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Rotoscoping is a technique where animators trace live action movement, frame by frame, for use in animated cartoons. Originally, pre-recorded live-film images were projected onto a matte windowpane and redrawn by an animator. This projection equipment is called a Rotoscope.



Patent drawing for Fleischer's original rotoscope. The artist is drawing on a transparent easel, onto which the movie projector at the right is throwing an image of a single film frame. Patent drawing for Fleischer's original rotoscope. The artist is drawing on a transparent easel, onto which the movie projector at the right is throwing an image of a single film frame.

The technique was invented by Max Fleischer, who used it in his series "Out of the Inkwell" starting around 1914, with his brother Dave Fleischer dressed in a clown outfit as the live-film reference for the character Koko the Clown.

Fleischer used rotoscope in a number of his later cartoons as well, most notably the Cab Calloway dance routines in three Betty Boop cartoons from the early 1930s, and the animation of Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels.

Walt Disney and his animators employed it carefully and very effectively in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, primarily used in the animation of Prince Charming. Rotoscoping was also used in many of Disney's subsequent animated feature films.

Ralph Bakshi used the technique quite extensively in his animated movies Wizards (1977) and The Lord of the Rings (1978). Bakshi was refused by 20th Century Fox for a $50,000 budget increase to finish Wizards, and thus had to resort to rotoscoping to finish the battle sequences. (This was the same meeting at which George Lucas was also denied a $3 million budget increase to finish Star Wars.)

Don Bluth used the technique in two major films, the successful Anastasia and the box-office bomb Titan A.E..

Smoking Car Productions invented a digital rotoscoping process in 1994 for the creation of its critically-acclaimed adventure game The Last Express. The process was awarded U.S. Patent 6061462: Digital Cartoon and Animation Process.

Using a similar technique, Richard Linklater produced a digitally rotoscoped feature called Waking Life, creating a surreal image of live action footage, a technique which is now being used to produce the movie A Scanner Darkly. Linklater is the first director to use digital rotoscoping to create an entire feature film.

Rotoscoping was also used in the 1985 A-ha music video Take on Me.

Additionally, a 2005-06 advertising campaign by Charles Schwab uses rotoscoping for a series of television spots, under the tagline "Talk to Chuck." This distinctive look is the work of Bob Sabiston, an MIT Media Lab veteran who brought the same "interpolated rotoscoping" technique to the Richard Linklater film Waking Life.


A horse animated by rotoscoping from  Edweard Muybridge's 19th century photos. A horse animated by rotoscoping from Edweard Muybridge's 19th century photos.

Rotoscoping is decried by some animation purists, but has often been used to good effect. When used as an animator's reference tool, it can be a valuable time-saver.

Poor-quality rotoscoping has slight deviations from the true line that differ from frame to frame, which when animated cause the animated line to "boil". Avoiding boiling requires considerable skill in the person performing the tracing.

Rotoscoping has often been used as a tool for special effects in live action movies. By tracing an object, a silhouette (called a matte) can be created that can be used to create an empty space in a background scene. This allows the object to be placed in the scene. However, this technique has been largely superseded by bluescreen techniques.

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.

The term "rotoscoping" (typically abbreviated as "roto") is now generally used for the corresponding all-digital process of tracing outlines over digital film images to produce digital mattes. This technique is still in wide use for special cases where techniques such as bluescreen will not pull an accurate enough matte. 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.

Motion capture is a form of digital rotoscope (often referred to by animators as "the devil's rotoscope").

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.