Animation: Rotoscope Redux

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Disney used it. So did Ralph Bakshi. It was still eye-popping in the '80s when Scandinavian pop group A-ha used it in a video, and later when Madonna used it in here retro-vid for the single "Music." Rotoscoping - painting or sketching over live action footage - is a technique that's been around since the first quarter of the last century, when animator Max Fleischer invented a device that projected individual frames of film onto a drawing board and dubbed it the rotoscope.

In the digital age, rotoscoping, in its technical sense, has lost much of its meaning, since postproduction involves, as a matter of course, altering footage - if only to remove rigs and imperfections. But as an animation technique, rotoscoping is flourishing now that digital film and computer graphics have made it more efficient and accessible than ever. "There's still hand work to be done," says Richard Winkler, executive producer at Curious Pictures, who dubs the computer-aided incarnation technique "digi-roto." "It's by no means automated, but there are shortcuts."

Rotoscoping has gone in and out of style since Fleischer invented it in 1917. Disney used it in the animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Ralph Bakshi relied on it heavily for his interpretation of The Lord of the Rings. Director Steve Barron of Limelight Productions used it to great effect in the video for A-ha's "Take on Me" - which features a couple divided by the worlds of live action and animation - and Class-Key Chew-Po deployed a trippier version of the style for the Beastie Boys' 1989 "Shadrach" performance video.

The peak of the current wave came with last year's feature, Waking Life. Directed by Richard Linklater, the film features characters talking about the big questions of life and death, all vividly painted by artists under the direction of Austin-based Flat Black Films. Flat Black founders Bob Sabiston and Tommy Palotta have collaborated since 1997 on everything from MTV promos to shorts that feature the combination of documentary and animation seen in Waking Life. "It continuously evolves with each project and sometimes within each project," Pallotta says of Flat Black's style, which he says owes as much to documentarians like Errol Morris as to animated influences .

A similar style was used in TBWA/Chiat/Day's 2001 campaign for Earthlink. Footage shot by director Leslie Dektor was painted in the brand's trademark orange and black under the supervision of Class-Key's Bil White. The trick to that project, according to White was "keeping it looking as if it was a real brushstroke and not something that was done by a computer." It's in this combination of realism and surrealism that the technique's aesthetic appeal lies, according to Curious Pictures director Joan Raspo, who collaborates with writer Amy Sohn on a series of episodic shorts for the Oxygen network called Avenue Amy. "I didn't want it to be just voice performance, but live performance," she says of Amy, which is what Sex and the City would be like if it were programmed in Flash.

The Martin Agency recently produced a rotoscoped campaign for U.S. Trust - based on a print campaign designed by art director Mark Braddock - featuring illustrations of people in stark, sharp colors. "We wanted it to be a little more painterly; like a moving painting," says John Noble, the agency's head of broadcast. So he turned to Swedish animation house Film Tecknarna, and director Jonas Odell, who did Madonna's animated "Music" video, in 1999. The result is a series of simple testimonials that pop off the screen.

While there is a virtually unlimited palette of rotoscope styles, its practitioners are united in their desire to see where else the technique can go. White, for example, says the Earthlink work has drawn the attention of many clients who are curious about the look. "A lot of them say, 'We really like the stuff. Can we take this further?' "

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