Who Framed Roger Rabbit stunned audiences in 1988 with its groundbreaking blend of live action and animation. To mark its anniversary, Layla Cummins goes behind the scenes to bring us the story of a classic, and the team who brought Roger to life.
If there’s anything that gets a child’s imagination going it’s the magical combination of live-action with animation, seamlessly blended to create as much suspended disbelief as possible. If you ever enjoyed a moment of idle fantasy in which you wondered what life would be like if cartoons were real, then naturally the zany and occasionally raunchy antics of the toons in Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) was going to work for you. Thirty-two years after its release, the film’s animated scenes still stand up, but who was behind the painstaking animated work in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and what did it take to put our favourite characters on the big screen?
All of the animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit was done by hand, an impressive feat by any standards.
Impressively, there is no computer-generated trickery – all of the animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit was done by hand, an impressive feat by any standards. At the time, the complex animated scenes shattered expectations of what animation could do and the film even generated its own industry phrase to express going above and beyond the creative call of duty – “Bumping the lamp,” comes from the scene where Eddie hits his head on a low-hanging lamp while handcuffed to Roger. As the swinging light throws shadows around the entire room, the animators went the extra mile and incorporated multiple frames of light and shadow into Roger’s design – a huge amount of work that few people outside the industry would even notice. Disney had made combined live-action and animation feature-length movies before, including Mary Poppins (1964) and Pete’s Dragon (1977), but no one had managed to capture the unique charm of cartoons, the grittiness of ’40s crime noir plus the overall realism seen in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The introduction scene to Jessica Rabbit is a masterclass in blending live action and animation.
The team of animators behind the film were inspired by the early ’30s and ’40s Warner Bros. cartoons and the stark urban sets featured in films like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Chinatown (1974). Warner Bros. animator Tex Avery (a legend of the “Golden Age” ’40s and ’50s animation) was another source of inspiration. In Something’s Cookin’, the cartoon short that opens the movie (itself a throwback to the cartoon pre-features in early theatres), Roger’s eye-popping and jaw-dropping reaction to Baby Hermann’s escape is done in classic Tex Avery style and signals the start of a comic cause-and-effect sequence popularised by silent film icons such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Other touches, like the animated reflection in the wooden floor, were almost unheard of due to the extra time (and, therefore, cost) of animating these frames.
Zemeckis and Warner Bros. willingness to spend big was a huge part of the quality of the animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit given the complexity of all the different elements. Jessica Rabbit’s performance at the Ink and Paint Club is memorable for many reasons, but few people know that the design of her skin, hair, and dress were all separately animated, with at least three different layers to create the sparkling effect on her dress. At the request of Robert Zemeckis, London-based animator Richard Williams became the (albeit reluctant) Director of Animation on the film, and was the driving force behind many of the innovative techniques used throughout. Williams broke all the rules when it came to Roger; he insisted on extreme use of light and shadow to give the character depth, and wanted the toons to interact with objects and people around them as much as possible to trick the viewer into believing the toons were there in the physical space. The animation department also had to draw their creations in situ with the movement of the camera for added realism, making it appear as though the figures weren’t simply painted on to the background.
The trailer promised what was to come, and is still stunning today.
With an original animation budget of roughly $27.5 million, the finished product ended up costing a whopping $45 million, making Roger the most expensive movie of its time. Much of this was down to the post-production animation, which took 326 artists plus support staff two years to complete. Thanks to the film, there was a surge in popularity of complicated, natural-looking animation, and a succession of television adverts, attempting to combine animation with live-action techniques from the movie, sprang into life. The popularity of of Something’s Cookin’ led to three more Roger cartoons: Rollercoaster Rabbit, Trail Mix Up and Tummy Troubles. All three were animated to the high standards of their feature-length predecessor and Tummy Troubles made its debut in 1989, appearing in theatres before Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.
With so many pens in the inkwell, Who Framed Roger Rabbit could have suffered from an oversaturation of talent. Luckily for toon-hungry kids and adults, though, it swung the other way and the film nabbed Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects, Best Editing and Best Sound Editing, creating an instant cult classic that can be enjoyed by multiple generations. So next time you watch, keep your eyes peeled and your ears to the ground knowing exactly why no one else has ever managed to get the drop on the magic of Roger Rabbit.