Rotoscopy, the technology that changed the course of animation forever

Nowadays the animation offers a wide range of high quality series and movies. The evolution of technology for making animation titles has always been fully accelerated. In the history of this genre it is impossible not to talk about Disney, a study that marked a before and after in animation. However, in the story that concerns us here we must remember another amazing company, Fleischer Studios, as well as an invention that changed the direction of animation forever: rotoscopy.

In 1917, a Polish-American man of Jewish origin patented a very curious invention called rotoscopy. This device allowed animators to “trace” the movement of a recording previously made with real models. This allowed for a huge leap in the warmth and speed of animation. That man, called Max fleischer, he would become a pioneer of animation and wage a long war against a studio that wanted the crown only for itself: Disney.

The beginnings of animation

We know well that the concern to represent actions and movement with drawings has antecedents that go back to prehistory. On the other hand, there are diverse antecedents of cinematographic animation, making use of optical illusions and the advancement of technology in cinema. Even the pioneers of cinema were interested in making animations, such as Émile Cohl and George Méliès himself..

However, in those early years of the 20th century, animations required a lot of time, since each frame was made from scratch. It made the projects more expensive and also took a long time. It was Earl Hurd who patented the acetate system, on which the classic commercial animation would be based. This consisted of drawing the fixed backgrounds, and the characters on transparent acetate sheets, which greatly expedited the production of animated films.


It was then that, in 1917, Max Fleischer invented rotoscopy, thereby changing the history of animation forever.. As we said, this device projected a real film on a table, allowing the fictitious characters to be drawn based on the real characters. Max, together with his brother Dave Fleischer and Lee De Forest, released the first sound animation, Oh Mabel, in 1924.

The Fleischer Studios stood out then for its fluid, natural and ingenious animations. Soon the Fleischer brothers would amaze audiences with several iconic characters from animated talkies: Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor, as well as other unforgettable characters of the time, such as Koko the clown.

His invention and projects put Fleischer Studios at the forefront of the animation genre, although Disney came very closely. And it is that for his great film, the one that earned him a place in the world of animation and that, in addition, would mark the future of the company, that is, for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he used the rotoscopy technique. However, it is said that the mythical Walt Disney company did not have permission to use the aforementioned technology and that, in addition, it did not give the corresponding credits or royalties.

This, of course, raised alarms at Fleischer Studios, who responded with a very ambitious project: Gulliver’s Travels. The 1939 feature film would be made almost entirely with rotoscopy and, as if that weren’t enough, it was the second animated color sound feature film made in the history of cinema. The first: Snow White and the seven dwarfs, so we can already see that the blow to the Fleischer brothers was not small.

The big winner

Rotoscopy was used in a large number of later productions, as in The Lord of the Rings of 1978 directed by Ralph Bakshi. And not just for animation titles, but also for special effects, like the lightsabers in the first Star Wars trilogy. In addition, in the eighties and nineties it was used for various music videos, when these materials were of vital importance for the launch of new productions.

Disney, for its part, continued to use rotoscopy in productions after Snow White, such as Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast and Robin Hood, The Jungle Book (1967), The Aristocats, Bambi and Alice in Wonderland (1951).

In the case of Fleischer Studios, the competition with Disney was not only in the field of animation and the technology used in its productions. And is that the Fleischers had Paramont Pictures as their distributor, while Disney founded his own distribution company: Buena Vista. Relying on Paramont was one of the causes that did not help Fleischer’s company, and even in later years there was litigation about it.

But nevertheless, Perhaps what ended up giving Disney the advantage in the field of animation was his family court, his sweetened stories and, of course, his peculiar characters. On the other hand, Fleischer Studios had a much darker and adult cut; their stories and characters traveled more sinister terrain. This undoubtedly contributed to its decline that would come in later years.

The inventor of rotoscopy and his legacy


Gulliver’s Travels was released in 1939 but failed to imitate Disney’s Snow White achievements. Some time later, the Fleischer studio carried out perhaps one of its most outstanding projects: Superman, a very prominent animated series in the superhero universe created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Even the first short film in the series, titled Superman, was nominated for an Oscar.

They later made Mister Bug Goes to Town, which was released in December 1941. Unlike Gulliver, Mister Bug did quite badly with critics and audiences. Shortly afterwards the Fleischer brothers left the studio, each apparently for his part, as there was a serious personal conflict between them. These brothers never again appeared as big names in the field of animation, but without a doubt their works and characters have maintained their popularity over time. Fleischer Studios is today only a company in name, it is in charge of the licenses of characters like Betty Boop and Koko the Clown.

What we are sure of is that rotoscopy, his great invention, marked a before and after in the history of animation and in the film industry.

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