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Rotoscoping is an animation technique in which animators trace over footage, frame by frame, for use in live-action and animated films. Originally, recorded live-action film images were projected onto a frosted glass panel and re-drawn by an animator. This projection equipment is called a rotoscope. Although this device was eventually replaced by computers, the process is still referred to as rotoscoping.
The technique was invented by cartoonist/illustrator/writer/inventor Max Fleischer, who used it in his technologically groundbreaking Out of the Inkwell animated series, which debuted in 1915. The live-film reference for the series' main animated character, Koko the Clown, was provided by his brother (Dave Fleischer), who performed choreographed movements while dressed in a clown costume. Max Fleischer patented the rotoscope method in 1917.
Max Fleischer used rotoscoping in a number of his later cartoons—most notably the Cab Calloway dance routines in three Betty Boop cartoons in the early 1930s, and the animation of Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels (1939). Fleischer's animation studio's most effective and revered use of rotoscoping was in its series of short-length, action-oriented, film noir-styled Superman cartoons of the early 1940s, in which Superman and other animated characters displayed shockingly realistic bodily movement on a level unmatched by later, conventional forms of cartoon animation.
Walt Disney and his animators used the technique in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. From Snow White onward, the rotoscope was used mainly for studying human and animal movement rather than actual tracing.
Rotoscoping was used extensively in China's first animated feature film, Princess Iron Fan (1941), which was released under very difficult conditions during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.
The technique was used extensively in the Soviet Union from the late-1930s to the 1950s, where it was known as "Éclair" (in Russian – эклер) and its historical use was enforced as a realization of Socialist Realism. Most of the films produced with it were adaptations of folk tales or poems—for example, The Night Before Christmas or The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish. Only in the early 1960s, after the Khrushchev Thaw, did animators start to explore very different aesthetics.
The makers of The Beatles' animated film Yellow Submarine used rotoscoping in numerous instances, most notably the sequence for "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". Director Martin Scorsese famously had to have a large chunk of cocaine hanging from Neil Young's left nostril rotoscoped out of his rock documentary The Last Waltz.
Ralph Bakshi used rotoscoping extensively in his animated movies Wizards (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978), American Pop (1981), and Fire and Ice (1983). Bakshi first turned to rotoscoping because 20th Century Fox refused his request for a $50,000 budget increase to finish Wizards; he resorted to the rotoscope technique to finish the battle sequences.
Rotoscoping was also used in Heavy Metal (1981), What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? (1983) and It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown (1984); three of a-ha's music videos, "Take On Me" (1985), "The Sun Always Shines on T.V." (1985), and "Train of Thought" (1986); Don Bluth's The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986) and Titan A.E. (2000); and Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues (2008).
While rotoscoping is generally known to bring a sense of realism to high-budget animated films, the American animation company Filmation perfected its use for its signature style of low-budget, limited TV animation. It repetitively reused rotoscopes of a very limited number of bodily movements across multiple series (e.g.: Tarzan: Lord of the Jungle; Flash Gordon; Blackstar; He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, et al.).
In 1994, Smoking Car Productions invented a digital rotoscoping process to develop its critically acclaimed adventure video game The Last Express. The process was awarded U.S. Patent 6,061,462, Digital Cartoon and Animation Process. The game was designed by Jordan Mechner, who had used rotoscoping extensively in his previous games Karateka and Prince of Persia.
In the mid-1990s, Bob Sabiston, an animator and computer scientist veteran of the MIT Media Lab, developed a computer-assisted "interpolated rotoscoping" process, which he used to make his award-winning short film "Snack and Drink". Director Richard Linklater subsequently employed Sabiston and his proprietary Rotoshop software in the full-length feature films Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). Linklater licensed the same proprietary rotoscoping process for the look of both films. Linklater is the first director to use digital rotoscoping to create an entire feature film. Additionally, a 2005–08 advertising campaign by Charles Schwab used Sabiston's rotoscoping work for a series of television spots, under the tagline "Talk to Chuck".
In 2013, the anime The Flowers of Evil used rotoscoping to produce a look that differed greatly from its manga source material. Viewers criticized the film's shortcuts in facial animation, its reuse of backgrounds, and the liberties it took with realism. Despite this, critics lauded the film, and the website Anime News Network awarded it a perfect score for initial reactions.
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Rotoscope output can have slight deviations from the true line that differs from frame to frame, which when animated cause the animated line to shake unnaturally, or "boil". Avoiding boiling requires considerable skill in the person performing the tracing, though causing the "boil" intentionally is a stylistic technique sometimes used to emphasize the surreal quality of rotoscoping, as in the music video "Take On Me" and animated TV series Delta State. The very first animated music video "Routine Day", was rotoscoped. Created for the band "Klaatu" by Al Guest and Jean Mathieson, it employed overlapping dissolves to give a dream-like feeling to the "boiling" pencil line. The technique was also used for the Kansas video "All I Wanted".
Rotoscoping (often abbreviated as "roto") has often been used as a tool for visual effects in live-action movies. By tracing an object, a silhouette (called a matte) is created that can be used to extract that object from a scene for use on a different background. While blue and green screen techniques have made the process of layering subjects in scenes easier, rotoscoping still plays a large role in the production of visual effects imagery. Rotoscoping in the digital domain is often aided by motion tracking and onion-skinning software. Rotoscoping is often used in the preparation of garbage mattes for other matte-pulling processes.
Rotoscoping has also been used to allow a special visual effect (such as a glow, for example) to be guided by the matte or rotoscoped line. One classic use of traditional rotoscoping was in the original three Star Wars films, where it was used to create the glowing lightsaber effect, by creating a matte based on sticks held by the actors. To achieve this, editors traced a line over each frame with the prop, then enlarged each line and added the glow.
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- "Through a 'Scanner' dazzlingly: Sci-fi brought to graphic life" USA TODAY, August 2, 2006 Wednesday, LIFE; Pg. 4D WebLink
- US patent 1242674, Max Fleischer, "Method of producing moving-picture cartoons", issued 1917-10-09
- "Reviving an ancient art" The Times (London), August 5, 2006, FEATURES; The Knowledge; Pg. 10. Weblink, see bottom of page
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