Motherboard

How 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Pulled Off Its Incredible Visual Feats

“Is that a rabbit in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”

by Kevin Wong
Mar 24 2017, 11:00am

Who Framed Roger Rabbit gets added to Netflix today, March 24. The film, produced by Amblin Entertainment and Walt Disney Pictures in 1988, is close to 30 years old. Time passage has only increased its prestige; to this day, no other movie has matched its unique, Oscar-winning visual achievement—of combining live action actors with animated characters in a convincing manner.

There have been many attempts. Cool World (1992), for example, tried the same trick four years after Roger Rabbit, but was panned for its unconvincing toon/human interaction—ironic, since the movie's plot was based on toon/human sex. Space Jam made another attempt four years after that, with middling results.

Cool World couldn't quite match Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

What's the difference? It's what Disney animators call "bumping the lamp," a design ethos that film aficionado Kristian Williams elaborated upon in his video essay on Roger Rabbit:

"Bumping the lamp" refers to the scene in the back of Dolores' bar, where Eddie Valiant is sawing off the handcuffs that connect him to Roger Rabbit. During the entire scene, the ceiling lamp is swinging back and forth; Eddie bumps his head at the beginning of the sequence. In post-production, the animation team painstakingly shaded the cels, frame-by-frame, to line up with the 'real' shadows generated by the moving lamp. Watch the sequence, and appreciate how the light flickers, back and forth, across Roger's face.

This attention to detail kept visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston busy during every step of the filmmaking.

"Director Bob Zemeckis always had ideas," recalled Ralston in an interview with Motherboard. "And every time I heard this phrase—"You know what would be funny?"— I knew I was in deep shit. It would be way harder. But it would be way funnier too."

Ralston worked for George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic when Zemeckis enlisted his help. When Ralston met with Zemeckis for the first time in an Amblin conference room, he saw several character sculptures in the center of the table. Those sculptures gave Ralston the confidence to join the project.

"They were obviously patterned after the work of Tex Avery," recalled Ralston. "And Tex was someone I knew when I first started in the business making commercials. I understood the whole vision [of the film] in a split second."

Still funny.

As a director and animator, Avery was known for his liberal use of cartoon physics and sped-up sight gags. Rather than aspiring to realism, Avery famously reasoned, "In a cartoon, you can do anything." One can see his wisecracking influence on Looney Tunes; many of its famous characters, including Daffy Duck, were his invention. It would be Ralston's job to channel Avery's anarchic spirit into Roger Rabbit—to produce that same sort of edgy, outlandish visual humor in a pre-digital era.

Ralston worked with Zemeckis and the rest of the crew in pre-production to determine what was practical and possible. This was a fluid process; many times, what was planned beforehand would be thrown out once filming actually started. And during the filming and post-production, Ralston coordinated the efforts of:

  • The mechanical effects team (led by George Gibbs), which built servomotor-run machines to perform the toons' actions.
  • The puppet team (led by David Alan Barclay), which hovered stage props mid-air, allowing toons to interact with real world objects. The sets were built eight feet above the ground, giving the puppeteers somewhere to hide.
  • The animation team (led by Richard Williams), which drew the characters onto the film during post-production, thus completing the illusion.

The animation took over a year to complete. Some toons needed to appear to be in the foreground, and other toons needed to appear in the background. So the animators employed forced perspective to create the illusion of distance—even though, technically speaking, all of the toons were drawn on top of the film.

The mechanical team devised contraptions for the more complex sequences. Baby Herman's cigar, for example, was manipulated by a small robot placed into the baby carriage. An off-screen crew member wore an arm prosthetic that communicated with the robot, enabling 1-to-1, natural movement.

A similar robot was created for a sequence in Dolores' bar, where Roger Rabbit, in a effort to entertain the patrons, smashes a pile of plates over his head, one by one. Gibbs and his team created a mechanical contraption that smashed plates over itself. It picked up each plate individually by use of air suction.

Crafting these contraptions was a balancing act; the robot had to be strong enough to accomplish the task, yet small enough to remain hidden from view once the animators drew over it.

"Every shot," Ralston recalled, "was a different problem."

In the plates sequence, Ralston said, the main problem occurred during post-production. The animators needed to "create a hole" for each falling bit of broken plate, frame by frame, so it would fall in front of Roger's face instead of behind it. Below is the completed sequence—the result of hours upon hours of labor.

Would it have been easier to have Roger Rabbit bash cartoon plates over his head? Or have Baby Herman hold a cartoon cigar? Of course. It would have given the animators total control over their environment. But the animators chose the more difficult, rewarding path, which broke down the walls that separated toon from human.

"The more interaction [Roger had] with the real world, the better," said Ralston. "The more things that moved and fell, and more things that he bumped into and affected, the more you forgot [that he's drawn]. You accepted the fact that he was there."

"Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a really well-made movie, to be blunt," said Ralston. "Everyone gave it a thousand percent. Everyone was going at it full force."