Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Mondo Roto

A Rotoscope Animation Filmography

The rotoscope makeover

Synchronicity. Just after blogging about A-Ha's classic rotoscope animation music video "Take On Me," my animator friend Christine stopped by the library looking for movies using this increasingly sophisticated and popular animation technique that seems to be everywhere these days, from Richard Linkletter feature films (2001's Waking Life and 2006's A Scanner Darkly) to iPOD and Charles Schwab TV commercials (the "Talk to Chuck" ads created by Rotoshop software inventor Bob Sabiston).

A Scanner Darkly

As Wikipedia describes it, "Rotoscoping is an animation technique in which animators trace over live-action film movement, frame by frame, for use in animated films. Originally, pre-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 This projection equipment is called a rotoscope, although this device has been replaced by computers in recent years. More recently, the rotoscoping technique has been referred to as interpolated rotoscoping."

Rotoscoping was invented by Max Fleischer (that's his 1915 patent application picture above), who used it in his early "Out of the Inkwell" and Betty Boop cartoons before producing the feature-length Gulliver's Travels (1939) and then perfecting the technique in his Superman cartoons. Naturally, Walt Disney aped the technique pioneered by Fleischer, starting with 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and continuing with Cinderella (1950) and other feature films.

Koko goes roto in Fleischer's "Snow White" Betty Boop 'toon

Fleischer's technique involved setting up the rotoscope - a high-perched camera/projector combination - to look straight down at a flat work surface and then projecting scenes from a movie, frame by frame. On each frame, artists would then hand-trace the elements to be worked on, creating a series of cels used as guidelines to indicate where the special effects needed to go. This method was used virtually unchanged for some 75 years, up until the 1990s, when computer digitization sped the process up.

The Wan Brothers' "Princess Iron Fan" (1941)

According to Wikipedia, rotoscoping was far from unique to America, being used extensively in China's first animated feature film, 1941's Princess Iron Fan (aka, Uproar in Heaven: Princess Iron Fan), which was based on the popular Chinese folk tale A Journey West and directed by brothers Guchan and Laiming Wan. This film about a duel between a vengeful princess and the Monkey King, which clearly shows Fleischer's visual influence, was released under very difficult conditions during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. I'm pretty sure I saw a $1 DVD version of this film at WalMart, under a different title. Rotoscoping was also used extensively in the Soviet Union from the late 1930s to the 1950s when its use was enforced as a realization of "Socialist Realism" and the genre was known as "Éclair."

Rotoscoping became Hobbit-forming for Ralph Bakshi in the '70s

My first feature film exposure to rotoscoping was through Ralph Bakshi, who lead a resurgeance of the technique in the late '70s and early '80s with Wizards (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978, which I fondly recall seeing as a Midnight Movie at the old Towson Theatre, now the collegiate rock emporium, The Recher Theatre), American Pop (1981) and Fire and Ice (1983).

Rotoscoping was even used throughout George Lucas' Star Wars film saga, first being employed to generate the glowing, diffused light of the lightsabers, and later being used to tweak the fighting sequences.

Wikipedia has a great List of Rotoscoped Works, including live-action films, music videos and TV shows that incorporate this technique. There are more than a few surprises in there - like rotoscoping turning up in the "Origin of O-Ren" animation segment in Kill Bill, Vol. 1, the title sequence from Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (come to think of it, Leone's titles gimmick was later lifted for use in the segues on the TV series The Wild, Wild West) and even Martin Scorcese's The Last Waltz - yes, rotoscoping was used in the latter to edit out a blob of cocaine dangling from Neil Young's nose!


Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Tom,

My name is James Foster. I am the copyright holder of the top image featured on this blog post.

It has come to my attention that you are using this image without attribution. I am happy for you to continue using the image, provided you attribute it with a link to

James Foster

9:57 AM  
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