grief and outrage fuel some real change in our politics, in our society. But inevitably, nothing changes and the shootings continue.
They’re almost normal now. School-wide alert systems, metal detectors, and shooting drills are becoming commonplace. They may be eulogized and bemoaned, but mass-shooting are a fact of modern America that everyone has seemed to accept. The unrealness of interpolated rotoscoping in Tower strips away at that current reality built on those set reactions and assumptions about mass-shootings. It separates the UT shooting from our present acceptance by using visuals outside our normal conceptions of the world. The animation in turn creates a new reality, a new world in the context of a past in which there was no detached resignation and everything was fresh and painful. So, in the end, ironically, the unreality of the animation allows the viewer to bypass current understandings of mass-shootings and access what it really felt like on the ground in 1966.
For example, when people are shot during the rotoscoped reenactments, the screen goes red and the characters became only white silhouettes. It happens only half a dozen or so times in the film, but with every instance the harsh nature of the colors and the contrast cut into the scene with a flinch-inducing suddenness that kills any sense of normalcy established before, similar to how it must’ve felt to the hundreds of witnesses on campus that day. Then, notably, with the first few shooting victims, everything goes black and white afterwards as the characters battle their fear and search for ways to survive. The monochrome simplifies things and brings a sober tint to the world, reflecting the now dire nature of the situation.
Because Tower is concerned with capturing the emotions involved of the past and not the exact look it, the film sometimes allows itself to really explore the boundaries of the medium. The most creative parts of the film involve Claire Wilson, one of the first people shot. She lay, wounded, on the hot concrete plaza beneath the tower for over an hour while the shooting continued and people hid in fear. The animation is often used to inhabit her headspace, recreating for the viewer what she was feeling at the time.
For instance, as Claire is lying there in the 100+ degree heat, slowly loosing blood, she says that she felt like she was dissolving into the concrete. Her animated body, then, is shown on a white screen, detached and floating in the space. When Rita, a fellow student, rushes up to help Claire, risking her own life in the process, her hair is a vibrant orange, the first color we see since the shooting started. It’s shocking, mirroring Claire’s own surprise. Then huddled on the ground with her, when Rita attempts to keep Claire conscious, Claire tells her about her relationship with her boyfriend Tom, who is now lying dead beside her, also shot. We suddenly flashback into color, and the couple floats in psychedelic rainbows or is intertwined by art-deco boarders. It’s the most imaginative and fantastic part of the film, but it works as a break from the tension of the shooting and as a reflection of Claire’s disintegrating mental state. It’s all to assist the viewer with understanding what it was like for her on that day.
Tower may not be afraid to explore the extent of its medium; however, it is careful to not let the unrealness of the rotoscoping stray into fantasy and fiction. Instead, the film makes sure to periodically ground its animation in the facts. This is still a documentary after all. Everything, no matter how unreal the presentation, must be based on what the viewer perceives as the truth.
To establish that, archival footage is intermittently intercut with the rotoscoped recreations. A grainy news reel shot of Claire laying in the plaza is often paired with the animated Claire struggling with the blood loss and the heat. Archival material is also blended in directly with the rotoscoped shots. Black and white footage of the UT tower is cut into the car windows of the radio reporter covering the event. Real on-the-scene interviews are sometimes used as the audio for the rotoscoped reporter’s conversations, and, in one instance, the recreation led into actual footage of the interview. Probably the most grounding inclusion of facts is the reveal of the real faces and voices of the witnesses and victims that were portrayed by the rotoscoped actors. In the beginning of the film, it was just the actors we heard and saw, but half way through we are shown the real people whose experiences the story is based on. It’s a shock after following the actors for so long, but it further cements the connection between the animation and the real historical events.
Sometimes Tower’s rotoscoping, however, doesn’t always merge well with the historical elements, appearing almost gimmicky. At the beginning of the film, Claire’s animated blue VW Beetle driving up to a shot of the 1960s UT campus looks almost like an obnoxiously bright sticker being pushed across a fading postcard. Maybe it’s because that moment happens before we are introduced to world of the shooting, before those 93 minutes starts. The animation has no context then, no reason for being there at that moment and therefore it just seems strange and out of place. This example is proof that rotoscoping is not a perfect medium, that its unreality can sometimes be too fantastic, too fake, that it takes tack and skill to be used effectively, to make it fit the situation. This fact makes it all the more impressive that Tower, besides this moment, is, on the whole, able to successfully blend its animation into the historical material to create an emotionally faithful picture of the past.
Tower is also thorough in the way that it covers the UT Tower shooting. The film includes nearly a dozen characters who were on the ground that day: a couple witnesses, a reporter, a few shooting victims, and three of the men that took the shooter down. Each one rotoscoped and each one helping to build a well-rounded account of the day’s events from the perspective of those on the ground.
But some have argued that there is something missing in the documentary’s representation of the shooting. After the event, there was, do doubt, a national, media-led discourse about the effect and the shooter, but the film doesn’t focus on that too much. Tower does include interviews conducted by the press shortly after the shooting and a scene in which the present day Claire reads a copy of LIFE magazine from the time. But that is all the post news coverage or information about the shooter the film contains. In that way, Tower refuses take part in the post-shooting dialogue and even declines to show the shooter, Charles Whitman, in any of its reenactments or chosen archival footage and only mentions his name a handful of times. A Washington Post critic argues that this is a failure on the part of Tower, that it frustrated the viewer’s natural curiosity about the shooter. The critic speculated that the film’s inability to satisfy their questions prevented Tower from being nominated for an Oscar. But we don’t need to know about Charles Whitman. That’s not the point of the film. Tower is focused on the moment, the exact 93 minutes of the shooting and the people affected by the bullets. And it does this for a reason.
We live in a time not only of detachment from the horrors of mass-shootings but also an age where a bomber can end up on the cover of Rolling Stone. Our 24-hour media fetishizes perpetrators, spending far longer than before diving into their lives and personality. In the 1960s, we had Walter Cronkite eulogizing on one evening’s broadcast, but now we have CNN talking to the shooter’s third-cousin half way into a week-long special. Tower is trying to get away from this modern sensationalism as well as our collective numbness, to get us to understand and see what it was like before, on a human level. And while it doesn’t offer any solution, by using rotoscoping to help us access the emotions of the past, Tower can maybe help us realize how we keep letting things like this happen. As Walter Cronkite summed up in a clip at the end of the documentary: “Charles Whitman’s crime was society’s crime.”
All images are screenshots from the trailers “Tower” and “Waking Life.” I claim no copyright.