Rotoscoping & The Academy Awards

Brandy Kostick,
Hannah Saidiner
Illustration by
Eri Hashimoto

With awards season underway, this weekend we focus our attention on the 95th Academy Awards. Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 ½ would have been an easy fit in the Best Animated Feature category; however, controversy surrounding technique used to create the film almost stopped it from qualifying at all.

The film is narrated by a man recalling his life as a 10-year-old boy in 1969 Houston. Its nostalgic and fantastical depiction of journeying to the moon garnered a strong positive response from audiences. Despite its heartwarming story and unique animation style, however, we’re not going to be seeing Apollo 10 ½ at the Oscars on Sunday. In fact, the film has been completely absent from all major film award shows. And it all comes down to a question that has been plaguing it since its release: Is it even an animated film?

Apollo 10 ½’s gorgeous visuals are created through a technique called rotoscoping, in which live-action footage is traced over frame by frame to create an animation. The technique was pioneered by Max Fleischer in the early 1900s and has been used in various animated films, including the 1978 version of Lord of the Rings and Richard Linklater’s own Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. In Apollo 10 ½, the animation was created by rotoscoping the performances of the actors, who were filmed against a green screen and then traced over by animators.


Despite the film’s unique style, the Academy committee initially decided that the rotoscoping within the film would not qualify as animation. It seemed that the style of the film made the committee deem it closer to the original live action reference, more than other rotoscoped films. Tommy Pallotta stated:


“I feel like I’ve been caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare where someone is saying something isn’t real and I know it’s real,” he said. “I’ve been producing rotoscope animation for 25 years, and I’m done with people telling me it’s not animation. It’s just such an insult.”

The controversy over whether rotoscoping should count as animation led to Apollo 10 ½ being excluded from consideration in the Best Animated Feature category at the 2022 Academy Awards. Although the film was eligible for nomination in other categories, such as Best Picture and Best Director, it failed to receive any nominations.


2017’s Loving Vincent took 6 years to make and utilized live action footage of the cast. This footage was handed over to editors who composited Van Gogh paintings into scene backgrounds, and cut the final version of the film together as usual. Once the actual film was complete, they shot each individual frame onto a blank canvas, and artists painted over each image.

Disney famously used rotoscoping to create many of their early works. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which took home 1 large and 7 dwarf sized Honorary Academy awards, was the first of many to employ rotoscoping. Almost all of the film’s characters were fully rotoscoped and live action footage was utilized by their respective artists. Some scenes of Snow White and the Prince were directly traced from footage of the actors. This continued in Cinderella and many other films before Disney switched to digital in the early 1990’s.

“At the end of the day, rotoscope animation is much more handmade than most CG films,” Linklater said. “Live action as reference is just one element of it.”


Fans of the film, members of the crew, and fellow directors were disappointed by its lack of recognition, arguing that the controversy over rotoscoping was unfair and that the film deserved to be recognized for its distinctive animation style and compelling story. The Academy board decided to allow Apollo 10 ½ to qualify but ultimately it was not nominated for any awards.


In the end, the controversy over rotoscoping highlights the ongoing debate over what constitutes animation and how it should be defined. While some argue that rotoscoping should be considered a legitimate form of animation, others maintain that it is essentially a form of live-action filmmaking. Regardless of which side of the debate one falls on, there is no denying that Apollo 10 ½ is a noteworthy and engaging film that deserves recognition for its innovative animation style and heartfelt storytelling.