The Expressiveness of Human-Computer Rotoscoping Technique

Although the rotoscoping technique was invented by the Fleischer brothers back in 1910s when animating Koko the clown for their Out of the Inkwell animated series, the deployment of this animation method in the digital film Waking Life (2001) revealed some of the potential that the human-computer symbiosis could have on the technique.  Rotoscoping, understood as the method in which footage is traced, frame by frame, for use in live action and animation films and videos, was leveled up by the advances in software, hardware, and computing power. In Waking Life rotoscoping is taken to the next level with the “Rotoshop” computer software created by Bob Sabiston, and the art work than more than 30 animators put in the film. The expressiveness of this digital animated film had a great impact in the form and content that the animation medium could develop. By creating a dream like style through an stylized visual representation of reality, this film and its human-computer rotoscoping opened new possibilities for the hybridization of fiction, documentary, and animation. 

I watched Waking Life more than 7 years ago during a train trip in the North East Coast while I was considering moving to Austin. I was fascinated by both its form and content. However, it was not until very recently that I fully came to realize the uniqueness of this film. Watching the film for a second time, and listening Bob Sabiston talk about the process of making it, and actually, live-demo his “Rotoshop” software, helped me to better understand the mysterious and surrealist quality of the film. Sabiston did not only talked his collaboration with Richard Linklater, the director of the film, and showed different clips from the production, but also explained the mechanics of rotoscoping making them look like a very simple process. On stage, and with a Wacom tablet on a desk, Sabiston talked while rotoscoping a short video of a friend he shot before entering the room.


As Sabiston demonstrated, the computer aid was key for simplifying the process and for drawing in between frames through an algorithm he wrote. That is, instead of having to draw all the frames of a video, the artist using the software will just rotoscope some frames and the computer will do the calculations for doing the ones in between (a process also known as interpolation).


The artist can then review the other frames that the computer draw and adjust them in certain points. The artist can add not only trace lines and draw the contour of the objects with different styles, but can also add shapes filled with color in many layers. Furthermore, he/she can also freeze some layers of content in the video so they stay the same during several frames. After all the frames are rotoscoped and colored, the software is capable of render all of them as an animation.


The result of the process turns out to be visually very compelling. Because the human artist remains in great control of the whole process even though the computer software is assisting it. Sabiston, who is an animator himself, realized that such kind of stylization of live-action footage, had a great potential for telling stories that were more documentary-like. During the 1990s he explored this expressive potential with his own short films, and was able to create animated shorts such as “Snack and Drink” (1999):

As it can be seen in this short, the animation style looks very stylized, and although the viewer can tell the resemblance of live-action footage, the constant movement of all the elements, and the unique artistic stylization, are able to convey a dream-like state of mind. This technique allows for the hybridization of fantasy and hyper reality, of natural actors and supernatural animated characters, and the result is unique. One of my favorite things about this kind of animation is that it is able to create a glitch-like experience. The visuals are glitchy and beautiful, and their constant movement, synchronized with the human voices, music and sound effects, work together very well. Especially for monologues and dense dialogues, the result of such stylization is powerful.

Turn it off. Turn it on. If the light bulb lights on it is reality. If not. It is a dream. Or somewhere in between. Above is a selection of Waking Life scenes cut and pasted by a fan of the film. Watching these collection of scenes is like a compressed version of Waking Life. Since more than 30 artists worked on the film, and each of them was assigned different characters and scenes, the changes in style are very noticeable through the whole 101 minutes that the film last. The density of all the conversations and rants of all the scenes, and their constant succession one after another, without any linear logic, is finally stitched together by the non-stoppable movement of lines and colors on the screen. The effect, is surprising. Like a beautiful mix of philosophical thoughts, colors, lines, and everyday life.

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