Just Drawn That Way: The making of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"
“In a way, what you feel when you see a movie like this is more than appreciation. It’s gratitude. You know how easy it is to make dumb, no-brainer action movies, and how incredibly hard it is to make a movie like this, where every minute of screen time can take days or weeks of work by the animators. You’re glad they went to the trouble.” — Roger Ebert
“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,” purrs Jessica Rabbit as she coquettishly looks over her shoulder at the half-naked Eddie Valiant, who had just told her how difficult it is to be a man looking at a woman who looks like her. And even though the kids probably didn’t get that, adults watching the moment unfold on screen in the 1988 live-action/animated comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit? cracked a smile. How could they not? The cheeky film, one that is intended for universal audiences instead of any particular age group, is a masterclass in spicy zingers.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, produced by Frank Marshall and Robert Watts, and loosely adapted by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman from Gary K. Wolf's 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, the movie is an absolute, undeniable, and uncontested gem. But before we got the final version of the film, there were a number of adaptations that could have made it totally different. Can you imagine Chevy Chase playing Eddie Valiant instead of the legendary Bob Hoskins (1942 - 2014)? Or Sting playing Judge Doom instead of Christopher Lloyd?
There are a number of differences between the film and the book. For one, the novel is set in the 1980s, around the time of its publication. Taking place in a world where people and comic strip characters — such as Dick Tracy, Snoopy, Dagwood and Blondie Bumstead, Beetle Bailey, and Hägar the Horrible — coexist. Though most “toon" characters have word balloons appear above their heads as they talk, a feature that sets up important plot points in the book, some have learned to suppress their word balloons and speak vocally.
But toons also have the power to create temporary copies of themselves, who serve as stunt doubles for risky shoots that generally last a few minutes to a few hours before disintegrating. In the book, Roger creates one that lasts two days, which is crucial to the plot of the novel but is absolutely irrelevant to the plot of the film. Interestingly, while toons can be killed in the book, the movie suggests they are basically invincible, with the noxious chemical "dip" — made up of turpentine, benzene and acetone (all paint thinners) — being the only thing to take out a toon, except for dying of laughter.
So how did the film and the book become so different? It’s hard to say at what point the deviation became pragmatic rather than creative, but to make a film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? at the time that it was made means the team behind it had to get creative. Given the technology of the day, and the scope of the project, certain creative choices had to be made out of practicality. As Roger Ebert wrote back in 1988: “They have to make a good movie while inventing new technology at the same time.” But, it’s best to start at the beginning.
Walt Disney Productions purchased the rights to the film shortly after the book’s publication in 1981. Ron W. Miller (1933 - 2019), president of Disney from 1980 to 1984, saw it as a perfect opportunity to produce a blockbuster. While the studio’s chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who later co-founded Dreamworks, argued that the hybrid of live-action and animation would "save" Disney's animation department. Both were right. The success of the film launched the Disney Renaissance and modern American animation as we know it today.
It all started with the test footage developed by Disney and their then-animation director Darrell Van Citters between 1981 and 1983, with Paul Reubens voicing Roger Rabbit, Russi Taylor (1944 - 2019) as Jessica Rabbit, and Peter Renaday playing Eddie Valiant. It was successful and the studio wanted to proceed, so it hired Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman to write the script in 1983. The story, however, wasn’t coming together in the way they had hoped. So the studio decided to give the guys a bit of time off while it figured out some of the logistical details.
Realizing that the movie was headed towards a dead end, the studio decided to make a major shift in 1985. To revamp the project, the then-new CEO of Disney Michael Eisner, who ran the company from 1984 to 2005, brought in executive producer Steven Spielberg and his production company to work on the movie. Given the massive success of E.T. (1982), Spielberg's contract included an extensive amount of creative control and a large percentage of the box-office profits, though Disney kept all of the merchandising rights.
You get what you pay for. Spielberg managed to convince Warner Bros., Fleischer Studios, King Features Syndicate, Felix the Cat Productions, Turner Entertainment, and Universal Pictures/Walter Lantz Productions to "lend" their characters for the film, but some had stipulations regarding the portrayal of said characters. Disney’s Donald Duck and Warner Bros.' Daffy Duck, for example, had to be equally talented though dueling pianists. Interestingly, some of the original Looney Tunes voice artists were hired to reprise their roles.
We know that Robert Zemeckis ultimately directed the film, but his involvement wasn’t immediately welcomed. Though he first offered his services in 1982, Disney declined as his two previous films didn’t do well. Instead, the honor was offered to Terry Gilliam who declined out of "pure laziness” on his part, who later admitted to completely regretting that decision. By 1985, Zemeckis had released Romancing the Stone (1984) and Back to the Future (1985), putting him back into Disney’s good graces, and so they brought him onto the project.
Price and Seaman were brought aboard to continue writing the script once Spielberg and Zemeckis were hired. Their main creative challenge was finding the right villain. They explored making either Baby Herman and Jessica Rabbit the culprits before deciding on Judge Doom, a newly created character who was, allegedly, the hunter that shot Bambi’s mother. He was supposed to be accompanied by an animated vulture and a suitcase of 12 small kangaroos that acted as a jury, with a knack for dealing out guilty verdicts, but the costs were much too high.
For inspiration, the co-writers studied the work of Walt Disney (1901 - 1966) as well as Warner Bros. Cartoons from the Golden Age of American Animation, The Toon Patrol — made up of Stupid, Smart Ass, Greasy, Wheezy, and Psycho, with Slimey and Sleazy written out — satirizes the Seven Dwarfs. The Cloverleaf streetcar subplot was inspired by Chinatown (1974); it parallels the real-life General Motors streetcar conspiracy that saw an alliance of companies scheming to bring down Los Angeles’ rail network in favor of buses and automobiles.
Harrison Ford, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams (1951 - 2014), Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, Wallace Shawn, Ed Harris, Charles Grodin, Chevy Chase, and Don Lane were all considered for the role of Eddie Valiant, before finally landing on Bob Hoskins. To facilitate his performance, Charles Fleischer — who voiced Roger Rabbit, along with Benny the Cab, Psycho, and Greasy — dressed in a Roger Rabbit costume and "stood in" behind camera for most scenes.
As a matter of fact, “Fleischer was so devoted to his role as the animated title character that he asked the costume department to create a full-body Roger Rabbit suit for him to wear on set.” That’s right, apparently “Fleischer delivered all of his lines from inside the suit, claiming that it helped both him and costar Hoskins immerse within the fantastical world of the film (even though Fleischer admits that Hoskins initially thought he was out of his mind).” Really, though, he probably really wanted to try out a costume he’d otherwise have no reason to wear.
Casting Judge Doom was also a long process. Tim Curry originally auditioned for the role but the producers found him too terrifying, John Cleese was deemed not scary enough, and Christopher Lee (1922 - 2015) turned down the part. Peter O'Toole (1932 - 2013), F. Murray Abraham, Roddy McDowall (1928 - 1998), Eddie Deezen and Sting were also considered for the role, before the part went to Christopher Lloyd. Having played Klingon commander Kruge in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, he thought being the bad guy would be "fun to play."
Animator Richard Williams (1933 - 2019) was hired to supervise the animation sequences but, having a negative view of Hollywood bureaucracy, he refused to work in Los Angeles. So, production was moved to England’s Elstree Studios to accommodate him and his team of animators. Williams explained that Roger was a combination of "Tex Avery's cashew nut-shaped head, the swatch of red hair... like Droopy's, Goofy's overalls, Porky Pig's bow tie, Mickey Mouse's gloves, and Bugs Bunny-like cheeks and ears.”
To photograph the live-action scenes, which would then be composited with animation, the filmmakers used VistaVision cameras installed with motion-control technology. They also used rubber mannequins of Roger Rabbit, Baby Herman, and the Toon Patrol during rehearsals, so that the actors knew where to look when acting with "open air and imaginative cartoon characters." Similarly, many of the live-action props held by cartoon characters were shot on set with the props either held by robotic arms or manipulated with strings, like marionettes.
Since the film was made before computer animation and digital compositing became the norm, all of the film’s animation was created using cells and optical compositing. To get the process started, both the animators and the layout artists were given black-and-white printouts of the live-action scenes, otherwise known as "photo stats,” over which they placed their animation paper. The artists would then draw the animated characters in relation to the live-action footage.
After the completion of rough animation, the footage was traditionally animated until the cells were shot on the rostrum camera with no background. The animated footage was then sent to Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) for compositing, where technicians animated the shadows, highlights, and tone mattes on three separate lighting layers to make the cartoon characters look three-dimensional. Lastly, the lighting effects were optically composited on to the cartoon characters, who were then composited into the live-action footage.
“Roger Rabbit and his cartoon comrades cast real shadows. They shake the hands and grab the coats and rattle the teeth of real actors,” enthusiastically wrote Roger Ebert. “They change size and dimension and perspective as they move through a scene, and the camera isn’t locked down in one place to make it easy, either — the camera in this movie moves around like it’s in a 1940s thriller — and the cartoon characters look three-dimensional and seem to be occupying real space.”
The film score was provided by regular Zemeckis collaborator Alan Silvestri, which was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), though the music themes for Jessica Rabbit (who voiced the character but was uncredited for doing so) were entirely improvised. Not that audiences paid attention to the music when the siren sang and strutted at the nightclub, which was actually one of the most difficult effects in the film due to flashing sequins, which was accomplished by filtering light through a plastic bag scratched with steel wool.
When the groundbreaking film finally premiered, it received near-universal acclaim. Critics praised its visuals, humor, writing and performances. It grossed $329.8 million worldwide, won three Academy Awards — for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Visual Effects and received a Special Achievement Academy Award for its animation direction by Williams — and was eventually selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
And that’s an honor Who Framed Roger Rabbit? certainly deserves! Not bad for a movie that features just two original lines of dialogue from its source material: “I’m not bad, Mr. Valiant. I’m just drawn that way,” spoken by Jessica Rabbit in that iconic scene, and "I've got a 50-year-old lust and a 3-year-old dinky," uttered by Baby Herman in the opening short featured in the movie. As Ebert put it: “When a stunt goes wrong and the cartoon “baby” stalks off the set and lights a cigar and tells the human director to go to hell, we know we’re in a new and special universe.”
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