Anybody who would has seen the 1963 released The Birds which was produced and directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock would certainly remember a scene where scores of birds storm the 70 mm screen!
This was achieved by the technique of rotoscoping. Rotoscoping can be referred to as a technique of animation in which animators trace over each frame either for animated or live action films. This technique has been in usage for over a century and nowadays is used mostly as a VFX (Visual Effects) tool for concealing wires and for the creation of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI).
It was in the mid 1910’s that Max Fleischer (1883-1972) patented the technique of Rotoscoping.
Selecting a career in animation, Fleischer wanted to draw as many realistic characters as possible in a quick pace. This made him to film the animation as live action and later trace it one frame after the other. In fact, his younger brother Dave (1894-1979) proved to be an inspiration for the first rotoscoped character he created.
Called ‘Koko the Clown’, it ran successfully for about 15 years starting from 1919. The ‘Out of the Inkwell’ animated series involved projecting the footages onto an easel covered by glass. It would be then traced onto paper and a new sheet would be used for every frame of the footage! Max Fleischer saw to using the same technique when his studio (Fleischer Studios) produced ‘Betty Boop’ (1930), ‘Popeye’ (1933) and ‘Superman’ (1941). Another feather in the cap for Fleischer Studios was that it was the first studio that introduced sound to their pictures.
Walt Disney and Rotoscoping
Walt Disney was greatly influenced by the Max Fleischer’s Rotoscoping technique. But instead of following what Fleischer had done, Disney adapted the technique in a different way especially for Mickey Mouse. At that point in time, Fleischer’s Betty Boop was equally popular as Disney’s Mickey Mouse.
Disney, instead of tracing the footage that was filmed, began to film it in live action by keeping the character movement as a reference. This technique of Disney was used in his films ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’(1937), ‘Pinocchio’(1940) and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (1951). In the case of Alice in Wonderland, rotoscopy was done on the face and mouth of the character apart from the movement. Despite all this that went on between Fleischer and Disney on the professional front, there was no bad blood between them. Interestingly, Max Fleischer’s son Richard (1916-2006) directed the 1954 released ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ for Disney!
Rotoscopy from the 1960’s to the early 2010’s
At the beginning, we got to know how Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) used the technique of rotoscoping in his horror thriller ‘The Birds’. He had been ably assisted by Walt Disney’s close aide Ub Iwerks (1901-1971) who added effects of the birds attacking the town.
The very next year (1964) saw to the release of ‘Mary Poppins’ which used sodium vapour screens for a particular scene.
These sodium vapour screens were used to create mattes. These mattes are used for filming special effects wherein a foreground image is used to combine with a background image. It could also be background paintings, painted canvasses as well as large expanses of landscapes.
During the late 1970’s, Ralph Bakshi used it for his movies like Wizards (1977) and The Lord of the Rings the following year.
It is said that Bakshi decided to use rotoscoping because the media house 20th Century Fox had refused to sanction him an extra US$ 50,000 for finishing of the battle scenes in the latter movie! The 1980’s saw to rotoscoping reclaiming its lost glory as movies such as Heavy Metal (1981), The Secret of NIMH (made by Don Bluth in 1982), the 1983 released What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? followed by It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown the next year.
Apart from movies, rotoscopy was used in the music videos made by the Norwegian band A-ha. This was seen in Take On Me, and Train of Thought which released in 1984, 1985 and 1986 respectively. Don Bluth returned to rotoscopy in 1986 through his An American Tail.
The 1990’s saw to the emergence of Digital Rotoscoping which was due to a computer programme called Rotoshop. The brain behind this was Bob Sabiston who used his technology of interpolated rotoscoping process for creating short films and advertisements. Sabiston later collaborated with director Richard Linklater to make Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly(2006) which are completely digitally rotoscoped films.
Though digital rotoscoping has become the order of the day, traditional rotoscoping was used a couple of years ago in the Guardians of the Galaxy in a scene wherein footage of a real raccoon was used to breathe life into the character Rocket!
This is, in brief, the short history of the journey of Rotoscoping. Today Roto artists are part of every VFX team. They are in charge of blue and green compositing, painting out wires and rigs, effect painting, motion tracking and more.
Thank You for reading!
A team of rotoscopy aspirants, studying at Animaster College– the No.1 animation training institute in India, cumulated data to bring forth this article to the readers.