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A Beginner’s Guide to Rotoscoping

What do a dancing walrus and a long-legged ghost have to do with jazz superstar Cab Calloway? Well, in a word: rotoscoping.
Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings Rotoscoping
United Artists
By  · Published on March 17th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay on how the animation technique of rotoscoping works.

Animation has several uncanny valleys. An uncanny mountain range, if you will. But, when it comes to the medium’s eerie highlights, rotoscoping is rarely mentioned. Everyone’s too distracted by that nightmare baby from the Tin Toy Pixar short. And look, I get it. That Lynchian infant has been haunting us all since 1988. But I don’t think rotoscoping gets its dues for conjuring a comparably strange effect.

At the time of its invention, rotoscoping was a technological breakthrough that forever changed the course of Western animation. When the first commercially created animated films began appearing in theaters in the early 20th century, the movements were jerky and unrealistic. Patented by animator and inventor Max Fleischer, the rotoscope was a revelation. The device combined a projector and an easel mount and allowed animators to use live-action film as a traceable reference. In sum: it was a way to use real-life movement to create smoother, more natural-looking animated motion. 

It’s been over a hundred years since the rotoscope’s invention. And in that time, animators have cracked the code on producing fluid motion without tracing live-action references. As a consequence, watching true-blue examples of rotoscoping, like Ralph Bakshi‘s The Lord of the Rings (1978) or Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly (2006), feel implacably odd. There’s a tension between the fantastic visuals and the real-looking movement. But it’s this tension, I find, that makes rotoscoping so compelling (if mildly unsettling) to watch.

The video essay below digs deeper into the history and mechanics of rotoscoping. It also makes sure to point out that, a century later, the technique of real movement forming the basis for animation survives in the form of motion-capture. And also that, more to the point, rotoscoping is so much more than tracing-over preexisting work. You can patent a device, but you can’t patent its execution.

Watch “The trick that made animation realistic“: 

Who made this?

This video is by Vox, an American news website owned by Vox Media, founded in 2014. They produce videos on news, culture, and everything in between. This video is a part of Vox Almanac, a series run by Phil Edwards. You can follow Edwards on Twitter here. You can subscribe to them on YouTube here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).