Monday, February 4, 2008

History of rotoscoping

Rotoscoping is the process of manually altering film or video footage one frame at a time. The frames can be painted on arbitrarily to create custom animated effects like lightning or light-sabres, or traced to create realistic traditional style animation or to produce hold-out mattes for compositing elements in a scene.

As a VFX artist, you are primarily creating motion graphics or visual effects. Without a thorough knowledge of rotoscoping and how it fits into the modern digital pipeline, you are limiting just how far you can take an effect or design.

The art of rotoscoping changed considerably with the introduction of digital tools such as Commotion, Digital Fusion (DF), Shake, Combustion (C3) and After Effects (AE). With a thorough knowledge of rotoscoping, digital artists can create better live-action or CG composites as well as amazing visual effects. Various rotoscoping techniques are covered below, including matte creation, effects painting, paint touchup, digital cloning, and motion tracking as well as a brief history of the craft.

Historical overview of rotoscoping

Fleischer Studios
A true pioneer of animation, Max Fleischer produced the Popeye and Betty Boop animated series, as well as the animated features “Gulliver’s Travels” and "Mr. Bug Goes to Town." With his brother Dave, he founded the Fleischer Studios in the early 1920’s, which offered a less sentimental animated vision of the world than the rival Disney studio. Perhaps most importantly, Fleischer invented the rotoscope, a device that changed the look of animation forever.

Born in Vienna Austria in 1883, Max Fleischer immigrated with his family to America at the age of four. His artistic skills were quickly recognized, and instead of attending public high school he opted for the Art Students League in New York. While attending school he landed his first job at the Brooklyn Daily News, where he worked as an assistant in the cartoon department. Within a few years, he was a full-time staff artist with his own comic strip. He then moved on to Popular Science Monthly, which sparked a life-long fascination with machinery and inventions. While working at this magazine, Fleischer began working on his plans to create the rotoscope.

Early animated films were crude, jerky and difficult to look at. They were not very popular and were only tolerated because they were a curiosity. Max Fleischer aimed to change this by inventing a device that would allow them to project live action film onto the glass of an animation stand. The animators could then place paper on the animation stand and trace the live action footage one frame at a time. This device, named a Rotoscope, was patented by Max Fleischer in 1917.

In a 1920 New York Times interview, Fleischer said, "An artist, for example, will simply sit down and, with a certain character in mind, draw the figures that are to make it animated. If he wants an arm to move, he will draw the figure several times with the arm in the positions necessary to give it motion on the screen. The probability is that the resulting movement will be mechanical, unnatural, because the whole position of his figure's body would not correspond to that which a human body would take in the same motion. With only the aid of his imagination, an artist cannot, as a rule, get the perspective and related motions of reality."

The rotoscope, though, allowed animators to work from a filmed image, which gave them the guidance they needed to create more graceful and realistic movement on screen. "It was beautiful to watch, rather than very annoying to watch," Fleischer said.

The first cartoons created by the Fleischers using the Rotoscope were the Koko the Clown series, and then went on to utilize it in Betty Boop and Popeye. Though they used rotoscoping to create the main characters, they continued to rely on traditional rubber hose style animation in their cartoons. The Fleischers pioneered other traditional animation priniciples in their studio which changed the face of modern animation, right up to today. Most animators at the time would use the technique of “Straight Ahead Action”. Animators would simply start drawing their sequences at the beginning and straight ahead to the end. The Fleischers used another technique called “Pose to Pose” animation, in which the animators would produce main extreme poses, or keyframes, then fill in the in-betweens. The difference was that the Fleischers would have assistants draw the in-betweens while the lead animators moved on to create more keyframes. Though at the time this eventually led to labor problems and striking workers at Fleischer Studios, the practice is still used today by traditional cel animation companies, and has been translated into the automatic “tweening” processes found in computer based animation tools.

DisneyDuring the 1930s, the Fleischers found themselves in an on-going competition with another animator -- Walt Disney. The Fleischers and Disney constantly raced one another to each new milestone in animation -- first sound cartoon, first color cartoon, and first feature. But according to Max Fleischer’s son, Richard Fleischer, Max and Dave often came in second, largely because the studio behind them, Paramount, didn't offer the support they needed.

Walt Disney also turned to rotoscoping, for “Snow White”. At the time, Fleischer considered suing Disney for patent violation, but in doing preliminary research, his attorneys discovered that before Fleischer's patent, a company in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., had created a device similar to the rotoscope. The company, Bosworth, Defresnes and Felton, had never patented it, so Fleischer actually was entitled to sue, but he evidently lost interest in pursuing the Disney case after hearing about the earlier machine.

The movements of Snow White herself were acted out by a high school student named Marjorie Belcher, later known as dancer Marge Champion. Initially, Disney intended to use Belcher's movements as a guide for the dancing in the cartoon, but soon he opted to use it more extensively. This was partly because the animators otherwise used themselves and their own facial expressions as the basis for their characters' faces, Disney explained. "The artists looking at themselves in a mirror sometimes were not so successful, because they were bad actors and would do things in a stiff way," he wrote.

Nevertheless, some of the Disney animators looked down on the idea of rotoscoping. One of them, Don Graham, derided the technique as a "crutch" for artists who lacked the skill to do their work on their own. Another, Grim Natwick, said that even when the artists used the device, they used it only as the basis for their work, adding heavy elaboration and even changing the proportions of the original filmed figures. "We went beyond rotoscope," he said.

But rival animator Walter Lantz criticized the look of the rotoscoped work in "Snow White." In press materials for his own project, "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp," Lantz declared he would use the rotoscope only for timing because of what he saw as its limitations, especially in Disney's film. "This literal system resulted in two faults -- a jittering movement that contrasted with the fluidity of the animals, and the fact that the human characters were too accurate to be seen beside the caricatures," he said.

Yet rotoscoping did help the artists on "Snow White" maintain a consistency that might otherwise have been impossible. On earlier animated shorts, each character was done by a single animator; as a result, the characters had a unity of style. Because "Snow White" was so extensive, however, more than one artist had to work on each character. Working from live-action footage offered them the best way to create a cohesive look.
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