History Of The Rotoscoping Technique

Keanu Scanner Darkly

The rotoscoping technique has evolved alongside the special effects world for close to a century. Since the beginning popularity of the silent, animated short, to the experimental film wave, animation and real life film footage began cohabiting the screen together instead of sticking to their respective corners. By basing animated sequences on actual movements, backgrounds, and environments, the jumpy, free drawn cartoons that may have existed prior are trumped by a whole new league of clashing styles.

Rotoscoping is an animated technique in which the footage of either a digitized or animated subject is traced over, in order to give them a different environment or background. The term derives from the tool that was originally used to achieve this effect, the rotoscope. Original rotoscopes, typically composed of frosted glass and angled like an easel, could show frame-by-frame slides of footage by placing paper over the glass surface.


Nowadays we may think of the way a green screen operates to understand rotoscoping’s achievements. By placing a solid, single colored background behind a moving subject, animators and editors may “cut” a matted layer around the subject to change, multiply, and intensify the amount of layers behind them. This technique can establish foreground, interact with the placement of props, and even bring a subject into an animated world entirely.

The rotoscoping technique was first put to use by filmmaker Max Fleischer in 1914. Fleischer, a Polish American filmmaker and a forefather of the animated cartoon, featured this style in his three part series Out of the Inkwell. The series did not just happen to include the usage of a rotoscope, but had been created for the purpose of sharing this technology with the world. The subject of Inkwell, Koko the Clown, was based off movements by Flesicher’s brother, who went on to inspire other shorts of his.


Diagram from Fleischer’s patent application 

Individual frames could be traced over in varying levels of detail depending on the animator’s intended effect. Interpolated rotoscoping, as seen in the successful, semi-animated film A SCANNER DARKLY (2006), lays animation directly over live action frames. Other popular media platforms highlight the convergence of the real world on animated terms, and vice versa – the Beatles video for “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the light saber in all the Star Wars films, amongst many others.

The usage of rotoscoping, while producing a visually smooth moving effect when done correctly, is a time consuming process unfavorable to some animators. In trying to layer over a live action figure with frame-by-frame drawings, many artists tend to pick a random spot to start rather than planning out the best option. This framing selection can be detrimental to the fluidity of the animation once it’s been finished. Starting from spots on the body that are active in several different areas of movement, such as the knee or elbow joints, can eliminate this problem.

Filming subjects in front of a green screen can also become problematic when subjects do not adhere to shooting perimeters. Sticking hands, feet, or entire gestures out of the frame that includes the green screen can make shot static and unusable. Trying to fix these boundary breaks with the help of animation can make the final cut feel jumpy and static. Without proper tracing or accurate continuity from frame to frame, animators must face a “boil” or “jitter,” or clumsy gaps in fluidity for their shot.

Through interpolated rotoscoping, animation working directly over live action film may help evoke a sense of otherness and altered state of mind to the audience. Richard Linklater’s A SCANNER DARKLY takes on heavy responsibilities to begin with – the weight of a Phillip K. Dick novel’s legacy, the believability a futuristic dystopia infested with drug addiction, and a protagonist at odds with his identity and purpose. The film is done entirely in this animated format, where a detailed, animated tracing has turned major stars such as Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, and Robert Downey. Jr into recognizable, semi-animated representations of themselves.

A consistent color palette across the film is easier to maintain when live action frames are traced over, as well as control over fixing any sloppy or jerky movements from the actors. In fact, actors have discussed their ability to rely on facial gesture more and less on their body movements under the principles of rotoscoping. Sloppy legwork may be traced over, in replacement for overly exaggerated facial ticks that would be out of place for a standard, live action shot.

Tom Pallotta, the producer of the science fiction adaptation, has admitted that he configured the film’s dependence on rotoscoping from the very beginning. In a film representative of extreme drug use, hopelessness, and overall discomfort meant to project onto the reader, this technique brings into the protagonist’s fear of identity loss and lack of belonging.

Dynamics of the film such the “scramble suit,” a constantly blinking and changing veil of disguise that the protagonist wears to mull up his identity, are visually stunning in a rotoscope capacity. Scenes of memory mixing and out of order flashbacks become fluid and nightmarish under a lens of real life inspired animation. A SCANNER DARKLY relies on the rotoscoping technique for this jarring atmosphere, not unlike a graphic novel, and brilliantly vivid storytelling of such a dark, futuristic time.

While at times painstaking, a frustrating time consumer, and a nightmare to the perfectionist animator, the technology deriving from the rotoscope has opened several possibilities for animation. Since Max Fleischer’s official patenting of the technique in 1915, the tracing of real life images and movements has expanded in accuracy and effect. Linklater’s A SCANNER DARKLY, while a visually intricate and fear inducing film, is only one work of many that has depended greatly on the rotoscoping technique.





Jaran is an undergraduate student finishing up her bachelor’s degree for professional writing and cinema studies. She currently manages an arts and literary journal at her university and hopes to pursue a career in film journalism.

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