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Stunning Short Film About WWII Spying Reinvents Low-Tech Animation

“The Thomas Beale Cipher,” an award-winning short film, updates a classic animation technique to make paper cutouts move as fluidly as live-action footage.

Stunning Short Film About WWII Spying Reinvents Low-Tech Animation

What do Disney’s Snow White, the “Take On Me” music video, and those irritating Charles Schwab TV ads have in common? They each employ “rotoscoping,” an animation technique first invented in 1915 that produces silky, lifelike movement by literally hand-drawing frames of live action footage.

Thanks to computer-assisted animations like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, rotoscoping nowadays feels slick and futuristic — but the award-winning short film “The Thomas Beale Cipher” has taken the effect in a stunning, delightfully retro direction. It looks like “South Park” crossed with Scorsese:

“The Thomas Beale Cipher” tells the “true legend” of a fictional World War II codebreaker who gets roped into intrigues surrounding the eponymous cipher — “a century-old riddle hiding the location of a fortune in gold that has tormented its pursuers since inception.” The Beale ciphers are real, but may have been an elaborate hoax. No matter: the film’s ingenious rotoscoped animation — created by a cadre of graphic designers-turned-animators — creates an immersive “tweed noir” world out of what looks like old newspaper clippings, scratched filmstrips, and scraps of vintage clothing.


Director Andrew S. Allen conceived the look of the film with a friend “who’s into old school graphic design and printmaking — very hands-on, analog work,” he tells Co.Design. Over the course of six weeks, the two experimented with various fabric textures (found from secondhand shops) and photo-cutouts (“the eyes took a while to get right, to figure out how to sell the emotion of the characters without looking hokey or creepy,” says Allen).

Although Allen did employ digital techniques “for economics’ sake,” all the animation is rotoscoped by hand, frame by frame, over live action footage Allen shot of his actors (in costume, no less!). “I was the most experienced animator on the film, working with three or or four others, all graphic designers,” Allen says. “The rotoscope technique was my way of getting them into the process of animating, without them necessarily knowing all the technical fundamentals.”


The filmmakers’ design taste is impeccable on its own, but paired with their innovative animation — which transforms flat shapes into eerily lifelike characters whose photo-cutout eyes dart and flicker behind subtle lighting effects in tense “handheld shots” — the film feels like some kind of supernatural masterpiece.

Here’s the ten minute film in its entirety. Once you enter its expertly designed world, you won’t be able to look away.

[Read more at Short of The Week]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.