Is Rotoscope Animation Back? (And How to Get Started Today)

From Tron to Apollo 10 ½, let’s explore the fascinating history of rotoscoping, a classic and achievable animation technique.

I just caught the upcoming Apollo 10 ½ at SXSW. It uses a similar rotoscope animation style to Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, so I’d like to explore if this film type is making a come back (a la other films like Tower and the upcoming Mr. Brody), as well as give plenty of tips and tutorials on how you can get started with rotoscoping for your projects . . .

For those who might not be old enough to remember (or perhaps too old to have cared at the time), in the mid-2000s, there was a brief but golden moment for the art of rotoscope animation in contemporary cinema.

From Waking Life (2001) to A Scanner Darkly (2006), both by acclaimed director Richard Linklater, this style of artistic animation made a short foray back into popular culture.

Before this era, rotoscope animation hadn’t been used really since the 1970s and 1980s, for films like the animated The Lord of the Rings and Tron. But, as quick as its mid-2000s resurgence happened, it disappeared from film and television again just as quickly. That is—until now.

With the latest release of Richard Linklater’s latest film Apollo 10 ½, along with some other creative uses in projects like The Spine of Night, let’s take a look at how this particular form of rotoscope animation came to be, how it’s been used over the years, and why it might be a good option for you to pick up and learn for your projects today.

What Is Rotoscope Animation?

According to a basic Wikipedia definition, Rotoscoping is “an animation technique that animators use to trace motion picture footage, frame-by-frame, to produce realistic action.” This basically means that rotoscope animation is just like traditional animation, except it uses pre-recorded footage as a basis for the animation, opposed to the animators creating the movement.

In the early days, rotoscope animators would project live-action movie images onto a glass panel to trace new animations over the previously recorded images. This early project equipment was called a “rotoscope,” developed by Polish-American animator Max Fleischer as part of his rotograph. 

Eventually, this process was turned digital, yet the name stuck, and rotoscoping is still a common type of animation used in the visual effects industry. However, since the early days, this digital rotoscope animation technique has been more focused on manually creating a matte for an element on a live-action plate so that something new can be composited over another background.

You see a similar technique used with chroma key compositing, which is much easier and faster in most situations. However, there are still times when rotoscope animation can provide more accuracy—or, in many cases, greater leeway for creative interpretation and expression.

Rotoscope Animation Through the Past

As mentioned above, some of the most famous and widespread examples of rotoscope animation came in the 1970s and 80s as a way to create rich, tapestry-level animated films or effects, which looked much more detailed than animation techniques from the 20s, 30s, and 40s.

As you can see in the example scene from the 1978 The Lord of the Rings animated film, this rotoscope animation technique provides an extra (albeit uncanny) level of realism in how the characters and creatures move within the scene. This combination of live-action footage with the added animated elements was quite shocking to audiences.

However, while groundbreaking, the effect still unnerved audiences just enough that as a mainstream technique, it didn’t quite fully take off. Instead, it was occasionally embraced more for its artistic (and, at times, more cost-efficient) merits in the next decade for films like Heavy Metal (1981), Fire and Ice (1983), and scenes and sequences in sci-fi films like Tron (1982).

How Does Rotoscope Animation Work in Modern Movies?

Yet, here again, we come back to this strange resurgence of rotoscope animation from the early and mid-2000s. Not only do we have Linklater’s films like Waking Life and Scanner Darkly, but the art form found its way into music videos and ad campaigns of the time, as well.

However, like many artistic styles that had fallen out of favor for practical reasons, rotoscope animation was embraced for its oddness.

Films like Waking Life, in particular, make good use of rotoscope animation as a jumping-off point for a new style of artistic expression.

And, as a meditative, experimental film that explores the nature of reality, dreams and lucid dreams, consciousness, the meaning of life, free will, and other existential themes, the film used the art style as a way to help the audience disconnect from a standard live-action or animation world. Instead, they could feel free in a hybrid style that followed its own rules.

You can see some more examples of how rotoscope animation was used in films like A Scanner Darkly in the video above, along with some insights into how the look was achieved and how audiences perceived it at the time.

How Rotoscope Animation Is Used Today

This brings us back to rotoscope animation today. With Linklater’s latest film Apollo 10 ½ premiering at SXSW 2022, and making its way to Netflix, it thrust the art form back into the mainstream. And, as you can see in the trailer, its style still feels similar to some past versions of the technique in Linklater’s previous films. 

It’s cool to see just how the process has adapted and changed over the years and how directors like Linklater, who have experimented with it before, have been able to make new decisions in terms of style and function.

Other experimental filmmakers like documentarian Keith Maitland whose 2016 film Tower (which also premiered at SXSW in 2016—taking home the grand jury prize) make similar practical use of rotoscope animation over both new interviews and archival footage.

Tips for Creating Your Own Rotoscope Projects

So, now the question remains: How do you use rotoscope technology and animation in your projects today?

In truth, rotoscope technology is perhaps more popular today than ever before. However, for many video professionals and editors, your experiences with rotoscoping might have more to do with basic visual effects and compositing found in programs like Adobe After Effects than the full-blown animation style you might see in the films above.

That being said, many of the principles and basic techniques remain the same. And, suppose you’re interested in learning how to use any rotoscoping in your projects at all. In that case, you should read up on the basics of rotoscope animation in After Effects.

From there, rotoscope animation is genuinely about as open-ended as an art form can be. You can choose to use it for the occasional cool trick in a YouTube video. Or, perhaps, make a fully-realized animated rotoscope feature film based on footage you found or shot yourself.

The trick is to develop your style and use the technique to free yourself (and your audience) from what you might have thought the limits to animation or live-action might have been.

The rest is up to you and your imagination.

For more video editing tips, tricks, and techniques, check out some of these additional articles and resources below.

Cover image from Apollo 10 ½ via Netflix.

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