Artist Aaron Sacco worked as an animator on the movie A Scanner Darkly. Here he shows you how to recreate the film’s signature ‘interpolated rotoscoping’ effect in Illustrator.

Recreating A Scanner Darkly

You can turn any photo into a dynamic illustration in the style of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly using just a Wacom tablet and Adobe Illustrator.

After working as an animator on the film, I developed the process outlined here for recreating this bold effect, using shapes of solid colour to represent a realistic image.

A Scanner Darkly, which stars Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder, used an animation technique called interpolated rotoscoping. Similar to rotoscoping, where each frame of film is painstakingly handpainted, interpolated rotoscoping uses vector keyframes and interpolates between keyframes automatically.

Each minute of animation in the movie required over 500 hours of work. For this tutorial, we’re not going to animate a sequence, but concentrate on one image, representing one frame.

The focus of the tutorial is to recreate the incredible, unique style of the movie through the use of colour and vectors. For an image of this complexity, you should expect to spend five to six hours illustrating it.

If you limit your colours and detail, you can spend less – but it’s worth putting in the extra effort. If you’re learning and experimenting, you can expect to spend much more. Be bold and have fun!

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Step 1
Choose a high-resolution image for photo reference. The larger the image, the more detail you will have to play with. Go to File>Place to insert it into your Illustrator file.

In the Layers palette, double-click the layer with the image; I name this layer ‘Reference’. Once you have locked that layer, you will be able to draw over the top without disturbing it. Click the Add New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette. I call this new layer ‘Inks’ and it should remain on top throughout the process.

Step 2
Press N or click the Pencil tool from the Tools palette and check that the Fill colour is Black and the Stroke colour is None. Adjust the Pencil tool’s settings by double-clicking the Pencil tool and change the Fidelity to 4 pixels, Smoothness to 35 per cent, and check both ‘Fill New Pencil Strokes’ and ‘Keep Selected’ boxes.

If you experience difficulty drawing a smooth shape, increase the Fidelity and Smoothness. If you’re losing detail or control, decrease those settings.