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The rotoscope: an important part of our history. Okay, so I guess that got your attention, and you’re saying, “what in the blue blazes is a rotoscope?” A rotoscope is a device that originally used a movie projector to project a live-action image onto the back of a frosted glass pane, which allowed an animator to trace over it for more realistic animation.

Fleischer Studios (originally known as “Out of the Inkwell Films"), and other animation studios used the technique of “rotoscoping” a lot during the birth of popular animation. Walt Disney used rotoscoping in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), and other animated features that star human characters.

The Fleischers used rotoscoping as early as 1915 for their cartoon series, Out of the Inkwell. Max Fleischer’s brother, Dave actually dressed up in a clown outfit to play as the model for Koko the clown, the star of Out of the Inkwell.

Different studios used rotoscoping for different purposes. Disney originally planned to use it to copy the dance motions of the Marjorie Belcher, a high school student, for Snow Wite, but then decided to bring the realism of their facial expressions into his animation. Walter Lantz, of Woody Woodpecker fame, only used the rotoscope for timing, because humans’ actions are much too accurate to be used for a cartoon animal’s actions.

The rotoscope was met with opposition from a lot of animators, who believed the process stiffened the animation, and could be used as a “crutch” during difficult scenes.

But, some actually exaggerated movements, and even changed the proportions of the original actors, going beyond live action and making the characters’ actions more deliberate and exxagerated.

A Scanner Darkly

The rotoscope was later used to assist in special effects in live action films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, by well-known animator, U.B. Iwerks. Industrial Light and Magic’s rotoscoping department traced certain elements that would otherwise be covered up by special effects, much like cutting and pasting.

Today, rotoscoping is done with computers. “A Scanner Darkly” is one example of a film that takes the technique and applies it digitally to create a surreal but lifelike experience.

Fleischer Studios were probably aware that Max’s invention would be a great tool to be used in animation, but they probably weren’t aware that they were making animation history!

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