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The Weird World of Rotoscoping

Andrew Osmond on the history of animation’s corner-cutting secret


Once upon a time, around 1915, three American brothers working in the nascent field of animation embarked on a strange experiment. The youngest brother – Dave Fleischer, barely out of his teens – donned a black-and-white clown suit that he’d made as a nipper and, well, clowned around. His older siblings filmed him and took the film to a device of their own making (Max Fleischer conceived it, brother Joe built it). It resembled a drawing board, but with a glass sheet in the middle. Under this a projector showed the film frame by frame, so that the images could be traced. It was one of the first rotoscopes, a device which turned live-action into cartoons, and the granddaddy of techniques used a century later.

Rotoscoping and its descendants are an important part of American cinema, and recognised today. Many film fans know, for example, that Gollum, Peter Jackson’s King Kong and the rebel anthropoid Cornelius in the Planet of the Apes reboot are all based on physical performances by one actor, Andy Serkis. Again, it’s common knowledge that the Na’vi aliens in Avatar were human actors ‘made over’ by computer – the digital equivalent of those guys wearing prosthetic foreheads and noses in the older Star Trek series.

Avatar’s director James Cameron went out of his way to deny his film was animated, claiming “every tiny bit of the performances” was created by the human actors. The opposite case was strongly put by director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles), who argued that many of the best moments in motion capture, as it’s now known, are by animators, not actors.

To show these techniques then and now, here’s an example of old-fashioned rotoscoping used in the 1940 Disney Pinocchio:

And here’s how the technique evolved sixty-five years later into motion capture, when Andy Serkis performed as King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 film. (Trivia: it took two hours to stick on Serkis’s facial markers at the start of a day’s shoot, and 45 minutes to take them off.)

Here are a few more samples. First, a bit of the barely-disguised live-action from the 1978 Lord of the Rings, directed by Ralph Bakshi. (Trivia: the live-action was shot in Spain, and was nearly destroyed by a film lab, horrified that the footage was so sloppy that phone lines and cars were visible in ‘Middle-Earth’! Of course, Bakshi could just paint them over.)

Below, one of the most fondly-remembered examples of rotoscope; the 1985 music video for A-ha’s Take on Me, turning a boy-band into a comic book.

Jumping two decades forward, here’s the trailer for Richard Linklater’s 2006 film A Scanner Darkly, where Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder and other famous actors are very recognisable behind the graphic-novel visuals. A Scanner Darker was made using “Rotoshop,” a software which makes transitory frames between artists’ tracings of the source live-action footage. Gets complicated, doesn’t it?

Now let’s skip back to look at how old-school rotoscoping influenced anime’s early history. One of those influences was indirect. The rotoscope technique was used extensively in a pioneering Chinese cartoon, Princess Iron Fan (1941), which spurred Japan’s own animation. Here’s a taste:

Rotoscoping was used in several of Japan’s early colour cartoon movies released by the Toei studio, starting with 1958’s Hakujaden (Tale of the White Serpent). Here’s the trailer for 1962’s Sinbad the Sailor; the live performers who were rotoscoped for the film included a young Sonny Chiba, who would become a martial arts legend.

However, rotoscoping faded out of anime rather quickly for the next few decades. The ‘limited animation’ methods of TV anime didn’t use it. Even in Toei’s movies, it’s notable that the studio’s biggest star wasn’t rotoscoped – it was the very cartoony Puss’n’Boots, who became the studio mascot.

After Toei, the most influential man making Japanese cartoon movies hated rotoscoping. In Hayao Miyazaki’s book Starting Point, he claims that “if animators became slaves to live-action, their enjoyment of their work plummets by half.” Like classical Western animators, Miyazaki argues the best cartoon ‘acting’ is rooted in an artist’s identification with a character, with no live-action intermediary. For Miyazaki, it seems to be a badge of pride not to use rotoscoping. Similarly, Brad Bird’s Pixar film Ratatouille includes the boast that the film is “100% Genuine Animation! No motion capture or any other performance shortcuts were used in the production of this film.”

This seems like a sweeping dismissal, though. True, many people despise the very obvious rotoscope in a film like Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. Moreover, in the early days of CG motion-capture, the technique was associated with ‘Uncanny Valley’ characters like those in Polar Express or Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. But they were soon surpassed by triumphs like Gollum and the 2005 King Kong. Does any viewer enjoy Gollum less if he or she knows there was a real actor driving the animation? Surely not.

One might object that King Kong and Gollum are essentially special effects, while rotoscoping and mocap remain anathema to good cartooning. But that’s a hard distinction to sustain. The ‘Take on Me’ video earlier, for example, uses rotoscoping in a graphically creative way. If you still don’t accept it as a cartoon, then what about Grumpy the Dwarf in Disney’s 1937 Snow White?

In the above montage, both Snow White and Grumpy were largely created with rotoscoping, yet there’s a chasm between the characters. Basically, Grumpy is far cartoonier, in tune with the classic Disney aesthetic called ‘the illusion of life.’ (He was animated by the revered Disney artist Bill Tytla, who also drew Dumbo.) Grumpy is discussed in Michael Barrier’s book Hollywood Cartoons, who suggests the surly dwarf is a paragon of rotoscoping done right. “There are hints that (Tytla) used live action to solve what were essentially mechanical problems, and to strengthen his animation more than shape it… no more confining than an easel painter’s use of a live model.”

There’s not an obvious analogue for Grumpy in anime, but consider the video below. It’s a montage of work by one of Japan’s most distinctive animators, Shinya Ohira – you may recognise some of the clips, including Spirited Away, FLCL, Animatrix and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. (There’s more on Ohira here.) A particularly interesting clip, though, is from the first Kill Bill film from 1-30 to 1-40 in the video. Reportedly much of Kill Bill’s animation was based on live-action, so the clip is probably rotoscoped… but what rotoscoping! Watch the montage, and it’s entirely of a piece with Ohira’s distortion-crazy oeuvre.

With anime’s entry into the computer age, we’ve become used to motion-capture in CGI-heavy movies like the 2004 Appleseed, Appleseed Ex Machina and Vexille, all by Shinji Aramaki. (Not all CGI anime use mocap, though; for example, it wasn’t in Oblivion Island, according to animator Naoyoshi Shiotani.) Mocap has become big in J-pop, whether with the singers in the film Loup-Garous (whose motions were “captured” from the girl group Scandal), or with the blue-haired megastar Hatsune Miku.

Here’s Hatsune performing alongside idol Yui Ogura, who was Miku’s mocap model for the PSP game Hatsune Miku – Project Diva. Amateur mocappers can create Miku’s movements themselves via Microsoft’s ‘Kinect’ sensor.

But it’s not all mocap these days. Last year, fans were startled when one of the new late-night series – The Flowers of Evil, based on a twisted teen love-story manga by Shuzo Oshimi – turned out to be an old-school rotoscope affair, reminiscent of later Ralph Bakshi films like American Pop. Dropped into the late-night anime schedules, the series benefited from looking instantly different. Some reviewers claimed the format also helped it break anime clichés. ANN’s review, for example, claimed, “The rotoscoped actors, with their awkward bodies and real-life mannerisms, don’t allow for easy distancing; they strip away all the baggage associated with anime character types and their visual tropes and leave us only with these kids and their raw, ugly pubescent feelings.”

Flowers of Evil made rotoscoping a selling point, with the studio promoting it as “completely different” from traditional anime. But there may be hidden uses of rotoscoping and mocap too. If you see an especially realistic bit of animation in an anime film or series, ask yourself if it was mapped out in live-action first. Of course, you might guess wrong, and even insult the artist! A brilliant animator who creates a natural and convincing bit of movement from nothing would be annoyed by pundits putting it down to rotoscoping, like a painter who invents brilliant landscapes and gets accused of copying photos.

For such reasons, rotoscoping and mocap have an uneasy place in animation. There are animation artists like Miyazaki, who insist they don’t belong in cartoons. There are live-action directors like James Cameron who, er, insist they doesn’t belong in cartoons. But hopefully we’ve shown they’re powerful strands in animation, West and East. They’ve empowered grumpy dwarves, giant-sized gorillas and blue-haired Vocaloids.

Oh, and a dancing clown.

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