There’s more than one way to animate a film. And one of the most innovative, albeit time-consuming, ways to bring a movie to life is through rotoscoping. But what is rotoscope animation? While it’s typically associated with modern works like the 2006 film A Scanner Darkly and the recent Amazon Prime series Undone, the technique has roots dating back decades. Let’s take a look at some movies that use rotoscoping to see how it can be utilized for future filmmakers.

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What Is rotoscoping in animation?

A lot of filmgoers believe they can spot rotoscoping when they see it. After all, it’s easy to tell when you see an animated Keanu Reeves in A Scanner Darkly. But how does rotoscoping work exactly? Turns out, it’s a lot more straightforward than you’re probably thinking, and it’s popped up in some of your favorite films without you realizing.


What Is rotoscope animation?

Rotoscoping is a technique used in animation to trace over live-action motion picture footage frame by frame. Back in the day, animators would project live-action images onto a glass panel and then trace over that image. Today, rotoscoping is predominantly done on computers.

Rotoscoping can also play a role in live-action films. For instance, filmmakers can create a matte used to extract an object from a scene to use on a different background. Rotoscoping in Star Wars is one of the most famous examples. In the first trilogy, actors held a matte propped up on a stick. Later, effect technicians traced over the matte to create the glowing lightsaber effect.

Notable Rotoscope Movies:

  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Cinderella
  • A Scanner Darkly
  • Fantasia
  • I Lost My Body
  • Loving Vincent
  • TRON

To explain the process of rotoscoping in greater detail, you have to go back to the beginning. Animation in film has roots going back to 1887. French engineer Charles-Émile Reynaud created the first praxinoscope, and in 1892, he presented the very first animated film in public.

Just a few short years later, animator Max Fleischer would revolutionize the animation industry by creating a technique that allowed for more fluid motion in animated characters.

This technique became rotoscoping.

The Trick That Made Animation Realistic  •  Vox

Rotoscope and Max Fleischer go hand-in-hand. Before this new technique, animated shorts were clunky. Characters didn’t move like real people. That all changed when Fleischer used his younger brother, Dave, as the template for one of his earlier creations: Koko the Clown. His Out of the Inkwell comedy series amazed audiences when they were first released in 1918.

Out of the Inkwell  •  Invisible Ink

The technique soon became a staple in the film industry and changed the way animated films were made.


Early use and Disney rotoscoping

Max Fleischer had the original patent for the technique, and he and his brother founded Fleischer Studios. They created some of the most popular cartoons at the time, including Betty Boop, Popeye, and the original Superman series.

However, Fleischer’s patent expired in 1934, which led to other studios being allowed to use the technique. Walt Disney was a big fan, and you can find some vintage Disney rotoscope footage below.

Live Action References  •  Rare Footage From Disney

The first feature-length Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, relied heavily on this technique. They would film real actors to use as reference for the animators to draw over. The studio would go on to use the technique for many more of their films, including some of the best animated movies like Pinocchio and Alice in Wonderland.

But the original rotoscoping meaning would soon undergo a fundamental shift when it began being incorporated in live-action films. Alfred Hitchcock used the technique for one of his many masterpieces The Birds to create scenes of the birds attacking.

Disney also employed this form of animation for Mary Poppins. Rotoscoping was essential to remove the wires from a scene to make it look like our protagonist Mary Poppins was really flying.

Movie Magic  •  Mary Poppins

Rotoscoping also played a role in the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” sequence of Yellow Submarine as well as the original The Lord of the Rings animated film in 1978. It wouldn’t be until the mid-1990s that the technique would receive a much-needed update.


New rotoscope animation software

In the early '90s, the rotoscoping animation definition received a much-needed upgrade thanks to animator Bob Sabiston. He invented a process called “interpolated rotoscoping.” Essentially, this allows animators to use the basic rotoscoping technique within a computer.

Sabiston would go on to create a computer program specifically designed to handle this technique, which became known as Rotoshop (a play on Photoshop). The software basically copies the traced figure and applies the same basic forms to the other movements. This means animators don’t have to start from scratch when tracing over live action.

  Bob Sabiston Explains His Rotoscoping Animation Software

Sabiston's rotoscope animation software became instrumental in bringing director Richard Linklater's Waking Life to life. Here's a look at the low-fi filmmaking and the radical approach to rotoscope animation.

Waking Life  •  An icon among rotoscope movies

It was also this technique that made the animation in A Scanner Darkly possible. Richard Linklater, again, brought used it to tell a story where the unreality of the rotoscope animation matched the unreality of the story itself. You can see the process in action as well as A Scanner Darkly without rotoscope utilized before it became the finished product.

Interpolated Rotoscoping  •  A Scanner Darkly

There may not be another film like A Scanner Darkly, but the basic principles of rotoscoping are still found in modern films. In one of the best movies of 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy relied heavily on a real raccoon named Oreo. The animators would study the movements of the furry guy to later utilize as the basis for Rocket.

Oreo  •  Guardians of the Galaxy

Rotoshop itself is patented and only available for use by Flat Black Films. However, there are alternatives that perform similar functions for filmmakers who want the rotoscoping aesthetic for their next project.

Another recent project that has advanced the possibilities of rotoscope animation is one of the best TV shows on Amazon, Undone. This series takes full advantage of the "otherworldly" qualities provided by rotoscoping. Here's the director to explain the process of rotoscoping they used on Undone.

What is Rotoscope Animation Today?


Different types of animation

Rotoscoping is simply a subset within the larger realm of animation. With 2D, 3D, motion graphic, and stop motion animation, there are many ways to make an animated film. Each one has their benefits and their challenges. Learn more about the history of animation as well as the different techniques available to make an animated film come to life.

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