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Among the summer blockbusters of the 1980s, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) stands out as a true original - audacious in concept, and bursting with ideas and innovation. Robert Zemeckis' film felt like something entirely new upon release, and because of the painstaking, hand-crafted animation and effects employed, and the unheard-of cooperation between studios, it remains a unique movie experience to this day.
Shortly after its publication, Walt Disney Pictures bought the film rights to the 1981 novel, Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, by Gary K. Wolf. The book is set in modern day, and Roger is the star of a newspaper comic strip. He and his comic strip friends exist three-dimensionally in the real world, their word balloons visible above their heads when they speak. Early in Disney's script development, the concept was changed to cartoon characters living amongst humans. Director Robert Zemeckis was shown a draft of the script in 1982; he was enthusiastic, but the Disney regime of the time backed off due to budgetary concerns. Steven Spielberg later saw the script and arranged for his production company, Amblin Entertainment, to co-produce the film with Disney, and bring Zemeckis in as director. Zemeckis turned the story into a period piece, specifically setting it in 1947. As he told Animation Magazine, "I had three reasons for that change: First, that it would make it timeless, second, it would help suspend the disbelief that this was happening in a 'Once upon a time' era; and third, I couldn't figure out how you could mix the different styles of animation, so I felt we had to draw the line before the era of television."
Zemeckis brought in scriptwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman to knock the story into shape. In 1947 Hollywood, "Toon" star Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) is having trouble concentrating on his work. His boss, R. K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) hires a down-and-out private detective named Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to tail Roger's wife, Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner). The Toons, who are a carefree bunch with an "anything for a laugh" attitude, live in a segregated area near Hollywood called Toontown. Eddie hates Toons because he had to patrol Toontown when he was a cop; his brother was killed there when a Toon dropped a safe on his head. Tailing Jessica, Eddie discovers that she indeed seems to be "playing patty cake" with a human, Marvin Acme, a prop-supplier for the cartoon industry. When Acme is later found dead (a safe has been dropped on his head), Roger seems to be the natural suspect. Roger has been framed, though, and Eddie agrees to help him clear his name, uncovering a complex plot which involves larger economic and political forces and a plan to eliminate Los Angeles' trolley-car transit system. With its unique blending of Film Noir and golden age cartoons, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the only movie that can be unhesitatingly mentioned in the same breath as both Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) and Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood (1943)!
Early in pre-production it was realized that there would be an enormous amount of animation required for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, much more than in any previous mixture of cartoons and live-action. The task would also require an expert animation director, someone capable of handling the unique requirements of the type of perspective changes seen in live-action photography. Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones had been brought on as a consultant for the picture by his friend Spielberg, and he recommended a Canadian animator working in England, Richard Williams. Jones and Williams had worked together on an Oscar-winning animated version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1971). Spielberg and Zemeckis screened footage from Williams' unfinished feature film The Thief and the Cobbler, and were floored by the animator's obvious technical skills. The plan was to shoot all of the live-action footage first, then have Williams and his team in England laboriously animate the "Toon" characters. The final animation, on sheets of celluloid (cels), was flat colors; another layer of cels, called shadow mattes, indicated shadows on the characters. The final compositing of live-action and animation was done by the effects artists at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), headed by Ken Ralston. There, the hand-drawn shadow mattes were used to create three-dimensional shading on the cartoon characters. All of this was accomplished optically, as was the norm in the days before computer-generated graphics. To minimize any degrading of the image, the live-action portions of the effects shots were filmed in large format VistaVision.
Richard Williams had his own drawing style, but for Who Framed Roger Rabbit he took his cue from Zemeckis. As Williams told Animation Magazine shortly after the film opened, "Bob Zemeckis loves [cartoon directors Tex] Avery and [Bob] Clampett. He told me he wanted three things: Disney articulation, i.e., believability, weight, skill of movement and sincerity when we needed it; Warner Bros. characters, because they're zanier, they do more interesting things; and Avery humor, but not so brutal." Williams also spoke of the reasoning behind the design of the lead character: "Roger has that Tex Avery cashew nut shaped head, the swatch of red hair is like Droopy's, Oswald the Rabbit's overalls, Porky Pig's bow tie, Freddy Moore's Mickey Mouse gloves, and he's the color of an American flag."
Every scene in which live actors interacted with cartoons was filmed in full twice. A reference take for each shot was filmed with large foam-rubber stand-ins for each cartoon character, manipulated in rough poses by puppeteers. The stand-ins were a solid, light color so that the on-set shadows could later be observed and replicated by the ILM artists. Comedian Charles Fleischer was cast as the voice of Roger, and in a very unusual move, he was present on the set during the main live-action filming. While Bob Hoskins was performing a scene with thin air, Fleischer would deliver his lines - dressed in a makeshift rabbit suit, no less - offstage for Hoskins' benefit.
The actors - British-born Hoskins in particular - had to be unusually adept at performing with invisible costars. In his book The Animator's Survival Kit Williams said, "One day animator Simon Wells came to me and said 'We've got a problem - Hoskins is looking at a 6 foot high rabbit - what do we do?' He was right. Hoskins had temporarily lapsed and was looking and talking to a wall about 6 feet off the ground. I thought, 'Well, the rabbit's got these huge feet - let's just stretch him up on his toes against the wall.' 'For no reason?' 'What else are we going to do? The rabbit's neurotic - it should work.' They even used the shot in the promotional trailers and no one ever questioned it."
One of the most delightful aspects of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the unprecedented number of cartoon characters who make cameo appearances. There are a full range of Disney stars (Mickey Mouse, Dumbo, Goofy) and supporting players (the Big Bad Wolf, The Reluctant Dragon, the broomsticks from Fantasia 1940), of course, but remarkably, there are a number of characters from other studios as well. Spielberg personally persuaded Warner Bros. executives to allow appearances by such stars as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and Yosemite Sam. For many cartoon buffs, the highlight of the movie is a scene in which Hoskins watches a nightclub act in which Donald Duck faces off in a piano duel with Daffy Duck. Also making appearances are characters from Fleischer Studios (Betty Boop and Koko the Clown), Universal Studios (Woody Woodpecker), and MGM (Droopy). For the most part, the original voice actors were also brought in for the roles: as she had in the 1930s, Mae Questel voiced Betty Boop, and the venerable Mel Blanc provided the voices for all of the Warner Bros. characters.
Reviews were almost universally enthusiastic, particularly of the technical innovation. In The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "[the] best moments are so novel, so deliriously funny and so crazily unexpected that they truly must be seen to be believed." Desson Howe of the Washington Post said, "If you don't like 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit,' have your pulse checked. Robert Zemeckis' multi-dimensional free-for-all, where cartoon figures bump, quip and cavort with flesh-and-blood characters, is not only a technical tour de force, it crackles with entertainment." Who Framed Roger Rabbit was one of the most expensive of the era, with a cost estimated at $70 million. The gamble paid off for Disney and Amblin, as the film was a worldwide box-office hit.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a landmark movie to those in the animation industry. It came as a much-needed shot in the arm at a time when TV cartoons had reached a low point and feature-length animated films were bombing at the box office. Soon after the feature was released, The Simpsons and The Ren & Stimpy Show reinvigorated TV animation, while Disney saw such theatrical hits as The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991). Who Framed Roger Rabbit is invariably credited with starting the "animation boom" of the period.
Producer: Frank Marshall, Robert Watts
Executive Producer: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Animation Director: Richard Williams
Screenplay: Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman
Story: Gary K. Wolf (novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?)
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Film Editing: Arthur Schmidt
Music: Alan Silvestri
Production Design: Roger Cain, Elliot Scott
Costume Design: Joanna Johnston
Cast: Bob Hoskins (Eddie Valiant), Christopher Lloyd (Baron von Rotton/ Judge Doom), Charles Fleischer (voice of Roger Rabbit), Joanna Cassidy (Dolores), Stubby Kaye (Marvin Acme), Alan Tilvern (R. K. Maroon), Kathleen Turner (voice of Jessica Rabbit), Amy Irving (singing voice of Jessica Rabbit), Mae Questel (voice of Betty Boop), Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird, Sylvester, Porky Pig).
by John M. Miller