If you were to look at recent animation productions, you could make the argument that the industry is in a rotoscoping renaissance. The animation technique, which involves tracing over live action footage frame by frame, was first invented by Max Fleischer in 1915 and is enjoying a surge in popularity thanks to its surreal aesthetic and the increasing ease and efficiency of using digital solutions like Toon Boom Harmony.
Revived in the modern era by Richard Linklater films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, studios have now begun rotoscoping for series including Amazon Prime’s Undone, Netflix’s The Liberators and Adult Swim’s Dream Corp LLC. As those productions would suggest, the animation style has a distinctive dreamy quality; much more realistic than the exaggerated nature of cartoons, but bringing more of a suspension of disbelief compared to live action.
Self-taught animator Mitch Pond works on Adult Swim’s Dream Corp LLC and during the current production break has been creating music videos. Based in Los Angeles, two of his most recent and prominent works are the music videos for the tracks In My Eyes (ft. Verzache) and Fruit&Sun for American musician ford.
For both productions, Pond used Harmony’s Morph tool to save huge amounts of time while still delivering the highest levels of quality — all while being unable to capture his own live-action footage due to the pandemic. Spoiler: his first video was so good, ford asked him to do another.
We caught up with Mitch Pond to chat about how he taught himself to animate, his work on the In My Eyes and Fruit&Sun music videos and his tips for using rotoscoping using Toon Boom Harmony.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into animation?
I’ve been a musician for a while and at one point wanted to do an animated music video — so I got some studio quotes and realized that I could try and figure it out on my own. I started by doing rotoscoping, using an old iPad and velcroing it to a piece of wood and making some pegboards. I put tracing paper over it, put the footage into the iPad and did it frame by frame like that. I did that for a long time as a hobby and started doing music videos for some friends in bands.
I moved to LA in 2016 and got hired to do the Dream Corp LLC job. I started learning about Toon Boom and trying to get more into effects and character animation. I did some experiments with some character animation and discovered Harmony’s morph tool and realized, “Hey, I can use this to save a ton of time rotoscoping!”
I did not realize that you were a musician prior to animating, but it makes sense! How did you connect with ford and this project?
I was contacted by his record label, who saw some work I had done for an artist called Somni. We started with the In My Eyes music video and that was the first project I used the Morph tool on. I wanted to see how far I could push this technique and if I could carry a whole video that way. I got my process down through that and when I turned that one in, they were so happy with it that they asked me to do the Fruit&Sun video too.
How did you come up with the visuals in those videos?
They had sent me all of the album artwork for In My Eyes and gave me an idea of what they were looking for, like the lotuses and lilies. I had this idea of going into yourself, underneath your subconscious to find the creative spark and how that bubbles up and takes a physical form when you make art.
That was just the skeleton — then I would go into Toon Boom and find a cool technique and get some good imagery going, and then hang that on the skeleton. It was an interesting process of just saying, “Okay, I’ve got this footage. Let me see how cool I can make it and then I’ll try and fit it into this world somewhere.”
Speaking of the footage, how did you get the live-action shots for the rotoscoping?
That was probably one of the big challenges, and it’s been a challenge for me throughout the last year. For In My Eyes, ford and a videographer friend of his went out to a bike path and FaceTimed me. And then the videographer would hold his phone up to the viewfinder of the camera and I would say, “Okay, I need you to stand here and pretend like you’re floating underwater.”
Getting live-action footage for rotoscoping is something I am still figuring out. The nice thing about Toon Boom Harmony is I can go in and out of the morph tool really easily. If there’s something where the footage isn’t giving me what I need, I can start going frame by frame or using other references. You can get kind of locked down to your footage in the rotoscope process — like if somebody needs a sword in their hands, you have to get a prop sword. With Toon Boom, the mix of the frame by frame and the Morph tool can solve a lot of problems.
How did you get into Toon Boom Harmony anyways?
In late 2019, I took an animation effects in Harmony class for Dream Corp in case they needed some hand-drawn effects. They signed me up and I got the 21-day free trial period and just enjoyed working on it so much that I said, “I have to add this to my toolset!” I haven’t looked back.
Amazing that you’ve learned so quickly! Speaking of speed, how long did the ‘In My Eyes’ music video take you?
The whole thing I think took a month and a half to two months. I sort of front loaded a lot of the character animation and there were some time gaps in footage I would get. I was able to get a shot-a-day pace rotoscoping, if not better. I tried to keep things relatively simple and smooth because I knew that there wouldn’t be any issues that way. I could get one or two rotoscoped shots done in a day, which is which is crazy; I had five or six-second shots that I could do with 10 keyframes per shot spread over the layers.
One of the strengths of traditional 2D stuff is you’re able to make use of loops. When you’re doing rotoscoping, you don’t have to do the planning stage — you can just kind of skip straight to the footage, but then you’re stuck. If somebody’s walking for 10 seconds, you can’t do a walk cycle. However, with the morph tool, you can. If you have the first frame lined up, you can just copy all the nodes from that first frame to the end. And if they’re close enough, you can rotoscope yourself a walk cycle and now you’ve got all the benefits of both approaches.
So how does working with Harmony help?
Once I realized that I could just put one line per layer and animate it through, and then kind of squash them down to do the colouring stuff — I mean, depending on the nature of the movement, you can do one drawing for every 15 frames essentially. If somebody is talking, obviously that’s shortened but I mean, the stuff that I’ve done would be impossible without Harmony and if I had not found the morph tool.
Are you using any other tools, like the onion skin?
Yeah, the onion skin is nice. Being able to jump in and out of morph and frame by frame is really helpful — especially if you lose sight of something in the footage or it becomes blurry. One of my favourite things to do is once I have all of the animation finished, I convert it to all regular frames from the morph frames. When you select them all, it selects all the lines and you can see all of the states at once. It helps you get a better sense for the dynamics of what’s going on.
Do you have any other tips for rotoscoping in Harmony that you wish someone told you at the beginning?
A mistake that I made early on was trying to do every frame one by one. When you draw a frame and then you go on to the next one, it’s very easy to lose track of things. I kind of had to do a line-by-line process — start with the line over the eye, draw that all the way through, go back and then do that again. That helps you stay organized and makes sure that you don’t get lazy when you’re doing a part of the drawing that is not as interesting. If you pick one line and move through the whole timeline, you end up with a more coherent result and the morph-flow process kind of forces you to work that way.
Now that you’ve finished with this project, what’s next?
The music video work has been steady. Spotify canvases are a big thing that I’ve been hit up about, too. Also, I’m looking at stuff like Mason London’s — just thinking of where I can take my rotoscoping and animation techniques. I love working with music, but it would also be great to take a little time off and maybe work on a short or something like that.