Understanding rotoscoping

Rotoscoping is a method used in animation that consists of tracing the contours of a filmed image and to transpose it into drawings.

So we retrace the contours image-by-image of a filmed sequence in order to preserve the photorealism of the shot.

Of course, nothing prevents to be creative in animation because rotoscoping allows to reinterpret the contours of the characters and to create a very original and sometimes surprising visual style!

This technique is halfway between the realism of the movement of a movie on film and the graphic originality that comes with animation.

Let’s take the example of a real character filmed with a camera that we would put in a whimsical universe created entirely from scratch.

We start with a simple photo like this:

Rotoscopie image réelle
Frame from a real shooting

And then, will start the roto process, which is to trace the outlines of the character and stylizing him to give the final aspect to the animation :

Image rotoscopie
Frame after Rotoscoping

We can even go further and why not keep only the head to apply an alien body or anything else on our character filmed in advance.

As always in animation, the only limit is the imagination!

Rotoscopie Robert Downey Jr
Frame after Rotoscoping and reinterpreted

The beginnings of rotoscoping

The first animated movies to use rotoscoping date back to almost the beginning of the animation itself.

But the process was perfected and patented in 1915, under the name “Rotoscope” by the American directors Dave and Max Fleisher.

Fleisher brothers rotoscope
Fleisher brothers’ Rotoscope

In 1914, they produced 3 short films to demonstrate the effectiveness of the technique.

Then, they used the Rotoscope to produce the series “Out of the Inkwell” (1918-1929) in which they introduced the characters of Koko the clown and Betty Boop :

Rotoscoping in visual effects

Rotoscoping in the cinema industry is used to cut out the contours of an object or a character that has been previously filmed on film. This, in order to integrate it in a different environment than the original one.

This technique is used a lot in the cinema because it allows to create compositings of original images from 2 or more sources of filmed (or computer generated) images.

In the cinema field, we call this technique “Roto”. The principle is to create a cache or more particularly a Matte Painting. That allows the assembly of several images from different sources which will be then assembled in a final compositing.

Nowadays, Roto is used with softwares like After Effects. It allows us to create masks in order to hide a particular area of the image.

So, we can isolate a character for example and integrate it into a background from another planet!

The technique of Matte Painting was widely used for films such as “Star Wars” (1977), as you can see in this documentary video :

Nowadays, we can cut everything with the Roto technique entirely by using a computer! Here is an roto example performed in After Effects :

Some Roto examples uses in animation

There are very good movies made entirely with this technique that helps to have a very particular artistic visual style. As a result, we obtain a more artistic result, while having a realistic fluidity of movement.

In the genre, we can find “A Scanner Darkly” (2006), a film starring Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr in an animated looking world!

The film was shot digitally and rotoscoped frame by frame with Rotoshop software :

For those interested, here is a little “Making of” about the the rotoscoping technique used on the movie “A Scanner Darkly”. Very interesting!

In another style, we find “Waltz with Bashir” (2008), a documentary movie about the Israeli military intervention in Lebanon in 1982 and directed by Ari Folman.

This film is the first animated documentary feature film and one of the only of its kind :

Finally, here is a concrete example of the result that can be obtained when you push the graphic style to its max!

The result is a very lively and stylish animation that lends itself perfectly to the dancing spirit of the theme used for the video!

For those who would like rotoscoping by themselves!

To use this technique, you do not need the Fleisher’s Rotoscope, nor even good drawing skills!

You can do this yourself, at home. By using a light table on which you can trace the printed images of a movie sequence.

Or, for those who have the material. You can also use a graphic pen tablet to retrace the images taken from a film sequence. And decompose the sequence image by image in a software like Photoshop.

About this, here is a short tutorial divided into 3 videos. Very interesting on how to produce rotoscoping animation by yourself! Lucky you…

Use your pencils!

Spiderman rotoscoping meme


I am a professional 2D and 3D animator who worked for years on Animated TV Series and Video Games. (see complete profil description on the sidebar of the Blog). Have fun!

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