The Trick That Made Animation Realistic: Watch a Short History of Rotoscoping

Can we run a line of influ­ence from the Incred­i­ble Hulk back through Super­man all the way to…Koko the Clown? If we’re talk­ing about roto­scop­ing we are.

Vox has returned with anoth­er fas­ci­nat­ing mini-doc in their “Hollywouldn’t” series, explor­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary film inven­tions cre­at­ed out­side the main stu­dio sys­tem.

If you don’t know roto­scop­ing as a word, you’ve no doubt seen it: essen­tial­ly it is a way for ani­ma­tors to cre­ate more real­is­tic move­ment by trac­ing over live action, one frame at a time.

The man who invent­ed it was Max Fleis­ch­er, who also cre­at­ed Bet­ty Boop and ani­mat­ed Segar’s Pop­eye and Super­man. As the Vox doc shows, Fleis­ch­er saw that ear­ly ani­ma­tion was stiff and lack­ing in real­ism, and so he invent­ed a device to project a live action frame of film onto the back of a glass draw­ing board so a fig­ure could be traced. With his broth­er Dave dressed up and filmed as Koko the Clown, Fleis­ch­er was able to bring an uncan­ny real­ism to his “Out of the Inkwell” car­toons, as Koko moved just like a human (when he need­ed to do so), a feat that attract­ed the atten­tion of the New York Times and oth­ers.

Fleis­ch­er was con­stant­ly push­ing the tech­nique. Not sat­is­fied with real­ism, he used footage of singer/band leader Cab Cal­loway and turned him into a danc­ing wal­rus. What­ev­er the trans­for­ma­tion, Calloway’s moon­walk­ing, slinky gate is main­tained, and the Bet­ty Boop car­toon from which it hails, “Min­nie the Moocher,” along with its sequel “Snow White,” are two of the weird­est, spook­i­est bits of ani­ma­tion out there still to this day.

You can see more roto­scop­ing in the sub­se­quent col­or “Super­man” car­toons and the real­is­tic Gulliver’s Trav­els, which would go on to bank­rupt the stu­dio.

Dis­ney would use roto­scop­ing in Snow White and the Sev­en Dwarves and all sub­se­quent Dis­ney princess­es of the clas­sic era were ani­mat­ed in part from live action sources.

Exper­i­men­tal ani­ma­tors used roto­scop­ing to all dif­fer­ent effects, not always want­i­ng to attempt real­ism. Ralph Bak­shi used some very odd roto­scop­ing in sec­tions of his ani­mat­ed Lord of the Rings fea­ture and Amer­i­can Pop, and strange­ly, as he got clos­er to real­ism, the fak­er and more lethar­gic it looked. Once com­put­er graph­ics entered the pic­ture, roto­scop­ing took a back seat, but motion cap­ture is a three-dimen­sion­al ver­sion of the con­cept, essen­tial­ly over­lay­ing com­put­er ani­ma­tion on a filmed actor.

How­ev­er, a form of roto­scop­ing can be seen in Richard Linklater’s Wak­ing Life and A Scan­ner Dark­ly, where, assist­ed by com­put­ers to do most of the hard work, it was chris­tened Roto­shop by ani­ma­tor and MIT sci­en­tist Bob Sabis­ton.

And to bring it all back home to your pock­et, the video fil­ters on your phone that can turn your face into a dog or a wiz­ard or a glam­or model…that all start­ed just over a cen­tu­ry ago by one plucky inven­tor and his broth­er, dressed as a clown.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Orig­i­nal 1940s Super­man Car­toon: Watch 17 Clas­sic Episodes Free Online

The Harlem Jazz Singer Who Inspired Bet­ty Boop: Meet the Orig­i­nal Boop-Oop-a-Doop, “Baby Esther”

Why Car­toon Char­ac­ters Wear Gloves: A Curi­ous Trip Through the His­to­ry of Ani­ma­tion

Scenes from Wak­ing Life, Richard Linklater’s Philo­soph­i­cal, Fea­ture-Length Ani­mat­ed Film (2001)

Tom Waits For No One: Watch the Pio­neer­ing Ani­mat­ed Tom Waits Music Video from 1979

Free Ani­mat­ed Films: From Clas­sic to Mod­ern

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.