Amazon’s Undone is gorgeous, with cartoonified live-action actors giving vivid performances against oil-painted backdrops. The rotoscope animation captures all the rich nuances of their performances, from the way Rosa Salazar moves her eyes to Bob Odenkirk’s furrowed brow. The style is so thematically appropriate for Undone’s story of a woman unstuck in time that it’s hard to believe “rotoscope” is actually something of a dirty word in some animation circles, the realism it imparts considered a bug rather than a feature.
Originally invented by animator Max Fleischer in 1915, the technique directly traces live-action performances, which is considered a bit of a cheat. Walt Disney and his animators used the technique for parts of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, albeit with similar disdain. In his 2005 book The Art of Animation Drawing, animator Don Bluth (Anastasia, The Secret of NIMH, and others) cautions, “I have seen many animators become so mesmerized by the action…that they forget to caricature it. The result is immediately disappointing. It is bland and lifeless.”
Thus, rotoscoping is often begrudgingly seen as a necessary tool employed as a reference for highly complex, technical movements. But as the possibilities of animation expand, the uncanny realism of rotoscope is intentionally employed for its naturalism as much as an unsettling metaphor; rotoscoping transforms from a reluctant tool to an intentional aesthetic, bestowing a tinge of surrealism to contrast the real.
Undone is not the first to utilize rotoscope animation for its surreal qualities, nor the first to benefit from the mechanic’s distinct detached realism. It follows in a rich history of films, television series, and video games that have effectively utilized rotoscoping as something more than a tool.
The Lord of the Rings (1978)
Ralph Bakshi is one of the best-known purveyors of rotoscope animation, albeit reluctantly. For Bakshi, the technique is as much an artistic choice as a cost-saving measure, a way to deal with the limited budgets and inexperienced animators he had to work with. On making his famous, influential Tolkien adaptation, he told The Hollywood Reporter, “If a director has no money, he’s got to find a way to find the style or shooting technique to make the lack of money disappear and at least be emotionally right, which is everything.”
The Nazgûl in The Lord of the Rings are perhaps the most effective application of rotoscoping. Compared to the hobbits they stalk, these jet-black figures with glowing red eyes seem to inhabit another plane of existence entirely, realistically textured to the point where they seem transplanted from some other dimension. Though not all the rotoscope in the film looks perfect, the spooky intent is clear with the Nazgûl, whose unsettling movements directly influenced Peter Jackson’s own later adaptation of the material.
The Last Express (1997) and Hotel Dusk: Room 215 (2007)
Rotoscope has famously been used in the video games of Jordan Mechner, from fighter Karateka to the 1989 Prince of Persia. Mystery game The Last Express is easily his most ambitious effort, a game far ahead of its time, using distinct characters carrying out specific routines in real-time. The rotoscope gives the characters a realism that, particularly with the more limited toolset of 1997, might otherwise have been accomplished through live-action video. The result has certainly aged better than those contemporaries.
A decade later, Cing created DS game Hotel Dusk: Room 215 under similar circumstances a decade later. Another mystery game, the rotoscope imparts a naturalism to these characters as the story unfolds, a sketchy black-and-white look that manages to feel grounded and hard-boiled while injecting a fluidity and detail the hardware might otherwise not quite be capable of. A sequel that was never released in the U.S., Last Window: The Secret of Cape West, used the same animation style.
When the Day Breaks (1999)
Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis’s beautiful, brilliant animated short employs the technique on anthropomorphic animals, who move with the unmistakable, sketchy realism of rotoscope. It’s a truly surreal combination,animal heads grafted onto smooth humanoid movements over hazy, realistic backdrops. Much of the film is presented in wandering close-ups, alternately following the characters as much as whatever machines or objects they own. It suggests a larger space through these more naturalistic, hyper-real details, and evocative sound design.
There are countless short films that use a similar blend of techniques for startlingly new effects—some of which, like Priit Parn’s Hotel E or Koji Yamamura’s disturbing adaptation of Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor, are much tougher to track down—but When the Day Breaks is as good a place to start as any.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Richard Linklater’s films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly use a computer-assisted form of rotoscope, Flat Black Films’s Rotoshop. Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel, A Scanner Darkly makes particularly relevant use of the effect, taking place in a near-future dystopia where 20% of the population is addicted to the drug Substance D. The film’s rotoscoping has a solid yet muddy look, suggesting the shifting, contradictory perspective of its paranoid principal characters.
Much of the film is dedicated to the whacked-out ramblings of the addicts surrounding undercover cop Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves). In order to conceal his identity from other members of law enforcement, Arctor wears a bizarre “scramble suit” that cycles through hundreds of appearances, each one bleeding into the next to make him impossible to identify. Beneath the suit, Reeves gives much of his dialogue straight into the camera. The standout performance, though, is undoubtedly a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr., who spits motormouthed conspiracies.
The Flowers of Evil (2013)
Hiroshi Nagahama’s 13-episode anime series actually beat Undone to the punch by a good six years, albeit not without controversy. Rather than stick to the designs in the acclaimed manga source material, Nagahama opted for rotoscope in hopes of capturing the realism he felt reading the original. And on the surface, that’s exactly what he seems to be doing—The Flowers of Evil is a high school drama following Takao Kasuga, who’s soon caught stealing the gym clothes of his crush by another girl, Sawa Nakamura, who subsequently blackmails him into a “contract.” Things spiral from there, an unsettling drama of repression and perversion from characters reckoning with their true nature.
Rotoscope has been used in anime before, though often sparingly, again as a tool to capture intricate movements like dancing. Its use in The Flowers of Evil offers an extreme contrast to the more typically static compositions of anime, a fluidity that’s deliberately uncomfortable to look at. The way we can see emotions etched into the characters’ faces is wonderfully creepy. We aren’t accustomed to this kind of naked soul-bearing of repressed emotions and urges and combining it with the spare sound design and desolate backdrops creates something unforgettable. It is, in many ways, at the opposite end of the rotoscope spectrum from Undone, which gets so much mileage out of oil-painted beauty and surreal landscapes. The Flowers of Evil is stark and unshowy and focused squarely on “mundane” life, taking the skewed naturalism of rotoscope and dragging it into the darkness.