Film frame of Ed Wynn and his character, The Mad Hatter

What is Rotoscoping: Disney To Digital

In the last few months I have been training myself up in adobe after effects vfx techniques to complete Sound Asleep. (The comedy short film I am director of, starring Danny John-Jules – The Cat in Red Dwarf).

Having completed the offline edit, I had been dreading the infamously tedious task of rotoscoping in Adobe After Effects.

Rotoscoping is a historical animation technique. The animator projected a frame of live action footage on glass or tracing paper so they can copy real motion as the basis of an animated character, one frame at a time.

I used it on Sound Asleep, a live action film, but it started out as an animation technique. Most of your favourite animations used rotoscoping. Animators film real actors and then recreate them in drawings.

Skip to the end to see demos of how I used rotoscoping in After Effects to fix wobbly walls and remove unwanted objects in Sound Asleep.

Old fashioned rotoscoping. The animator traces over the projected image from a single frame of film.


Disney loved rotoscoping. There were real actors behind almost all of those much loved characters. Here are some gorgeous images to give you an understanding of how the filmmaking technique was used.

First, 13 year Kathryn Beaumont, the model and voice artist for Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.

These are hand traced animation cells, superimposed back on to the film frames. The animated characters’ movements were based on these markings, to create lifelike movement.

Technological Developments in Visual Effects: Green Screen and Digital Video

Over time new technology made the process slightly less laborious, as chroma key (eg green screen) and digital technologies began to develop.

Disney animators video recorded Sherri Stoner, live model for The Little Mermaid on green-screen so they could recreate her movements even more accurately.

Fully Digital Visual Effects and tracking software

Today the whole process is entirely digital. Until recently though you still had to do it frame by frame. You’d draw lines and points around the outline of a person or object and adjust every single frame. Complicated shapes and movements could still be really hard work.

Rotoscoping in Adobe After Effects. Points and lines are used to cut sections out frame by frame.

In the last year or two, motion tracking technology has really started to come of age. After Effect’s rotobrush tool does a significant amount of the legwork is for you. You still have to go through and make adjustments in every single frame.

Rotoscoping in Live Action Films and TV

We shot the comedy short film Sound Asleep on a shoestring budget. Marcello, our brilliant art director, made the walls from paper, which works fine so long as no one moves them. But when an actor leans against or touches a wall, you can see the wall move. Most viewers won’t notice it but some will be taken out of the moment.

In the clip below I show how I isolated the wobbly wall and replaced it with a freeze frame.

Live Action Rotoscoping to fix a wobbly wall, on Sound Asleep – short comedy film starring Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules


And in the clip below, I show how I removed drips from below a tap. It was a lot more complicated. In that scene, the character has tightened a tap. Just as he gets the dripping to stop his spanner comes loose and hits him in the face.

It wasn’t possible to stop the drips at the right moment on the set, so I have done it in postproduction.

Rotoscoping to remove dripping tap in Sound Asleep

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