Do you know that funky kind of animation that looks like regular people on film, but colored in? It's live-action footage, but also sort of looks like a special effect.
Well, that's called "rotoscoping," and it's one of the most creative and most unique ways to transform your live-action project and turn it into an animation.
But what is this form of animation? And also how can you learn to do it for your own projects? And are there modern examples of these films?
Today, we're going to go over all of this and more. We'll define the technique, look at rotoscoped movies, and even tackle a guide on how to perform this animation with the help of an app or on your own.
Sound good? Let's get started.
Table of Contents
What Is Rotoscoping?
The first time I remember seeing rotoscoping was on A Scanner Darkly, the Richard Linklater movie. I was in awe of how everything looked so real and also so colorfully animated. I had to know how that process was done and what it was called.
This is an animation technique in which animators trace footage frame by frame to produce realistic action but with unique color schemes and visuals.
Who Invented Rotoscope Animations?
The original process for this technique involved animators projecting live-action images onto glass panels and tracing over the image with paints, markers, or whatever color medium they chose.
This all changed with Max Fleischer. He used a transparent easel, onto which a movie projector broadcasts an image of a single movie frame. Then he painted over it.
Most people credit Fleischer with inventing the actual process of rotoscoping in 1915.
Eventually, Fleischer became famous for this technique. He was hired to do the intricate dance movements for Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons.
Betty BoopCredit: Disney
How Did Rotoscoping Change or Revolutionize the Animation Industry?
Fleischer was also the animator behind the Superman series of the early 1940s. He achieved realistic movement by rotoscoping people and then painting in the animation later. It caused animation to leap forward and even was able to closely resemble live-action films.
Fleischer held the patent until 1934. As soon as that expired, everyone tried their hand at making these movies. By far, the most successful of the time was Walt Disney.
They hired animators to use the technique for the animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. That became a landmark film that made the world pay attention to theatrical animation.
This animation revolutionized the industry by allowing the capture of realistic movements and facial expressions. But it also allowed artists to help directors digitally remove or color things.
In Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, a large blob of cocaine hanging from Neil Young's nose was painstakingly removed from each frame during the editing process.
Nowadays, rotoscoping is still done by hand by some independent filmmakers, but many use a digital process to create this effect. During the mid-1990s, animator Bob Sabiston developed a computer-assisted "interpolated rotoscoping" process which is still widely used today.
You can use their software, Rotoshop, for computer-generated animation. It creates animation using techniques that remind you of hand-drawn animation, but preserve the humanity of the subjects on screen.
'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'Credit: Disney
Rotoscope Movie Examples
You can see examples of this technique in video games, feature films, music videos, and TV shows. These visual effects are time-consuming, but they often work to transport the viewer into another world.
One of the common misconceptions is that this technique is only used for animated movies. That is not true. Rotoscoping is used for special effects and even for backgrounds. This started in early Hollywood and got better and better with time.
In fact, animator Ub Iwerks used rotoscoping to create the terrifying special effects in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. That resulted in his nomination for an Academy Award. The technique of rotoscoping also made the lightsaber possible in the early Star Wars movies. To create these visual effects, animators drew the color and glow of each lightsaber on every frame in which they appeared.
Another famous example, which was done digitally, was Linklater's Waking Life. This used the Rotoshop software to change digital footage. Linklater was the first director to use digital rotoscoping to create an entire feature movie.
You can see the effect change over time with things like Aha's famous Take on Me music video juxtaposed against composer Ralf Hildenbeutel's track "Disco." That video was created from over 1,200 individually hand-painted frames.
'The Birds'Credit: Paramount Pictures
Explaining the Process of Rotoscoping for Beginners
So you want to learn how to rotoscope? Well, you've come to the right place. Things have not actually changed that much since the beginning of this process. People still project frames onto glass and paint them. Or paint individual pieces of film. Still, that might be more than many of us want to bite off immediately.
Right now, you can get a pretty effective rotoscope app to help you build your film. In Adobe Animate, they give you step-by-step directions to color every one of your frames inside the software.
You can also use After Effects to do this. They have step-by-step instructions for how to import a video and then draw on it. With custom colorizations, you can also use this process to polish things in your films that you might want to scrub out. You just have to be willing to go frame by frame.
Here's a list of other rotoscoping software to choose from, depending on your project and your preferences:
- Adobe After Effects
- Adobe Photoshop
- Fusion 9
- Silhouette FX
- Imagineer’s Mocha
- Nuke by Foundry
- Autodesk Combustion
Summing Up the Rotoscoping Technique
Now that you know all about the rotoscope process, it's time to get out there and do it yourself. Pick a reference film or shoot something. Then get ready to load it into your editing software to draw and alter things.
The sky's the limit with this stuff. It all depends on your imagination.
Got tips and tricks for rotoscoping? Put them in the comments. Let's share best practices and even what works for you. I want to know.
We can't wait to see what you come up with.