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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 has been writing professionally about all things film-related since 2016. She is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects as well as a Curator for One Perfect Shot. She has attended international film festivals such as TIFF, Hot Docs, and the Nitrate Picture Show as a member of the press. In her day job as an archivist and records manager, she regularly works with physical media and is committed to ensuring ongoing physical media accessibility in the digital age. You can find more of Meg's work at Cinema Scope, Dead Central, and Nonfics. She has also appeared on a number of film-related podcasts, including All the President's Minutes, Zodiac: Chronicle, Cannes I Kick It?, and Junk Filter. Her work has been shared on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, Business Insider, and CherryPicks. Meg has a B.A. from the University of King's College and a Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto.