Book Review: Rotoscoping: Techniques and Tools for the Aspiring Artist

A Much Needed Guide for Aspiring Roto Artists

Rotoscoping was originally a technique used in early animation, with a contraption called the rotoscope, invented by Max Fleischer. This was basically a transparent easel upon which an artist would trace out live action projected from a movie projector, frame by frame (see image below). This worked effectively as a way to study movement and use live action as a reference for such notable early works, as Popeye, Betty Boop, and even Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Modern rotoscoping, which is still the same basic concept, is used to create mattes, by which parts of a live action scene can be isolated in order to insert effects, color correct, hide rigs or wires, etc. As rotoscoping is a crucial part of any video production today, so is the importance of the job of a roto artist, both in skill and efficiency. There are a number of outstanding tools available today to handle roto work, but the roto artist still needs to refine his or her own skills to use these to the fullest. This is where a book like the wonderful Rotoscoping: Techniques and Tools for the Aspiring Artist, by Benjamin Bratt, comes in very handy.


Patent drawing for Max Fleischer's original rotoscope

The book starts off with an excellent introduction on Rotoscoping, its origins, as well as terms needed to know, and the software available to the roto artist, like Silhouette, Adobe's After Effects, or Imagineer Systems' mocha products. While you are presented with some information on the different software, the author's tool of coice (and top of the list for most roto artists) is Silhouette, and as such he uses screenshots mainly from this software. Nevertheless, the techniques described carry over from package to package, no matter what your preference.

Here is the chapter list from Rotoscoping, so you have an idea of how the book is organized:

  • Chapter 1: Origins of Roto
  • Chapter 2: Defining the Terms
  • Chapter 3: Rotoscoping Software
  • Chapter 4: Pre-Shot Warm-Up
  • Chapter 5: Key Framing Techniques
  • Chapter 6: Creating Splines
  • Chapter 7: Edge Consistency
  • Chapter 8: Object Mode Transforms
  • Chapter 9: Interpolation and Linear Movement
  • Chapter 10: Blur
  • Chapter 11: Checking Your Mattes
  • Chapter 12: Tracking and Roto
  • Chapter 13: Roto and the Human Figure
  • Chapter 14: Faces and Heads
  • Chapter 15: Hair (Or: Bald People Are Great)
  • Chapter 16: Human Movement
  • Chapter 17: Clothing
  • Chapter 18: Keeping Focus and Getting Work

I particularly enjoyed how Benjamin goes into great depth on everything you need to know before the actual work takes place. For example, communication is key to figuring out just what needs to be done, and what you can plan ahead of time to avoid unneeded work. Benjamin also gives examples on what can and will go wrong.

All the basic concepts are covered in detail, with a thorough introduction and a follow-through with step-by-step instruction. There is even a quick review section closing each chapter. The book is also loaded with full-color images to aid in learning the material. All bases are covered, from creating effective splines with the least points, to employing tracking in your work. From learning between timeline and motion-based keyframing in roto, to applying the latter in dealing with human movement.

You will learn how to approach the most difficult projects, like how to deal with edges, blurry subjects, and, of course, hair! You will also learn best practices, bad habits to avoid, and real-world situations you will most likely come across. There is also a great end chapter on finding work and maintaining it.

There is a DVD that accompanies this book, which includes the footage used throughout, so you can practice the techniques explained. There is also a companion website, where Benjamin offers a couple of excellent tutorial videos on blur and bifurcation (sectioning in timeline-based keyframing).

This book is very well written. Everything is covered in great detail, yet it is a very enjoyable read, never boring, and offers plenty of wit and wisdom from someone who has himself been in the trenches. He more recently supplied roto work on such notable films as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and X-Men: First Class.

Rotoscoping is certainly an art in itself, and Benjamin makes this clear. Roto artists are the "ninja of the compositing world," he says, as their art is invisible to the rest of us. That's a good thing in this instance, of course!

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in roto work, or roto artists who want to improve their work process. There is plenty to be gained from having this book in your library, and, quite simply, there is no other book like this one out there. Thanks Benjamin!

Price: $39.95 (USD)

My sincere thanks to Focal Press for providing a review copy of Rotoscoping: Techniques and Tools for the Aspiring Artist. The quality and selection of books at Focal Press is outstanding and I encourage anyone to check out their website for more info on this and other titles.

About the Author

Benjamin Bratt is currently a Senior Roto/Prep Artist at MPC London. He has previously taught Visual Effects and Rotoscoping classes at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Be sure to visit his website.


Be sure to also check out other book reviews right here on Renderosity:


Nick C. Sorbin is a digital artist, sculptor, writer, and Managing Editor for Renderosity's CG Industry News.
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