Rotoscoping and Referencing. Yes or No, and What’s the Difference?

If you are an artist or an animator, then you probably know about the dreaded word: plagiarism. That terrible concept of taking someone’s idea and selling/advertising it as your own. Obviously, this is bad, because it is theft. It is literally stealing a creators’ hard work.

Then, however, we have a problem. What about references, inspiration, and the controversial topic of rotoscoping? Are they not a form of plagiarism? After all, you are using another person’s work for your own benefit. The line between stealing and learning becomes slightly skewed for many beginners and even some old-timers. That’s what we are talking about today. We will go over two specific topics: Referencing and Rotoscoping.

(note, I would like to thank members of the Animators Guild, the other Anim8 Bloggers, and some personal friends of mine for helping me get a better understanding of these topics so I could readily explain it.)

Animation by NotSoProish. Please check out his YT and Anim8 profile.

1. Referencing

Referencing is a pretty simple concept that most people will know and understand whether or not they make animations. Referencing is to refer back to something. That is all. If you read a book, start to write something about the book but then look back to see if you are correct on a specific topic, then you have referred back to the book. If you try to draw a line and do it wrong because you don’t remember what a line looks like, then looking at someone else’s’ line means you have referred to that other line to correct yourself.

This, in and of itself, is perfectly okay as long as it remains in this category, it is literally how we learn things in school. You are not copying material, you are observing it so you can remember/memorize how to use those concepts in your own work. Let’s go over an example:

Animation by Tao, the guy who thinks he can’t do anything but really can.

Let us say that you want to animate an arm punching someone. You try to animate it yourself over and over but it looks weird. So you go back and you look at something like the animation above ^ (made by Tao). Maybe you looked it up online or found it on a random website. You observed it, the motion, the double-framing, and the flow. You then return to your own animation and try again a few times and get it right (or it may take longer).

That is what using a reference means, and there is nothing wrong with it. The only thing to keep in mind is that you should use referencing as practice so that you can eventually do it on your own. This will help your creativity and experimentation.

2. Rotoscoping

This is a touchy subject so I will try to be brief. Everything I state will be an accumulation of gathered info from the animation community written in my own words. There are many different opinions on the matter, so I suggest you read as much information on it as you can and make your own personal conclusion. I suggest watching Howard Wimshursts’ video on rotoscoping. He goes over a lot of things, and I trust the man’s opinion.

This video is by Howard Wimshurst. I suggest you watch it.

What is Rotoscoping?
Rotoscoping is an animation process of tracing over motion picture frame by frame (definition by Wikipedia).

Is Rotoscoping real-life footage okay?
If the footage is not illegal, then yes. It would also be best to play it safe and only use footage you either made yourself or from creative commons sources (content made with the purpose of letting other people use it for their own purposes. Royalty free music is a good example). Most people will tell you this if they have some experience. There are also examples of it seen in shows like Naruto.

This is an example of something Naruto did. This could very well just be a tribute, but there are different opinions on the matter. This was mentioend by Howard Whimshurst

Is Rotoscoping other Animations Okay?
This is a very controversial part, but I will tell you what I’ve gathered from OTHER animators:
Rotoscoping animation is entirely wrong if done without the permission of the original animator, and even then it will likely garner a bad reputation from studios and anyone hiring. Unlike referencing, this is in essence copying straight from the book, not learning from the book. So getting a job with a reputation of “this person has not personal artistic style” will not help you.

What about Animation Memes? Aren’t those rotoscoped?
Yes, but there is one big difference. The animators for these always fully acknowledge the original creator as well as point out that it is merely a commemoration to the original. Plus, they tend to not be for money purposes, solidifying the fact that it is a tribute.

My personal feelings on the matter?
Rotoscoping animation is stealing, rotoscoping real life footage is acceptable sometimes. Learn from References and experiment until you get what you want.


To conclude this little essay of mine, I’ll say this. Be inspired by other artists and animators and learn from them, don’t copy them. You can learn how physics work in animation by watching animators known for their physics work. As long as the idea for your animations has passed through and been developed in your own mind, it doesn’t matter where you get inspiration from.

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