Although it’s now done on computers, the process dates back to 1917, when animation pioneer Max Fleischer invented it to turn his brother David into Koko the Clown, Fleischer’s signature creation. It gets its name from the type of projector that Fleischer developed to create the effect. The image would be projected onto a sheet of frosted glass, on the other side of which an artist would be tracing the image’s outlines, one frame after another, literally turning reality into cartoons.
During the 1930’s, rotoscoping inserted a dancing Cab Calloway into Betty Boop cartoons and made a proto version of Superman fly in an early animated serial. It also found frequent use in the Soviet Union, where it appealed to social realist sensibilities in vogue at the time.
Contemporary American animation fans will easily be able to spot the process in films like Heavy Metal and Richard Linklater’s mind-bender A Scanner Darkly (which, incidentally, shares a member of its animation crew with Tolltaker: Philly-based animator Monique Ligons). It also created the surreal, pencil-sketch world of one of the most iconic music videos of the 1980’s: Take On Me, by Norwegian band Aha.
The king of American rotoscoping is indisputably Ralph Bakshi, whose animated features were trippy, violent and at times downright pornographic. Beginning with his profane Fritz The Cat in 1972, Bakshi made a total of seven feature films, including genre classics like Wizards and an early, animated version of Lord of the Rings, which earned him a dedicated, world-wide following.
The Tolltaker has about two minutes of rotoscoping, which was created by a team of animators who turned the first floor of director Steve Janas’s Philadelphia-area townhouse into an ad hoc studio. Running the show (the animated portion of it, anyway) was co-producer Lavinia DeCastro, who chose as her lieutenant a fellow graduate of the Art Institute of Philadelphia named Jake Hoisington. They both oversaw a total of around a dozen animators, working on laptops set up on folding tables in Janas’s living and dining rooms.
To explain the specific way the rotoscoping process is used in The Tolltaker, Hosington hosts a short, two-minute feature, which can be viewed on YouTube at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?
The Tolltaker tells the story of a young boy named Bobby growing up in Northeast Philadelphia in the early 1970’s, in the aftermath of Vietnam, whose increasingly desperate belief that he’ll see his MIA father alive again rests on a cheap metal charm bracelet, inscribed with his father’s name, that he wears on his wrist. Unfortunately, this is the very prize sought by the Tolltaker, a corpse-like ghoul that Bobby encounters on an expedition into a local drain pipe.
Contact Steve Janas at Stevejanas@yahoo.com