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Creative Experiment: Rotoscoping

Rotoscoping is a technique that involves tracing over a live-action clip frame by frame to create an animated sequence.

Developed by renowned animator Max Fleischer, the technique involved projecting a movie frame onto a ground glass that an animator could trace. So, in essence, it can turn anything real into a 2d cartoon!

Rotoscoping is the reason why even the earliest Disney films featured realistic movements, and it's still commonly used today in music videos and even movies.

These days, rotoscoping can be done automatically using digital editing tools (such as the popular After Effects Rotobrush tool). But even with high-tech apps, you always get the best results if you trace the frame of the movement by frame--especially if you're into that handmade squiggly look.

For this month's creative experiment, we decided to try creating a rotoscoped animation using Photoshop!

So how was the rotoscoping experience?

Rotoscoping is technically just like adding doodles to your animation. So if you've done doodles onto your stop motion clips, this will be relatively easy.

However, it's also worth noting that regular doodling and rotoscoping have a few differences, which you'll learn more about below.

Animating the scene

Traditionally, animators used live-action clips for rotoscoping. It could be anything from someone dancing or even someone making faces.

In our case, we decided to rotoscope a stop motion clip instead of live-action footage. But regardless of the medium you use, the same technique still applies: you'll need to trace every frame to create a new animation.

Loading the frames

Since we worked with a stop motion clip, we already had individual frames of the animation. So all we had to do was load each frame to Photoshop and start tracing.

But if you're working with live-motion video, you'll need to break it down into individual frames. Thankfully, you can do the conversion within Photoshop!

1. Go to File > Import > Video frames to Layers. Select the file you want to animate and click Open.

2. Once a dialog box appears, select From Beginning To End if you're going to animate the entire clip. If you only need a section, then choose Selected Range Only. Slide the trim controls below the video preview to specify which part of the footage you want to keep. Once you finish your selection, click Okay. Photoshop will then convert the footage into individual clips.

3. Go to Layers and scroll down to the First Layer and make sure it's visible by checking the Eye icon. Go to File > Export > Export As. Select JPEG and save the frame.

4. Click the Eye icon beside Layer 2 to make it visible. Then go to File and repeat the process for saving Layer 2.

5. Go to Layer 3 and do exactly what you did for Layers 1 and 2 (make sure you turn on the eye icon!). Repeat the process until you've saved all the frames.

Tracing the Frames

We loaded the first frame into Photoshop. We then selected the Brush Tool, adjusted the brush size, and chose black as our color.

From there, we started tracing the lines on the Croc with the Photoshop paintbrush. We used a small brush size for the tiny details and a larger one for the thicker lines.

We used a drawing tablet like the one you see below to trace the frames. Since we traced with a stylus, our lines appeared more precise. It also wasn't as tiring as opposed to working with a regular mouse.

If you don't have a drawing tablet, you can always load the individual frames into your regular tablet and start tracing with your fingers or a stylus.

Coloring the Frames

This part is what differentiates rotoscoping from simply creating doodles.

With rotoscoping, we couldn't just choose any color we wanted when coloring the frames. The hues we needed to use had to match the authentic colors in the frame closely.

To find the correct color for our paint, we had to select the eyedropper tool and click the part of the frame with the color we wanted to use.

Clicking a specific area in the frame with the eyedropper tool essentially told Photoshop which color we wanted to use. After using the eyedropper tool, we selected the brush tool again and started painting!

To make everything look realistic, we didn't just paint solid blocks of colors but also different hues and gradients.

Adding Details

Rotoscoping is a tremendous creative tool because you can always add elements to it to make your animation look even better.

In our case, we decided to add smoke behind the Crocs to make them appear to be taking off. To create the animated smoke, all we had to do was draw them in using the techniques we discussed in this article.

So is rotoscoping worth it?

Rotoscoping is an established technique that every animator needs to try. Even though it requires some patience, it's so easy to do. That's why we say it's not only worth it but also essential to learn.

If you're determined, you can even create an entire traditional animation using rotoscoping. And it's entirely up to you to decide what style to pursue. You can create squiggly animations or realistic renditions.


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