Digital Origin's RotoDV:
Rotoscoping for the Masses
New rotoscoping product has good price vs. performance, but still needs some work.
By Erik Holsinger

Rotoscoping -- where you paint on moving images to give them a "painterly" effect -- is one of the last post-production tasks that was still relegated to the high-end of the post-production world. Sure, you can create broadcast quality rotoscoping -- as long as you are willing to pay an arm and a leg for studio time at your local branch of HappilyTakeUMoney Post House. So given the time-intensive nature of rotoscoping (after all, you still have to paint every frame of a video) and the high cost, this was something out of the reach of most small to mid-range productions.

However, a few years ago Puffin Designs turned this around with Commotion, a Mac-based rotoscoping tool that combined high-end features with a reasonable (under $2,500) price tag. Now Digital Origin, makers of such DV tools as Edit DV, Moto DV, and Photo DV, bring out RotoDV, a $399 rotoscoping tool for the Mac. RotoDV allows you to paint and retouch video footage using a variety of painting tools. While the program offers a lot of bang for the buck, given the program's glitches and other market competition, serious rotoscopers might want to consider their options before buying this program.

Clutter Me, Baby; RotoDV's many palettes can eat up your screen real estate fast.

If you got the RAM, I got the Time
Starting up the program is a breeze -- if you've got enough RAM. RotoDV needs a minimum of 128 MB RAM; if you don't have it, RotoDV won't install. This seems a bit incongruous, as even Commotion allows you to install in 64MB RAM. Granted, the more RAM the merrier -- specifically, more RAM means more frames you can preview in real time. However, if you don't have the RAM in your machine, then you'll have to add that into the cost of the software.

Once you've started up, the program will have you make a choice on the number of frames that you want to be able to preview at one time. This is dependent not only on the amount of RAM that you have, but also how much hard disk space you have available to cache temp files.

Once you set how many and the start/stop points of frames you need to preview (all of which you can change later), the program opens up. The interface is similar to many of the graphics programs out there, using a combination of floating palettes with multiple tabs. You can position these how you like around the screen, however they won't snap to each other (a "magnetic" attribute that you'll find in most Adobe graphics programs). Even with a large screen (1024 x 768) I found I had more palettes than screen real estate. But, Digital Origin put in a nice touch by adding in an icon bar for the palettes that allows you to show or hide any of the palettes.

Its about Time; RotoDV's time line is where you can move, arrange, or copy the different video and still graphic layers. Click image for larger view

To paint on a video clip, you import the clip into a video layer, and then start applying paint to the Paint layer. You can add as many paint and video layers as you want, although things start slowing down considerably as you give your CPU more to chew on. One of the great things about the multiple video layers is the ability to clone areas from one layer into a paint layer, so it is easy to paint in a section of a fire video clip, and so on.

Working with the Program
Overall, RotoDV does a good job at rotoscoping. Painting on a paint layer allows you to do everything from simple touchups to wild animations on top of the video clip. I was especially impressed with the fact that you can paint on both frames and fields, since this is something that was a relatively new feature in Commotion. This feature is especially important if you are trying to paint on a clip with lots of fast action, where you need to make changes at the field level in order to make the animation smooth. The variety of brushes that you can use and customize makes RotoDV very flexible. The program even includes special effects brushes for adding city lights, fire, and so on. These are not particle effects, just specialty brushes that make unique patterns on the paint layer.

A Tool for Every Task; RotoDV offers a wide variety of tools, from standard brushes to color dodging to special effect brushes, such as the fire tool.

Using a digitizer table with RotoDV is really a must, as detailed painting with a mouse won't give you the level of control that you need for most rotoscoping jobs. One quirk that was irksome; the program wouldn't start displaying the paint on screen until I had moved the brush a bit, so it was impossible to have the paint area start when you begin drawing. While not a fatal glitch, this is something that should be cleaned up in the next version.

However, one of the things that drove me nuts about RotoDV was its insistence on rendering the whole [email protected]#[email protected] project nearly every time I performed an operation. It wasn't that RotoDV just rendered a single frame, like you'll find in After Effects or even Photoshop -- no sir; it rendered every cursed frame in the composition. The punch line? You can't stop this operation after it's started, just sit back and glare at your screen. While this is clearly due to RotoDV's attempt to maximize your RAM for real-time previews, I'm totally underwhelmed with this "it's not a bug, it's a feature" feature. Hopefully this "feature" will be squashed in the next version.

So what do you really think?
Ultimately the main question is which should you work with -- RotoDV or Commotion? I find the difference between the two programs is similar to the difference between Adobe Photoshop and MetaCreations Painter 6. RotoDV and Painter provide the widest variety of artistic tools, while Photoshop and Commotion offer precision tools and features that you have to have on professional jobs.

There no place like Clone. RotoDV's Clone tool is what you use to pull elements from one layer of video onto another. Unlike doing the same operation, the clone tool automatically locks in the same area on a the area that you are drawing from to the same area on your drawing layer.

Clearly, Commotion's motion tracking, ability to handle third-party plug-ins, strong integration with Adobe After Effects, and precision matte capabilities make it the winner in the pure professional features category. So it should be easy to say that if you don't have $1,800 to spend, that RotoDV should be a great alternative. Well -- yes and no.

Puffin Designs also has a product aimed at the mid-range production market called Commotion DV, which has most of the features of its big brother (with the big exception of the motion tracking features and the ability to handle anything beyond a DV sized image), but is priced around $795. And there is an upgrade path to the full version of Commotion. If you are serious about doing professional-level rotoscoping on the Mac, then you should strongly consider either Commotion or Commotion DV. However, if you would like an economical, yet solid rotoscoping product to add to your production tool box, then by all means check out RotoDV.

Ultimately you are the best judge of what will work for you, so check out the demo versions of each program that are available online (Click Here for the RotoDV demo and Click Here for the Commotion DV demo).

Price: $399

Digital Origin Inc.
460 East Middlefield Road Mountain View, CA 94043 650-404-6300

System Requirements:
Minimum System Requirements for RotoDV

  • Power Macintosh with a 604, G3 or G4 processor
  • 128MB of RAM
  • 24-bit graphics capability
  • Available hard disk capacity to store source and output video.
  • Mac OS 8.5, 8.6.
  • QuickTime 3.0 or later.

Recommended Optional Equipment/Software

  • 256MB to 1GB of RAM for extended realtime playback
  • High resolution accelerated graphics capability
  • Large, fast hard drive for increased storage and improved performance
  • QuickTime-based editing software, such as Digital Origin EditDV
  • Drawing tablet (Wacom or compatible)

Click the image above to see a 1.9MB QuickTime file that was enhanced with RotoDV


Erik Holsinger is Digital Media Online's video producer, animator, what-dya-need-now? production guy who has been living, breathing, and spewing digital media for more than 12 years. You can reach out and touch him at [email protected]