Animation: Rotoscoping

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Rotoscoping describes the process of manually altering film footage one frame at a time. It was invented in 1915 by animator Max Fleischer to improve the movement of animated characters and make them look more realistic.

The technique was originally achieved by filming scenes in live action and then projecting the film onto glass panels so an animator could trace the action in every frame, thus capturing the movement of the actors. Adopted by Disney in the 1930s, many of their celebrated early titles like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland were all created via rotoscoping.  

More recently, this manual process has been replaced by computers and adopted by the visual effects (VFX) industry to manipulate images by removing unseemly wires, placing characters in different settings or even creating the light effects for the iconic Star Wars lightsabers.

Here is a selection of films that feature rotoscoping from traditional uses through to special effects and innovative experiments that reveal the development of the animation technique and its contribution to exciting, visual storytelling across film history.

We also have film lists on hand-drawn animation, 3D/CGI animation, VFX, stop-motion, cut-out animation, and the history of animation.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

CertU

Age group5–11

Duration83 mins

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Disney's funny, beautifully drawn animated version of the classic fairytale about a lovey princess on the run from her wicked stepmother.

Up until 1934 the Fleischer studios were the only ones allowed to use the rotoscoping technique. When the patent expired, Disney soon adapted the process to produce their first feature-length animation Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

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Bride Of Frankenstein

CertPG

Age group11+

Duration75 mins

Bride Of Frankenstein(1935)

Mad scientist Dr Frankenstein is forced by the even madder scientist Dr Pretorious into creating another creature, a wife for the monster.

An early example of the use of rotoscoping in live action films can be seen in the homunculus scene in which Dr. Pretorious presents his small humans to Dr. Frankestein.

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Cinderella

CertU

Age group5–11

Duration74 mins

Cinderella (1950)

Cinderella's cruel stepmother stops her from going to the ball, however, she has a Fairy Godmother who uses her magic to ensure she gets to the ball.

Later Disney films like Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland adapted a basic form of the rotoscoping technique – rather than projecting and tracing, animators simply watched scenes played out in live action in order to observe body movements and expressions.

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The Birds

Cert15

Age group14+

Duration119 mins

The Birds(1963)

Hitchcock's chilling, inexplicable and slow-burning horror about a mysterious series of savage attacks by birds.

Animator Ub Iwerks, responsible for many Disney successes, used rotoscoping to create the terrifying special effects in the bird scenes in Hitchcock’s thriller that resulted in his nomination for an Academy Award.

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Mary Poppins

CertU

Age group5–11

Duration134 mins

Mary Poppins(1964)

Classic film with musical scenes about nanny Mary Poppins, who is full of common sense but friends with talking animals and dancing chimney sweeps.

A film that features lots of wire-work, rotoscoping was used to remove the wires from the frame as well as place animated backgrounds, such as the dancing penguins and brilliant supercalifragilisticexpialidocious scene.

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The Cave Of The Yellow Dog

CertU

Age group7–11

Duration89 mins

The Cave Of The Yellow Dog(2005)

A touching story backdropped by beautiful Mongolian scenery, as little Nansal befriends a stray dog.

Rotoscoping was used to achieve the Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds scene in this imaginative, trippy adventure into Beatles-mania.

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The Lord Of The Rings

CertPG

Age group7–16

Duration127 mins

The Lord Of The Rings (1978)

Faithful and enjoyable adaptation that sees J.R.R Tokien's beloved novel beautifully realised, with then groundbreaking rotoscope-style animation.

The film is notable for its extensive use of rotoscoping, in particular for the huge battle scenes featuring hundreds of characters, the level of realism and detail within these had not been achieved in animation before.

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The Secret Of Nimh

CertU

Age group5–11

Duration79 mins

The Secret Of Nimh(1982)

Beautiful and interesting animation about some super-intelligent rats with a secret.

This film features lots of experiments in rotoscoping and was created by director Don Bluth, who once worked for Disney, in a bid to return to traditional animations styles that he believed were beginning to be abandoned in favour for cheaper methods.

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An American Tail

CertU

Age group5–11

Duration77 mins

An American Tail(1986)

Warm animated family adventure sees a Russian mouse flee his homeland and persecution by cats for a new life in America.

Born from a collaboration between Secret of NIMH director Don Bluth and Steven Speilberg who was seemingly so inspired by the look of NIMH he requested Bluth work on An American Tail. The making of this film also lead to further innovations in rotoscoping that sped the process up.

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Waking Life

Cert15

Age group14+

Duration97 mins

Waking Life(2001)

This fascinating film from director Richard Linklater combines pioneering rotoscoping technique with discussions on the meaning of life.

In the 1990s animator and computer scientist Bob Sabiston created a digital rotoscoping process called Rotoshop. This was utilised by director Richard Linklater to create Waking Life the first digitally rotoscoped feature-length film and later for his 2006 film A Scanner Darkly.

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The Lord Of The Rings - The Return Of The King

Cert12

Age group11+

Duration201 mins

The Lord Of The Rings - The Return Of The King(2003)

The last film in Peter Jackson's epic adaptation of JRR Tolkein's fantasy novel trilogy sees the dark lord's mass forces of orcs gathered for battle.

New Zealand company WETA, set up by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, specialise in bringing creatures to life on screen and created the character of Gollum via rotoscoping live action shots with keyframe computer animation and motion capture.

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Sita Sings The Blues

CertUnclassified

Age group11+

Duration82 mins

Sita Sings The Blues(2008)

A colourful culture clash that not only melds several different animation styles, jazz songs and life experiences.

Director Nina Paley used rotoscoping in the Agni Pariksha dance scene in this retelling of a Hindu story of Rama and Sita by tracing over filmed live action footage of the woman who voices Sita dancing.

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The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Cert12

Age groupAll ages

Duration98 mins

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time(2008)

An accident in the science lab lets Makoto travel through time, but soon discovers problems arising from her fun in this witty sci-fi anime.

Celebrated for its character movement, this is a good example of how anime has adapted rotoscoping techniques to bring realism to its characters.

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Guardians of the Galaxy

Cert12

Age group11–14

Duration116 mins

Guardians of the Galaxy(2014)

Superhero bonanza featuring a disparate group of misfits who come together to form the Guardians of the Galaxy and save the world.

Despite digital technologies available, the makers of Guardians of the Galaxy returned to traditional rotoscoping techniques by using footage of a real racoon called Oreo to bring Rocket Racoon to life.

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Loving Vincent

Cert12

Age group14+

Duration93 mins

Loving Vincent(2017)

Fascinating animated drama about the impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh’s last few days.

A fascinating and hypnotic experiment in animation techniques, the directors filmed the script in live action with actors and then hand-painted over the action to make every frame look like a Vincent Van Gogh painting.

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