It Started Out in Animation, Now Used for Visual Effects: All About Rotoscoping

By Patent by Max Fleischer, artist unknown; cropped/retouched by Rl (US Patent n° 1,242,674) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I have heard of rotoscoping. I thought it was just a technique used to assist in animation on cartoons early in the 20th century. Turns out the technique is still used, and even in non-animated product. Saw the new film “Beauty and the Beast”, and as always, I diligently read the credits and saw the rotoscoping credits; and that is my inspiration for this post.

Animator Max Fleischer developed the original concept of rotoscoping. It involved projecting a moving image on a glass and tracing it frame-by-frame. It was viewed as a way to more realistically capture motion. The projected image could be used as a guide to draw a cartoon-like character whose motion (not necessarily the look) is emulated.

Fleischer’s younger brother, Dave, was working as a clown at Coney Island. Dave became the early inspiration for one of Max’s first characters, Koko the Clown.

Film footage of Dave in costume would be projected onto an easel covered by glass. Each frame of footage would be traced onto a piece of paper, using a new sheet of paper for every frame. The result was the first rotoscope animation.

I remember seeing Koko the Clown cartoons on TV when I was young (although I did not realize how old they were, even then) – now you can catch some on YouTube and I recommend my readers check them out.

Max Fleischer went on to produce Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons.

Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop and Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse were becoming the two most famous animated characters. Both animators were constantly pushing revolutionary techniques.

Disney would adopt the rotoscoping technique, but in a different way. Disney would film live-action footage as a reference for character movement. This would play a major role in the production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and subsequent features.

Rotoscoping is used for visual effects (VFX) in live-action movies. Moviemakers would create a silhouette of an image (known as a matte) that would be extracted to be placed on a different background. Think of a giant person walking amongst skyscrapers. The person and the skyscrapers are filmed separately and then combined.

Today, computers and green screens, along with motion-tracking software, are used to achieve the desired effects. In motion capture, a performer wears a skin-tight outfit composed of reflective balls on joints (e.g., knees). In addition, these reflective balls are placed on the face and other exposed areas where motion is desired to be captured. Together it is called performance capture.

The visual effect of the lightsaber in early Star Wars films was created via rotoscoping over a stick.

In conclusion, rotoscoping in cartoons is an animation technique using live action as a guide. In live-action film, it is a generic terminology for the various methods of creating a composite image in the frame. Today the term motion capture is also used.

For more information on rotoscoping, see Additional Information below.

Please provide your thoughts and questions in the comments. I would really enjoy hearing from you. If you have a topic in mind you would like me to cover, please let me know.

Additional Information

Wikipedia: Rotoscoping     Koko the Clown

Rocketstock:  Rotoscoping: From Early Animation to Blockbuster VFX

TV Tropes: Rotoscoping    Motion Capture


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