Hammerhead Productions' roto program is a simple and easy to use, yet complete, spline-based rotoscoping program.  We've used it for hundreds of shots, and our customers have used it for thousands more; and it has served us very well.

The program has a spectacular unique feature, in that it generates motion-blurred rotos. Nothing gives away bad compositing more quickly, to me, than hard-edges strobing elements. Some rotoscoping programs allow the user to specify the region of blur along the edge, but this program computes the correct motion blur automatically; usually yielding very clean, seamless composites.

The basic theme of this program is that the user creates keyframes of spline curves that define a region of the image, and the program cuts these regions, or elements, off the background.  The result is either an RGBA image, an alpha-only image, or just the curves themselves.

Here's the complete usage message for the program, although most often the program is simply invoked as roto You can always get a copy of the current usage message by typing "roto -"

usage:  roto [-source prefix] [-o output_prefix ] [-a minframe -z maxframe -s step]
            [-V # # # #] [-cineon] [-tiff] [-track] [-reticle x0 y0 x1 y1]
which:  edits roto paths and calculates roto images
where:   prefix         is the root name of the raster images        is the multipath file that stores track information
        output_prefix  specifies the output prefix, for batch computation
        -tiff          output tiff files, rather than SGI files
        -cineon        output cineon files, rather than SGI files       2D tracking file generated by ras_track
        x0 y0 x1 y1    reticle corners.  Toggle reticle with '[' key


We now use Hammerhead's own public-key based licensing scheme for roto.  The first time you run it, it prints the hh_id number for your machine.  Sending that to 'thad' at '' will cause a key to be sent back to you.  The numbers in the key should be put in the file /usr/hammerhead/license/roto_key

Image controls

The current frame is always displayed. It can be panned and zoomed with the following commands.

Main Panel

The roto program has a familiar looking graphic user interface of buttons, sliders, radio buttons, and text input areas. This main panel is displayed at all times, and is the principal interface to the program.

Typically, as the program is run, you will go to the first frame of the sequence, and create a new path with the New button. A path is a spline curve drawn over the image, and is the basic component of the roto program. A path has a name, and has keys at various frames throughout the sequence. A path is made up of control points, these define and control the shape of the curve.  Once the New button is selected, the user indicates points along the edge that they want to rotoscope by repeatedly hitting the left mouse button. It takes a little time and judgment to determine how many points are required to define an accurate edge; more points are better, but they take time to create, and make the subsequent frames harder to create.

Point can be moved at any time with the middle-mouse button. The mnemonic I use is "mmmiddle - mmmmove". Points can be moved while in the middle of creating a path, just go back and move them with the middle-mouse button. The whole path can be moved by holding the shift key, and dragging with the middle mouse button.

Once a path is created, it's name can be changed simply by editing the Path text-input field. The names in the Path names field are sorted in alphabetical order.

The radio button under the Path field contains entries for

The Pick button allows the user to select a path from the screen. The Pick mode is the default mode that the program returns to in many cases; for instance, after deleting the current path.

The Rotate button causes a rotate center to appear. Hitting the left-mouse button on the center allows you to drag the rotate center to a new position, hitting anywhere else causes the current path to rotate around that center.

The Scale button displays a scale handlebox around the current path. You can drag on the arrows or corners of the box to rescale the path.  Holding the Shift key down causes the path to be scaled proportionally.

The Interval.. button displays the Interval panel.

The Resample... button displays the Resample panel, allowing the current path or interval to be subdivided into more or fewer points.

The Delete button deletes the current path. This is undo-able, but still, be careful with it!

The Undo button undoes the last supported operation.  Almost everything is undo-able, except for Save and a few other operations. Still, only one level of undo is supported, so be careful. Particularly useful is undoing the movement of a path, when you intended to pan the image.

The Subview... button displays the Subviewport panel, allowing you to specify just a small portion of the image. Only this small part is read from disk too; which can be dramatically faster than reading the whole image.

The Save... button saves the data file.

The Preview... button displays the Preview panel, enabling real-time display of the roto curves or regions.

The Quit button quits the program. If you haven't saved since you made a change, it prompts you to do so.

The Generate... button displays the Generate panel, enabling the calculation of the roto'd images.

The Key toggle specifies whether the current frame is a key for the current path. Toggling this on causes the current path to have a key interpolated and created at the current frame. Toggling this off destroys the key, and the path reverts to the interpolated position based on the keys around it. If this is done by accident, the Undo button will put the key back.

The Interior button specifies that the current path is a hole, not part of the region. Any path can be an interior path, and these cut holes in the regions defined by the other paths. Interior paths are drawn as dotted lines in the raster window.

The Closed button specifies that the current path is closed. Now, probably all paths should be closed; and it's a common technique when using the program to add points, one after the other, until done; then hit the Closed button to terminate the path. The roto program is used at Hammerhead for input to a wide variety of other tools (such as wire-removal, and line drawing) that don't need closed paths, so that is why there is an option for them to not be closed. If you don't specify them as closed in roto, when it becomes time to generate the roto region; a straight line will be used to connect the endpoints of the curve.

The Break button specifies whether the current point is a break point or not.  If it is a break point, then the curve is not smooth through that point; but can change directions abruptly. Also, path types (defined immediately below) are define between break points.

The Point type radio buttons have four possibilities:

Bezier curves are by far the most complicated and general curve types. A bezier curve has a position, and tangent specification at each control point. Personally, I find them confusing.

Linear curves are piece-wise straight lines.

Pblend curves are also called Catmull-Rom or Cardinal splines, depending on what college you went to. They are interpolating cubic curves; that is, they go through the control points. They occasionally overshoot the control points (an inherent problem with interpolating curves) but are reasonably easy to control.

Bspline curves are my personal favorite.  They do not interpolate the control points, but are very smooth.

For both Pblend and Bspline curves, the only control you have over the sharpness of a corner is how close together you place the control points.

The Show radio buttons has three possibilities:

The Image mode is by far the most common mode. It displays the original image, with the paths drawn on top of it. The Matte mode displays a black-and-white image of the computed roto regions. The Roto mode displays the Matte image multiplied by the original image, over an optional background.  Both the Matte and Roto modes are reasonably slow, as they have to render the mattes before the images are displayed. While they are rendering, the title of the window reflects what is happening.

The Blur slider determines the amount of blur that a path has.  Each path can have a different amount of blur; this is typically done in a case where you are roto-ing a person. The hair might have a blur of 5, where the rest of the body might have a blur of 2. The blur gives a softness to the matte, sometimes helping the image fit into the background more smoothly. The blur can be either Out, Mid, or In. In the Mid case, the default, the blur is centered on the path; where in the Out case the blur is outside the path, and in the In case it is inside the path. These blurs are all computed by blurring the matte; so sometimes thin features don't look like you want them to. It takes practice with the program to get everything exactly like you want.

The Key double-arrow buttons change the frame to be the previous or next key for the current path.

The Frame slider allows selection of the current frame. The arrow keys advance one frame at a time (this can be painful if the pictures are large) and the text-input field allows direct typing of the frame number.

The Motion blur... button displays the Motion blur panel. This enables a unique feature of the Hammerhead roto program; motion blurred rotos.

The Step double arrow keys advance a specified number of frames.  This is useful to step through a sequence in large jumps, then refining the roto inbetween these keys on a second, and then a third pass.

The Logo shows you what company made the software; just in case you ever forget.

Source panel

When the program is started with no arguments, it displays the source panel. In this panel, you have to type the name of the data file to store the curves, and the prefix of the images.

Traditionally, we use the .mp (for multipath) extension for our datafiles; specifying that there are multiple paths, of potential different types, within the datafile.  The file is a binary file, for compactness and speed; although there are programs to print it out.  The library is available with the roto program, so that you can write your own programs to interpret and edit the multipath files.

The image prefix typically has a dot at the end. For example, if the names of your files are hero.1.rgb, hero.2.rgb, ..., hero.39.rgb then the prefix would be hero. and not simply hero

Each of these text entry fields has a browser, so that you can search for the datafile or images. When selecting an image prefix with the browser, simply click on any of the frame names; the browser will extract the prefix from the full name.

The frame range is specified in the lower text-entry fields.

A very common usage of the source panel is the following. Say you've created a multipath file containing the roto of a sequence; called You can re-start roto now simply by typing

% roto

But, now say that you want to apply those roto curves to a different sequence of frames. Just type

% roto

Then type into the paths field, and type the new prefix into the Prefix field, and you'll be all set.

Interval panel

The interval panel allows selection of a sub-interval of the current curve. This sub-interval can be moved (with the shift-middle-mouse combination), scaled, rotated, or resampled.

Simply point to the beginning and end of the sequence once the interval panel appears. Sometimes you'll get the order backwards (well, sometimes the program does; it's hard to lay blame here!) but hitting the Invert button will select the other half.

Hitting the Whole button selects the whole curve once again.

Resample panel

The Resample panel allows the number of points in a path or a sub-interval to be changed.  Typically this is done when, once you go to a later frame, you find that you need more detail than you thought at first. Select the interval that needs more detail with the Interval panel, then choose a new number of points and hit Ok.

The Reinterpolate range... button is used to re-interpolate keys between two keys.

Reinterpolate range panel

The Reinterpolate range panel is used to re-interpolate keys in a region of frames. Sometimes you really want to start all over, and decide to do things differently. You can force a set of keys to be interpolated linearly from between two frame ranges with this panel. Simply type the first and last frame numbers of the frame interval to be reinterpolated, and hit Ok.

Generate panel

The Generate Panel creates the images. You need to specify the frame range, the prefix for the created paths, and whether to render them over black, over the background, or as alpha only (single-channel) images.

Background panel

The roto program can generate the roto images over a background. By default, it uses a black background, but you can specify it as gray or white as well. Alternatively; you can specify an image, or a sequence of images. If you specify a sequence, the program will do the composite internally when the roto button is hit, and show you what the final composite will look like.

Occasionally the background command will not take effect immediately...I'm working on that.

Motion blur panel

This program optionally generates motion-blurred rotos. The roto program generates motion-blurred mattes by rendering many sub-frames, and averaging them together.

The Exposure time is the length of time that the image is blurred. .5, the default means that it's blurred over one-half of a frame time. This is almost certainly the correct value to use (Most movie cameras use 180 degree shutters, exposing the film for one-half of the frame time)

The Number of samples determines how many sub-frames are rendered. More is better, but takes longer. If you can see distinct double-images in the mattes that are generated, you probably need to increase this value.

Typically the Motion blur enabled button is left off during development, because it slows down rendering so much. It is easy to forget to re-enable it before generating the rotos...try not to do that!

Preview panel

The preview panel allows you to display the roto over time. It generates either line-drawings or rendered black-and-white 1-bit images, and then plays them back in real time.

The Wireframe/Solid radio button indicates whether you want line drawings or filled regions.  The line drawings are faster, and somewhat cleaner; in that the filled regions are dithered to one-bit images and get a little ratty along the edge.

The FPS buttons change the speed of playback. The program assumes that your screen is running at 72 Hz, if it is running at a different rate than the playback speed will be slightly off.

The Generate button starts generation of the flipbook, once it is done, you can hit the Play button to play back the animation.

Subviewport panel

You can specify a subviewport to read and display.  This can be much faster than reading and displaying the whole image, especially for film size images.

And that's it! Again, we've found this program to be fun, fast, easy to learn and to teach. I could have a whole section on compositing philosophy here; but let me just say that we find hand rotoscoping to be cheaper and better than blue-screen compositing in almost all circumstances. Think about it...

Hotkey summary

There are a few hot-keys in roto, used to speed up some operations.  These are listed below.

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