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What is rotoscoping? Learn all about this animation technique (+ course guide)

Imagine yourself watching live-action footage, a movie sequence or character motion, and wondering:

“How can I do this in animation?”.

The answer to this question can be: using the art of rotoscoping.

Rotoscoping allows any subject to be recorded on video and used as the basis for an animated character.

In this process, keyframes from the video are traced by hand or computer to reproduce the subject's natural motion.

But that’s not all. To address what rotoscoping is, you are invited to dive into this complete rotoscoping animation review guide to understand all about the technique.

So, let’s get started.

What is Rotoscoping?

As we said, rotoscoping is the technique used by animators to create realistic motion.

In essence, it helps add more life to animated actions, characters, and objects because they were designed from live-footage.

The technique goes back to the early days of cinema, when animators used to trace live-action footage projected frame-by-frame onto paper, either to use as motion reference or directly copy into their work.

Why is it so important?

For easy understanding, imagine tracing or drawing a shape around an object in a captured live frame, cutting it out and pasting in another frame, or adding to it to make the changes you need.

By tracing an object, moviemakers could create a silhouette they can use to extract the purpose from a scene for use on unique backgrounds.

In other words, it is possible to say that the rotoscope animation has allowed the improvement of visual effects in any process of recording using motion.

Over the years, computers and software replaced the manual process.

Nowadays, it involves the use of automated techniques and features from software like Matte, Mask, Paint, Motion Tracking, Roto, and Compositing, which are considered after-effects in Visual Effects (VFX).

Rotoscoping is a great way to get started in motion design, because you can incorporate movements quickly, without having to know all the principles of animation.

Who created the technique?

Photo: Max Fleischer, creator of the early animated cartoons

The animation technique of Rotoscoping was created by Max Fleischer – a Polish-American animator, director, and inventor of the rotoscoping technology, which he patented in 1915.

Back then, it was known as the "Fleischer Process” and was used exclusively by him. For you to have an idea, it took three years to make his invention a popular technique.

When was the first time the technique was used?

Max Fleischer has used the technique in his animated series Out of the Inkwell (1918-1927) – notable for being the first rotoscope animation.

The groundbreaking work was produced to demonstrate the invention of the rotoscope technique, featuring the famous “Koko the Clown” animated character modeled by his younger brother – Dave Fleischer.

Besides "Koko", Fleischer Studios used the technique for other animated characters like Popeye (1933), and Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travel (1939).

How was rotoscoping used before the digital era?

The history of rotoscoping and huge film studios starts in the 1930s. More specifically, in 1934, when Fleischer’s patent and exclusivity to use rotoscoping expired, and other animators and studios started using rotoscoping freely.

Who was interested in the expiration of the rotoscoping patent?

Walter Elias Disney. Yes, Walt Disney.

Disney adopted the rotoscoping technique, but used it slightly differently.

Instead of tracing over footage that was already filmed, Disney filmed live-action footage as a reference for character movement.

This new technique was first used for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1938, and continued to be used for all of his following features.

For producing Alice in Wonderland, in 1951, Disney had to rotoscope body movement, mouth, and face motion.

Fun fact: Walt Disney and Max Fleischer became best friends.

Photo: Max Fleischer (center) visits Walt Disney. At right is Fleischer's son Richard, a film producer.

Is rotoscoping still in use today?

As we said, before the digital era, Rotoscoping was more traditional and time-consuming as it was done manually.

It's possible to imagine how complicated the rotoscoping process was today with the usage of automated software.

But, answering the question of the topic, yes, rotoscoping is still widely in use today and in some major blockbusters like Planet of Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Curious to know about other famous movies that made use of this technique? Then, take a look at the next topic.

Which movies have used the rotoscoping technique?

The number of movies that have used the rotoscoping technique since it was first invented by Fleischer is countless. But here is a list of popular films you may have watched that utilized this revolutionary technique:

  • Star Wars applied the technique to create a glow to the legendary lightsabers, which were just wooden sticks and swords held by the actors in live footage;
  • Lord of the Rings used rotoscoping to bring to life the iconic character Gollum;
  • Mary Poppins applied it to remove a bunch of objects from her flights on the stage
  • Planet of Apes implemented it to create the apes' movements;
  • Guardians of the Galaxy put the technology into use to create the character Groot.

Why is rotoscoping the process that every VFX roto artist should learn?

As we can see, rotoscoping is an important process for image manipulation.

The animation profession has known the importance of adapting to new technologies and today it is crucial within the film studios, production companies or any company that makes film production.

For motion graphics, live-action, realistic visual graphics, rotoscoping is a relevant art of physical animation.

Best Rotoscoping software for your animation project

If you are starting to learn the rotoscoping technique and want to use it effectively, the right rotoscoping software will be your best friend and most significant asset.

So, what is the best rotoscoping software to get you started?

Adobe After Effects CS3

As one of the leading rotoscoping software programs, After Effects offers everything you need to make an animated or VFX version of a movie scene. By allowing you to extract objects from clips easily, you can do virtually anything from adding rain to a scene to creating an animated logo or imaginary character.

After Effects also comes with some incredibly useful advanced features for text that will come in handy. With them, you can create animated credits or titles. And if that was not enough, After Effects let you animate nearly anything using expressions or keyframes.

Silhouette FX

This Academy Award-winning software is best known for its Roto and Paint feature. It comes with a fully-featured compositing system and a 2D non-destructive paint system that users cannot get enough of.

Why is Silhouette FX so great? Because it allows you to restore, remove dust, wire, and rig quickly and effectively from the scenes. On top of that, you get particular toolsets for building channels and a proprietary matte removal technique that can remove virtually any object in an image with the touch of a button.

    NUKE

Love the Game of Throne dragon scenes?

You might have to take a look at NUKE’s node-based digital compositing and visual effects application used by studios like Walt Disney, DreamWorks Animation, Sony Pictures, Netflix, and many more.

This Academy-award Technical Achievement winning software is notable for its compositing toolset that includes rotoscope, keyers, color corrector, vector paint, and more. Also, it is packed with compelling editorial and reviewing, GPU acceleration, and fluid workflow capabilities.

It enables 3D tracking and model building for your project; no wonder Netflix uses this application for Netflix Originals.

    Fusion

Fusion is widely used by 3D animators, movie graphic designers and in broadcasting. It was explicitly developed for visual effects artists as one of the world’s leading compositing software.

This software has been used for more than 30 years, from television shows to Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. Users love its robust interface that allows you to create effects with ease.

Whether you want to create stunning titles and visual effects of broadcasting graphics, Fusion gives you all the tools you need to get the job done right. A bonus is that Fusion offers support for all VR headsets on the market and also provides live viewing so you can see everything in real-time – making it easier to create stunning animations.

Mocha

This Academy Award-winning software provides an effective solution for visual effects and post-production. With Mocha, you get a GPU object eliminator that offers quick rendering, a brand-new toolkit with loads of features, and a freehand spline for faster marketing.

Mocha recently upgraded their user interface to be more intuitive, making it easier for users to understand how it works. Now it includes mono/stereoscopic 360 effects, planar tracking, and advanced tools for impact.

Natron

Natron is a powerful software that offers flexible roto and rotopaint toolsets that can generate unlimited masks, matte, and shape layers. It features an intuitive user interface that streamlines the entire creative process. This free and open-source node-based software was influenced by compositing software like Nuke and After Effects.

One of Natron's best features is its 2D and planar tracker, which helps cut hours out of the rotoscoping process so you can get the job done more efficiently.

Softimage

Softimage software is a high-performance visual effects application that is best known for producing 3D computer graphics, 3D modeling, and computer animation.

It includes intuitive, nondestructive workflows and innovative tools designed to help artists create high-quality visual effects with ease. Softimage has been used to create special effects for well-known films like Jurassic Park, Terminator, and Titanic.

How do I learn to rotoscope?

Why waste precious time struggling when you can learn from industry experts? We’ve listed the best courses for you.

Beginner’s Guide to Rotoscopes in Softimage

This course allows you to learn how to correctly set up and align any Rotoscope image in applications like Photoshop, while also explaining everything you need to know about importing, resizing, and repositioning.

This guide has step-by-step videos, so you can learn how to import animated Rotoscopes and fully utilize all the tools and features that Softimage has to offer.

Rotoscoping in After Effects

If you want to become a rotoscope expert in Adobe After Effects, this course will be your best friend. This two-part series teaches you how to use the rotoscoping technique in After Effects effectively so you can achieve the special video edits you have been looking for.

The course begins by introducing you to the recommended workspace and paint tools before teaching you how to clone animated objects and advanced rotoscoping selections within a scene. By the end of this course, you will be able to isolate characters in a scene, change backgrounds, add layers, text, and so much more.

Rotoscoping Techniques in NUKE

This series of tutorials will walk you through steps to use tracker and roto nodes in Nuke to get you production-quality results faster than ever.

This course will begin by introducing you to the basics of using trackers to speed up the rotoscoping process, before teaching you everything you need to know to create a clean mask for a foreground actor's face and hands.

By the end of this course, you will understand how to effectively speed up workflow and create more solid animated movements using advanced techniques within Nuke.

Introduction to Rotoscoping in NUKE 5

Want to learn the basics of rotoscoping and unleash all the power that Nuke has to offer? This series of lessons introduces you to the Bezier node, before teaching you how to control Bezier shape and edge per-point blurring the quick and easy way.

After that, you will dive into the essential workflows of animated masks so you can keep consistent shapes for more appealing mattes. The course will end by showing you how to output a mask into an image sequence so it can be used in other scripts and applications.

VFX + GFX: Rotoscoping and compositing graphics

This course is for the artist looking to learn more about visual effects and compositing graphics as a whole. By the end of the course, you will be able to create stunning graphics and footage with production-level quality.

This course also has some additional features you won’t find anywhere else. These include an introduction to the principles in motion, advanced tips and tricks, and some invaluable industry insight from a seasoned professional.

Mocha 2.6 Essential Training

Mocha has become one of the most popular rotoscoping software on the market. This course covers all the basics when operating in Mocha.

It also includes advanced tracking and rotoscoping techniques, as well as key details on the Mocha/Nuke stereo 3D production pipeline.

For more than two decades, Steve has been in the industry and holds 70+ film credits for motion pictures like Night at the Museum 2, Shutter Island, Air Force One, and many more.

How long does rotoscoping take?

The time to rotoscope depends on several factors such as:

  • The length of the project, e.g. a 6-minute part;
  • The capability and suitability of the rotoscoping software used,
  • The amount of object, characters, or things being rotoscoped

Good news: Rotoscoping isn’t as complicated as something like Blockchain. But, of course, you have to study to learn. In summary, rotoscoping takes some time. Needless to say, it requires a lot of effort and a level of perfection to achieve a realistic effect.

Tips to speed up the rotoscoping learning process

Like any new skill worth learning, becoming active with rotoscoping takes dedication. But there are always ways to speed up the natural educational process. Here are a few tips to help you learn rotoscoping faster.

a) Training courses

There are loads of courses available, taught by professionals, that will show you everything you need to know about rotoscoping. Find a course that has what you are looking for and check out their website for more information

b) Find software that you like

When somebody likes to code, it’s necessary to find a programming language to start. To rotoscope, you can use software such as Photoshop, After Effects, or other programs, and then gradually try the rotoscoping techniques and features on them. Don’t learn everything at once. It’s better to take it step by step.

c) Stay consistent

No rotoscoping artist has been successful without consistently working towards their goals. If rotoscoping is a skill that you would like to learn, stay consistent for faster results.

Conclusion

Every new visual artist ranging from Animators to YouTubers and new filmmakers, be it up and coming or professional, is embracing the art of Rotoscoping as a vital tool to VFX.

There are a variety of resources and software applications to get you started apart from the leading ones we highlighted above.

So, if you want to learn how to rotoscope or any other animation technique, check out our catalog of Arts and Design Courses.

Renan França
I am a journalist responsible for SEO and Content strategies at Classpert. I usually write about entrepreneurship, marketing, SEO, programming and e-learning platforms.