Rotoscope and Reference: Kids on the Slope

I know I don’t talk about animation here as much as I should. There have to be about eight hundred bazillion writers who have blogs, and a bunch of them must invest as much time as I do in looking at plot and character and such.

Animators, on the other hand, are fewer and farther between. So in principle that should make posts about animation more valuable.

There’s an old … a really old … animation technique called rotoscope. Back in the late teens and ’20’s of that last century (the 20th) the pioneers of animation were just figuring out how the heck to make them purdy pictures move. A lot of techniques got thrown around before computers got invented and everything could be digital, and some of them even stuck.

One of the problems they had was making the characters move realistically. A little later they figured out that they didn’t NEED to make characters move realistically; the audiences would accept that characters could move pretty old any which way because the audience knew The Big Trick.

Want me to tell you what The Big Trick is? Okay, you twisted my arm. Audiences knew it was ONLY A CARTOON, so the characters didn’t have to be realistic, since after all, they weren’t real.

But that took a while.

Two of the smarter cats in the biz, Max and Dave Fleischer, said, “Hmm. Well, if we want the character to move realistically, we can shoot actual movies of people actually moving, and then trace their actions. I mean, no one moves as realistically as real people.” So that’s what they did: they shot live action footage, projected the footage frame by frame onto their pages, and traced them. If you want to look at it that way, it’s the world’s oldest form of motion capture animation.

This technique was called rotoscope. Here’s one of Fleischer films, from 1921, that shows the technique in action. For the record, the live actor is Max. The clown – Koko the Clown – his actions were rotoscoped. Dave played Koko, and yes, he wore a clown suit. (It was black and white to make it easier to trace from black and white film.)

Looks pretty good, don’t it? Let me put it this way: Dig up an old copy of Mickey Mouse’s Steamboat Willie and compare those ropey arms and legs to Koko’s action. And Steamboat Willie was over half a decade more advanced in technique.

(You know what Disney did when they wanted realistic action in a character back at the same time as the Fleischers were doing Koko? They filmed a real actor in front of a white screen and then animated the action AROUND the character. Yep, Disney was too cheap to use rotoscope.)

Rotoscope is one of those things that has its uses in the right place. Most cartoons and anime don’t use, need, or want it. Audiences accept that if the characters’ movements are realistic enough – and animators figured out how to do it good enough by the 1930’s – no one gives a crap that they aren’t perfectly realistic. And roto’s realism comes at a cost: You have to shoot the live action as well as create the animation. Yup, when you use roto, you shoot every scene twice. It’s a fairly expensive process.

To make it pay off, you also have to shoot on ones. I’ve talked about this before: to save costs a lot of cartoons, animes included, shoot two images of each frame because if you do the action seems close enough to real and you save pretty much half of your animation and shooting costs. Shooting on ones yields a film slightly more realistic but twice as expensive.

Of course, rotoscoping is not as raggedy-ass as it was in the Fleischers’ day. They didn’t have expensive digital equipment so they always had registration problems. That’s why it seems like Koko is sliding around. But if you want real, you can roto.

I bring all of this up because something caught my eye as I was watching Shinichiro Watanabe’s Kids on the Slope. Kids is a historical coming-of-age story set in the 1960’s, about four very different men playing in a jazz combo (and two women that love them).

Kids combo

Three quarters of the quartet: From left, Tsutomu, Sentaro, Junichi

Being a historical, realism is a little more important than it was to, say, Cowboy Bebop. (Yes, THAT Shinichiro Watanabe.) Plus Watanabe brought in Yoko Kanno for the music again (and you know how she feels about music), plus he himself is a music fan.

He wanted it to be RIGHT. He wanted it to LOOK right.

He got real musicians to play real music, not recordings, and he shot footage of them playing. Then they rotoscoped the footage. Watch this:

Our quartet. Kaoru on Piano.

Watch the drummer, Sentaro, especially. It’s wonderful. This is not a character waving cartoon sticks at a cartoon drum kit; his movements are synched perfectly to the music being played. I’m less sure about Jun’s fingerings, but at the same time watch his posture, how he sways and bobs to the music.

Let me make this clear: the intro sequences, as the guys talk, those scenes are shot on twos. If you watch carefully, you can see that when they start playing, the motion becomes more natural and fluid. That’s when they did the rotoscope. Watch it again. You can see the difference. It’s not even the whole scene. They cut away to Ritsuko, the girl, listening. Twos. They have guys looking at each other. Twos. They have shots where the musicians have their backs turned, or you can only see their faces. Twos. But when you can see their hands, see them actually putting their hands on their instruments, that’s rotoscope. At the end, when Sentaro drums the final few beats, it’s PERFECT.

That’s a lot of effort for one scene. As with that one scene, when they aren’t playing they aren’t using rotoscope; that makes sense. Part of the point of the series is the magic that music makes, and when they make music, the animation improves. That’s a neat idea and I think it works. More people need to pay more attention to Kids on the Slope.

But you know what? There are so many people who hate jazz that I have to guess that damned near no one saw it. But it’s worth it. The plot is straightforward, the character interrelationships are complex (although I’m still trying to figure out how Tsutomu felt about Kaoru hitting on his daughter 🙂 ), and the animation is absolutely terrific. And one of the reasons it’s terrific is that Watanabe knew when, where, and how to use rotoscope.

You don’t see it every day. I think I’ve seen it in one other anime, and for the life of me I can’t remember which. Nowadays roto is a gimmick.

But it’s an important, useful gimmick.

No, I’ve never done it. So don’t ask.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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