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Rotoscope Animation - An Animator's Secret Technique

“Art is anything you can get away with."

Andy Warhol, Artist

Rotoscope animation is a contentious topic in some animation circles. But, there’s no denying that this animation technique has significant benefits for freelance animators.

For animators striving to produce outstanding work that's realistic and completed timeously, animation rotoscoping holds heaps of potential. 

And if you’re wondering what all the buzz is about whether to rotoscope or not to rotoscope, we’ll clear that up for you with some facts about this fabulous animation technique.  

In this blog post, we explain what rotoscoping in animation is, why it's a great technique to use, and how exactly you can add animation rotoscoping to your professional process.  

What Is Rotoscope Animation

Animation itself is an age-old form of storytelling

As animation became more in demand in the early 1900s, artists were looking for ways to improve on what they could produce with just pencil and paper.

But what is rotoscope animation exactly?

Rotoscope animation emerged as a solution to some of the challenges faced by early animators. Instead of drawing animations from scratch - rotoscoping animation used videos of moving subjects as a template for tracing animation outlines. 

These outlines would go on to produce characters with much more realistic movement.  

But there’s so much more history behind this animation technique.

Let us provide you with a more detailed explanation of what rotoscope animation is by taking you through its past and present. 

Why Rotoscope Animation Came About

One of the biggest problems with early cartoons was that they didn’t mimic movement realistically.

Animated characters would walk about with choppy limb movements, and faster animations seemed jerky and stiff.

old choppy and jerky animations before rotoscoping

GIF by Okkult Motion Pictures via GIPHY

In some instances, animated characters' limbs and bodies would suddenly appear or disappear from the screen altogether.  

These issues took away from the appeal that animations were meant to have. And the appeal is such an important part of animation production that it forms part of the 12 principles of animation that many professionals follow today. 

Animation appeal is not only what captures a viewer's interest; it’s also what keeps them watching and coming back for more. 

So the animation industry of the early 1900s—which had just started to find its stride—couldn’t afford to continue with the lackluster appeal. 

One of the great early cartoonists, Max Fleischer, was determined to figure out a way around these challenges. 

With his background in mechanical engineering and animation—and his sheer determination—Fleischer created the rotoscope and developed the first technique for animation rotoscoping. 

how rotoscope animation was done back in the day

Image by Wikimedia Commons via Wikipedia

He patented his invention more than 100 years ago, on 9 October 1917. 

How Rotoscope Animation Added Production Value

Rotoscope animation brought early animation into the future, and animation rotoscoping reels now oozed the appeal that previous productions had been missing.  

The concept of rotoscoping in animation took the real-life motion of human beings and moving objects and used them as reference points to create more realistic animations.

To produce the animation rotoscoping effect, Fleischer made use of video footage. This footage was projected onto a piece of paper in a specific way using Fleischer’s rotoscope invention

By projecting video footage one frame at a time, the artist could trace each frame onto a piece of paper.

This procedure was followed for hundreds of frames, and traced frames were put together to produce an animated reel of characters with hyper-realistic movement.

Rotoscoping in animation meant that both the obvious and subtle movements characters made could more easily be captured without the need for hand drawing from scratch or guesswork. 

rotoscoping in animation can be seen in sports

GIF by Cosme Studio via GIPHY

For Fleischer’s first take on the animation rotoscoping technique, he used a video of his brother Dave dressed as a clown and dancing on a rooftop.  

The animated production generated was called Out of the Inkwell, which was a huge success. The main character, Koko the Clown, stumbled onto screens in 1919 as a J.R Bray’s studio production. 

The animation was such a triumph that it gave the Fleischer brothers the financial boost and confidence they needed to start their very own studio, the iconic Fleischer Studios!

one of max fleischer's most known rotoscope animations

GIF by Fleischer Studios via GIPHY

How Rotoscope Animation Fit Into Traditional Animation

Where traditional animation pieced together animated reels from hundreds of hand-drawn frames, animation rotoscoping introduced a way to create better quality animations using less time—and eventually less effort.   

Once Fleischer’s rotoscope patent expired, Disney studios wasted no time using the technique in prestigious productions like Snow White and Fantasia. 

Animation rotoscoping is one of the recently uncovered secrets linked to Disney Studio’s incredible success in the industry. 

In this way, rotoscoping in animation was part and parcel of the revolution in the animation industry known as the golden age of animation. 

disney using a blend of traditional animation and rotoscope animation

GIF by ruinedchildhood via GIPHY

Here are some of the greatest old and new rotoscope animation examples:

The Best Rotoscope Animation Examples 

Animation rotoscoping is a technique that stands out in classic cartoons and has developed in leaps and bounds from the early 1900s to today. 

This list of rotoscope animation examples showcases some of the best and most monumental achievements using animation rotoscoping over the last few decades:

Betty Boop

When asked, “What is rotoscope animation?”, viewers in the know in the 1930s would likely have referred to the Betty Boop cartoons.

Betty Boop was one of the most popular characters during this time, and her show served as the perfect platform to launch animation rotoscoping into mainstream entertainment. 

The producers studied human movement through different subjects to sharpen their rotoscoping skills.

One of the most well-known of these subjects was Cab Calloway. The dance moves of this renowned swing dancer were used to smooth out the actions of various characters in the Betty Boop series of cartoons. 

cab calloway's dance moves rotoscoped in betty boop

GIF by Fleischer Studios via GIPHY

The use of animation rotoscoping in Betty Boop built on the technique's popularity and prestige in the early 1900s. 

This made the benefits of rotoscope animation clear for everyone in the industry to see at the start of the golden age of animation.  

See how Cab Calloway's moves breathed life into various characters in the 1930s in this video by Old Films and Stuff: Betty Boop Cab Calloway Rotoscoping Comparison

Popeye

First introduced in a Betty Boop cartoon by Fleischer Studios, Popeye was a sailor man with great potential.

Studio animators took the time to adapt Popeye’s character at the inception of animation rotoscoping, which saw Popeye’s popularity exploding over the next two decades.

popeye used rotoscope animation in some parts

GIF by Imgur via GIPHY

The version of Popeye that had been adapted for rotoscoping in animation became his most celebrated and reproduced rendering.

This showed how animation rotoscoping could add an immense amount of value to the quality of animations. 

Take a look at Popeye’s smooth and realistic moves in this video by Mat Bergman: Rotograph - Popeye the Sailor

Snow White

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was Disney’s first-ever feature film and garnered an immense amount of success for the studio. 

It was also one of the most successful rotoscope animation movies ever produced. 

The achievements of this full-length animated film were in part due to the political climate, which saw audiences seeking out inspiring entertainment. 

However, Snow White’s prestige was also ensured by the production's high caliber of animation technique, which relied heavily on animation rotoscoping. 

snow white used rotoscoped animation that others use for

GIF by musediet via Tenor

See how rotoscoping in animation perfected Snow White’s gestures and jigs in this video by Magic Made Today: Disney Animation: An Example of Rotoscoping

Princess Iron Fan

Animation rotoscoping wasn’t just raising eyebrows in America. 

As early as the 1940s, rotoscoping in animation was picked up in Asia.

The first Chinese animated feature film—Princess Iron Fan—was produced using rotoscoping in animation in 1941. 

A picture's worth... — 鐵扇公主 (Princess Iron Fan) 14 in x of animated...

GIF by animation-appreciation-education via Tumblr

Yellow Submarine 
beatles using rotoscope animation for their yellow submarine album

GIF by boomunderground via GIPHY

Rotoscoping in animation made one of its biggest appearances on the music scene in the Beatle’s music video for their hit single Yellow Submarine.

Here the acceptance of the rotoscoping technique was made evident, and brand new use of the technique burst onto screens for audiences worldwide to see. 

Renaissance and a Scanner Darkly

Fast forward a few decades, and you’ll see the sophistication of rotoscoping animation taking off. 

Renaissance, produced in 2006, captures a futuristic 2054 in Paris using rotoscoping animation. 

At the same time, A Scanner Darkly also gripped audiences with its dark and dramatic storyline, and it was the animation rotoscoping added to this film's other-worldly appeal. 

a scanner darkly used rotoscope animation with big budget actors

GIF by rwilhelmd via Tenor

New-age rotoscope animation movies proved that this animation technique was not only still relevant but also pushing boundaries in the present.

Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood
apollo 10 1/2 used rotoscope animation in the 21st century

GIF by typical22 via Tenor

In 2022, reels of rotoscope animation movies unraveled on cinema screens. 

One of the best twenty-first-century takes on the technique came in the form of, Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood.

This animation tells the story of a young boy growing up at the Apollo 11 moon landing.

This production perfectly demonstrates the nostalgia and fun that rotoscoping in animation can bring to a tried and tested storyline. 

How to Animate Using Rotoscope Animation 

Animation rotoscoping is still a widely used and popular technique today. 

There are many online courses and video tutorials available for professionals to learn from. 

Here’s a list of our top 5 animations rotoscoping software for freelance animators to make use of:

Once you’ve picked the perfect animation rotoscoping software for you, practice the technique using your home videos or favorite TikToks.

Focus on how much detail you need to add to each frame and how many frames per second produce the best flow. This will help you to get comfortable with using the software quickly.

You can also go back to basics and produce rotoscope animation movies using a projector and paper. This way, you can see how hand-drawn frames differ from digital creations and get a broader perspective of this animation technique.   

See how simple digital rotoscoping in animation can be by watching this video tutorial by The Virtual Instructor: Realistic Animation - How to Rotoscope in Photoshop.

Rev-Up Your Reels With Rotoscope Animation

To some, using rotoscoping in animation is a cheat to achieving realistic animations and something for artists to steer clear of. 

rotoscope animation can achieve realistic facial expressions

GIF by Hughnewellart via GIPHY

However, many of today’s animation industry experts swear by the benefits of animation rotoscoping and consider it a proper form of animation

Their advice is that rotoscoping in animation isn’t for every project or every type of artist, but you can benefit from this technique as a professional if:

  • You already have a keen eye for detail
  • You are already great at drawing 
  • You don’t need to use rotoscoping in animation as a crutch to create quality animations
  • You're looking for new techniques to mix up your offerings.

The concept of tracing has been used by many famous artists such as Thomas Eakins, Johannes Vermeer, Norman Rockwell, and  Maxfield Parrish. 

like older paintings, is tracing cheatingin rotoscope animation

GIF by AMERICAE via GIPHY

And the artistic prowess of these maestros was in no way due to their tracing abilities. 

No, these artists had already developed a keen eye for observing the natural world and the expertise to communicate what they saw into alluring images on paper or canvas.

Their use of tracing was only because it allowed them to produce high-quality realistic outlines—which they could easily have achieved on their own if given more time—that laid the foundation for their unique interpretation.

The artist would still have to relay light and shadow, texture, form, and color to the artwork, which is what brought each piece to life.  

Read more about why animators should keep up their drawing practice in our blog post: 5 Reasons Why Animators Should Keep Drawing

animators need to keep practing their animation skills

GIF by CBeebies HQ via GIPHY

So while rotoscoping in animation may not be animating from scratch, it’s also not just tracing and requires an artist to have a complete set of artistic skills at their disposal. 

Some animators ask, “is it cheating to trace?” but there’s lots of evidence out there that points to tracing being an accepted technique that can add value to unique artistic creations.  

If done the right way, rotoscoping in animation can help you grow your animation business while allowing you to stay true to your artistic ethos. 

You can draw on the benefits of animation rotoscoping by working it into your artistic services and freshening up existing projects with a bit of rotoscoping flair. 

You can also learn everything you need to know to add benefit to the business side of your animation services by taking our free masterclass and downloading our free marketing handbook.

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