What Is Rotoscoping? Why The Animation In Amazon’s Undone Is So Freaky

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Undone could have easily been made with traditional hand-drawn or computer animation. Or it could have been live-action enhanced by CGI for its supernatural/dream sequences. It's hard to say, though, whether the new Amazon series starring Rosa Salazar and Bob Odenkirk would have had quite the same impact on viewers as it does. We suspect that the enhanced, complicated version of the 100-year-old animation technique called rotoscoping has a lot to do with why Amazon's Undone is the kind of show that's stuck in our head and infiltrating our own dreams.
In case you're not a total animation nerd, rotoscoping is when animators trace live-action footage, frame-by-frame, to create a moving image that's more realistic than purely hand-drawn cartoons but more cartoonish than a live-action movie.
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Max Fleischer invented the technique back in 1915, figuring out a way to rig a machine that could project film onto a glass screen, over which he could draw his images. You can see how the machine worked in his detailed patent application here. And you can watch the results in Fleischer's cartoons, beginning with his Out of the Inkwell shorts and on into his later work, including Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons.
Fleischer wasn't intent on making his cartoons too realistic, but he used them to get their movements right. After his patent expired in 1934, Fleischer's rival, Walt Disney, took this idea and went further when he made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. From then on, many popular Disney movies used the technique at least some of the time.
Most of those movies don't exactly look like Undone, probably because the hyperrealistic aesthetic you get from tracing actors' faces doesn't appeal to children as much as more exaggerated cartoon features do. But when Richard Linklater decided to make animated movies for adults, beginning with 2001's Waking Life, he turned to digital rotoscoping.
"I see this as a realistic film about an unreality," Linklater told Wired. "The gestures, the sound, the human expressions all seem real, but this reality is then re-interpreted artistically. It becomes a kind of moving painting."
He followed that up with A Scanner Darkly in 2006. Both movies truly mess with your mind, both with their plot and their animation. It calls to mind the concept of the "uncanny valley," a term coined to refer to computer-generated animation of people that's so realistic (but not quite realistic enough) it's unsettling.
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That's exactly what Undone creators Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg (also the geniuses behind Bojack Horseman) were aiming for. Dutch animator Hisko Hulsing helped them arrive at rotoscoping.
"We thought the show should be live action [at first]," Purdy told the New York Post. "But then if you shoot it, when the story goes to the trippy or otherworldly places, you’re going to feel that shift. And we wanted it to feel continuous. So we were thinking grounded, realistic animation. Then, when that stretchiness of reality happens, it feels continuous; all of the same world. Because we don’t want to say, ‘This is true’ or ‘That is true.’ We want to say, ‘We don’t know what the truth is, so let’s look at what truth could be.’”
Not-so-coincidentally, Tommy Pallotta, a producer on those Linklater filmes, is also an executive producer of Undone.
“[Rotoscoping] makes reality both strangely familiar and oddly different," Pallotta told the New York Times.
But Undone isn't made simply by rotoscoping. A behind-the-scenes featurette from Amazon shows just how many steps went into making it so arresting. The cast had to shoot their scenes in a black box studio multiple times to get the right angles. Then computer animators created rough versions of the spaces through which the characters move. Another team of artists created oil paintings to use as backdrops for the scenes. Some of those appear as is, but the computer animators also digitally chopped them up for 3-D animation of scenes.
The result much more than a cool visual effect.
"At the end of the day, beautiful images won’t carry a story," Pallotta told the Times. "You need the emotion of the characters to make it come alive."
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