I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Movie Your Mid-American Mom Wouldn’t Let You Watch Growing Up: Who Framed Roger Rabbit

by Kollin Holtz
Aug. 4, 2013

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a 1988 animation/live action hybrid in the style of 1947 noir. It was a movie that relied on the old disciplines of hand drawn animation, traditional on set special effects and the art of dedication and patience (explaining why these last two are “old” would take too long). The three-year project required the expertise of many in the fields of animation, special effects, mime, puppeteering and more. For some, it’s that movie you had to watch at a friends house, and their parents would ask, “is your mom okay with that?” Then you’d lie, and tell them it was, because at the time there wasn’t much that was more exciting than seeing cartoons interacting with the real world.

The movie features a toon-hating, heavy drinking private detective named Eddie Valiant who ended up hating toons the day one of them killed his brother. Despite his animosity towards the zany creatures, he has a stronger motivation for discovering the truth, and decides to help Roger discover the real killer behind the murder he has been framed for. It’s a hard boiled detective story with the humor of a Tex Avery cartoon, the refinement of a Disney cartoon, and the well defined character of a Warner Bros. cartoon. “I thought it was a really good idea for a movie. A detective story with an irascible rabbit named Roger. And it just—I said this is a movie that I’d like to see. Obviously it’s not a movie we’re going to see overnight. This is going to take years to make. This is not going to be inexpensive. It’s going to take a long time, but if done right, it could be—I don’t want to say ‘breakthrough,’ but it could be something that no one’s ever seen before,” Steven Speilberg said on set. While others like the Fleisher Brothers (idols of animator Run Wrake) before had managed to bring animation into the real world, nothing to the extent of an entire movie had been attempted before. It was something everyone knew could be done, and it boiled down to having enough time and money to make it right.

Rotoscoping brings the believability of an animation in the real world to life, but boy… does it sound like the worst job ever. It’s the act of painting the cartoon onto the film, and into the space as we would perceive it in the real world. For example, if a cartoon character can be seen through some shrubbery, then it must be painted in-between each and every leaf and branch. The whole rotoscoping process is made easier today with the availability of various animation softwares, but back then it all had to be done by hand. Frame by frame. There was no green screen, and no computer generated graphics, because everything was ‘so analog’ back then. In sequences where the only character on screen was a cartoon interacting with the environment, there was no stand in. There was no one pretending to be the rabbit for the animators to paint over. All they had to go on were storyboards, whatever director Robert Zemeckis told them was happening, and what the special effects people had rigged up for them to animate to.

Special effects teams had to plan every item that moved to give the character weight and believability. If Roger jumped on a bed, there needed to be a depression on the mattress. If he fell in a toilet, there needed to be a splash. If he opened a window, the window needed to be rigged to open by itself so animators could put the character into that space.

Jessica Rabbit was modeled after actresses who played the sultry, femme fatales found in 40’s noir films. In the words of Richard Hall, the animator behind Jessica Rabbit, “It’s amazing what a man can do with a pencil, and a fertile imagination.” He is said to have been chain smoking in his office, waltzing about to feel how Jessica Rabbit would move before putting pen(cil?) to paper. Industrial Light and Magic added lighting effects to make it seem like the cartoons were in the same lighting environment as there human co-stars. It can be seen in the sparkles on Jessica’s dress, and in her silhouetted figure against the spotlight. According to Ken Ralston, a VFX Supervisor on the movie, there are more special effects shots in Who Framed Roger Rabbit than in Cocoon, Back To The Future, Star Trek’s I-III, and (“Probably…” he says) Empire Strikes Back combined. Most of the real items cartoons carried had their strings pulled by puppeteers from Jim Henson’s company, which was and is well known for the creation of the Muppets.

Nothing like this had been done before. It’s estimated that where cartoons were present in the frame, there were thousands of drawings per second. The focus for Speilberg and Zemeckis was to make people forget about the technical side of things, and to pull the audience into a familiar story with characters they could relate to. When watching the movie, it’s easy to lose oneself, but afterwards it’s fun to think about how they pulled it off, and how far the illusions of filmmaking have come since then. Who Framed Roger Rabbit stands as an homage to the best tropes of animation, a testament to technical prowess and stick-to-itiveness, and a great call back to a genre over half a century old.

Graham, Anissa. "MUPPET MATTERS: WHY WE STILL WATCH THE MUPPETS." Network Awesome. N.p., 19 05 2013. Web. 1 Aug. 2013. <http://networkawesome.com/mag/article/muppet-matters-why-we-still-watch-the-muppets/>.

Hall, Russell, ani. Who Framed Roger Rabbit: Russell Hall & Richard Williams Interviews. youtube.com/TheTheifArchive, 2010. Web. 2 Aug 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRnCArCidP4>.

Zemeckis, Robert, dir. Who Framed Roger Rabbit: Bob Zemeckis / Richard Williams Interview. youtube.com/TheTheifArchive, 2010. Web. 1 Aug 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siAby_GLQIg>.

Cassidy, Joanna, perf. Secrets of Toontown 1 (Making of Who Framed Roger Rabbit). youtube.com/TheTheifArchive, 2010. Web. 31 Jul 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TC65DdlF1zE>.

The Making of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. youtube.com/CKprimeval07, 2013. Web. 1 Aug 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ty4xkdBbnOk>.

Cassidy, Joanna, perf. Secrets of Toontown 2 (Making of Who Framed Roger Rabbit). youtube.com/TheTheifArchive, 2010. Web. 1 Aug 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAdk2KVug70&list=PLS8E9xkQNUJ7UjgpjPsGxEgQA_0X8Nn7b>.

Rotoscoping - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotoscoping

Hahn, Don, dir. Full Who Framed Roger Rabbit 25th anniversary panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2013. Perf. Charles Fleisher, Writ. Andreas Deja, et al. InsideTheMagic, 2013. Web. 1 Aug 2013. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYo5lOz8x1A>.

Kollin Holtz is a comedian, writer, and filmmaker living in a closet under the stairs in San Francisco, CA. Check out his website,www.kollinholtz.com for updates on his shows, and his podcast “Closet Talk With Kollin Holtz.” You may also follow him on twitter @KollinHoltz if ya fancy.