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Bradley James in WWII costume with trioscope overlay in The Liberator

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The long war between animation and live action has landed on Netflix

The experimental series The Liberator raises familiar old questions about the artistic value of rotoscoping

Image: Netflix

For most of history, people had no idea how horses ran. Sure, they put one hoof in front of the other, but they did so at such tremendous speeds that the naked eye couldn’t register the specific pattern of steps involved. When British artist Eadweard Muybridge photographed a racehorse in full gallop back in the 1870s, the images were smudged with motion blur. It wasn’t until the photographs were retouched, traced, and shown in quick succession that the public was finally able to solve the mystery of this ordinary form of movement.

A century and a half later, the team behind Netflix’s World War II miniseries The Liberator are trying their hands at a different procedure that aims to achieve a similar result: they’re reducing complex photographs into streamlined drawings to get the most out of their subject. That comparison may seem contentious, but it’s important to remember that one probably couldn’t have existed without the other, not only because Muybridge laid the groundwork for animation in general, but also because he unwittingly wrote the first chapter in the history of augmented reality.

WWII soldiers lie prone in a field with tracer fire zipping by in The Liberator
The Liberator, Grzegorz Jonkajtys, 2020
Image: Netflix

Although The Liberator resembles countless other war dramas, with bombastic action sequences, a score heavily reliant on string instruments, and the timeless premise of a horrible situation bringing out the best in people, it does have one unique thing going for it: it’s the first production ever to be shot with trioscope.

Invented by filmmakers L.C. Crowley and Greg Jonkajtys and realized by producer Brandon Barr, trioscope is a new technology that gives live-action footage the appearance of cross-hatched drawings. Variety, The A.V. Club, and Engadget all referred to the end result as an “animated graphic novel,” and while that’s fairly accurate, it undersells the nuances of the software itself, turning a blind eye to the rich, complex history of humanity’s attempt to capture and manipulate the world in order to make art.

As a photographer, Muybridge cannot really be considered the father of rotoscope, trioscope’s older brother. That title rests on the shoulders of Max Fleischer, an animation entrepreneur who dealt not with horses, but clowns. For one early groundbreaking short, Fleischer convinced his brother Dave to dress up in a clown costume so he could copy his movements with pen and paper. Although Fleischer colored in the clown’s suit to circumvent the hassle of animating clothing creases, and simplified Dave’s limbs into the proto-rubber-hose shapes that would later be applied to the people of Popeye the Sailor, the process still proved too time-consuming to be worth the effort.

As the animation industry changed from an experimental playground into a well-oiled machine, rotoscoping was rarely a central part of the process, though it still played a key role in many productions: Fleischer revisited the technique to draw a distinction between the humans and critters in 1939’s Gulliver’s Travels and 1941’s Mr. Bug Goes to Town, while Disney used it to realistically render complex sequences such as the dances in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with shots of the princess twirling being recycled for Robin Hood.

Accepting the fact that animation had come to be regarded as a medium primarily for children, artists gradually came to prioritize visual imagination over authenticity, and rotoscoping was pushed even further down the toolkit. It was eventually rediscovered in the 1970s by Ralph Bakshi, an adult animator who felt the Disney-style happily-ever-after formula he saw on screen didn’t reflect gritty, grimy reality. Bakshi first used rotoscope methods in 1977’s Wizards, then expanded its presence in his groundbreaking adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1978’s The Lord of the Rings. He did so first and foremost because it was the quickest way to animate hordes of running, screaming, flailing orcs, but it also brought a sense of reality rarely seen in fantasy films.

But in spite of the advantages of rotoscoping, it has its costs. For one, it reduces the animators from artists to robotic tracers, leaving little room for the exaggerated physical and facial expressions that give most traditionally animated films their charm. If presented alongside hand-drawn animation, rotoscoping can also weaken a film’s sense of stylistic unity, as it did in Bakshi’s 1982 film Hey Good Lookin’. These issues can give emotionally involved filmmakers a real headache, and they ultimately compelled one of them to seek out an engineer’s expertise.

A rotoscoped image of a red-eyed man in silhouette riding a red-eyed horse in Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings, Ralph Bakshi, 1978
Image: United Artists

Trioscope’s clearest antecedent came in the 2000s from Bob Sabiston, a graduate of MIT’s Media Lab, who combined his love for drawing and his obsession with computer programming into a software he called Rotoshop. Where previous iterations of rotoscoping traced live-action footage in varying degrees of exactness, Rotoshop worked a bit differently. Rather than copying life, it automatically created in-betweens to link together keyframes drawn by actual artists.

Although Sabiston tested the software in a number of shorts, he made its power known throughout the indie film world with Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life, a set of unrelated inquiries into the biggest questions that haunt the human condition. Sabiston used his program to address the film’s vignettes in different visual flavors, ranging from heavily stylized to uncannily lifelike — a style used with more consistency and fluidity in Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly five years later.

Rotoshop offered other benefits, too. Not only could it manipulate the actors’ bodies as separate, associated shapes, it could move backgrounds around to mimic the look and feel of a dream. Most importantly, however, it didn’t prevent the animators from taking creative liberties. There are extremely lifelike scenes in Waking Life, but also characters whose facial features are satisfyingly amplified in ways that the harsh naturalism of conventional rotoscope — and now trioscope — don’t allow.

A Rotoshopped image of a man talking to a second man made of clouds in Waking Life
Waking Life, Richard Linklater, 2001
Image: Twentieth Century Fox

The Liberator showcases the greatest strengths and biggest weaknesses of the technology powering this new kind of cinematic experience. The first thing viewers will likely notice is the steadiness with which the graphic novel-like look is applied to the footage. Where Bakshi’s rotoscoped images constantly falter and flicker, thanks to the imperfect human hands that crafted them, trioscope applies its mask with a laser-like precision that feels more stylized than accidental.

While emboldened color filters and empowered shadows readily create a sense of dramatic atmosphere that other filmmakers might struggle to achieve, The Liberator doesn’t use trioscope to creatively add to or play with reality in the ways Waking Life does. Unlike Fleischer and Sabiston, whose approach left room for artists to draw over faces to tweak the performances toward any effect they wanted, trioscope’s Crowley, Jonkajtys, and Barr stick closely enough to photorealism that they’re at the mercy of their actors’ limitations. That isn’t generally a problem — star James Bradley and his fellow cast members play their roles convincingly. But the technology does little to elevate them further, in spite of the enthusiastic promises of the series’ promotional material. At least, The Liberator doesn’t bring in imagination and artistry to the degree that some of the elaborate, colorful reels on the studio’s website showcase.

Even if trioscope doesn’t make a story more than the sum of its parts, it does strengthen the relationship between living, breathing actors and digitally invented props, sets, and effects, to an unprecedented extent. While the developers have been remarkably cryptic about how their invention works on a technical level — perhaps because it’s still patent-pending — they have shed some light on how its use can assist ongoing productions. In a brief interview with Television Business International, Barr claimed that trioscope could radically reduce production expenses: “We never want to make decisions on a project solely based upon economics, but if you’re thinking about what I would call large-scale live-action projects — so historical, fantasy, science-fiction, premium-drama — a trioscope project is somewhere in the range of 40-50% of the cost.”

That’s a lofty claim, but it isn’t unsubstantiated. Originally planned as a longer History Channel production, The Liberator would have likely ended up in development hell if Trioscope Studios hadn’t stepped in to bring down the cost with its clever incorporation of CGI. In this regard, the technology may be more similar to the virtual-reality-like sets seen in The Mandalorian than previous iterations of rotoscoping. The technology doesn’t toy with the quality of the shots themselves so much as it allows filmmakers to venture from the real into the imagined.

Throughout cinematic history, reality-augmenting technologies have attracted visionaries, but not everyone has been equally enthusiastic. “The audience is going to be an expert on how humans move,” animator Shamus Culhane wrote in his book Animation: From Script to Screen. “This makes it pointless to attempt to use rotoscope or any other device to imitate human action … Imitation of real life is not art, and art is what we are involved with.” Instead, he advocated edited action — a method where artists proactively warp the reality that inspires them, rather than passively copying it, as rotoscope and trioscope would see them do.

Culhane’s ideals aside, as any animator on the face of the earth will tell you, animation is difficult, time-consuming, underpaid work. Although the medium thrives on creative innovation, it survives by means of financial efficiency. Since film’s inception, artists have turned to technology to free up their hands for the richer and more rewarding aspects of the job. Trioscope is only the latest technological tool in the box, and while the images it produces may not be “art” in any traditional sense, the freedom it offers artists may wind up being far more valuable than any label.

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