A rabbit toon in a real world! Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

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Previously on this blog we discussed about how cartoons and live action actors cohabits in the toon dream background of Mary Poppins.

20 years later – in 1988 – the Disney Studios won a new challenge making Roger Rabbit and the other citizens of Toontown interact with real actors in a real – not toon liked – world. As a result, we can consider it as three elaborate movies in one: a noir live-action movie, a feature-length animated movie and a special effects movie.

Who framed Roger Rabbit? won 3 Oscars and among them the Best Visual Effect Oscar.

The following paragraphs are a summary of some interviews to Ken Ralston, VFX Supervisor, Richard William, Director of Animation, and Dean Cundey, Director of Photography.

Interaction is the key

The challenge was that the movie could have a certain look that let you to believe that toons are actually in the shot with actors. The key of this is “Interaction”: Roger must be constantly and physically tied up with the actors and the world near him, in order to keep the illusion alive. That’s why the first test of live-action/animation compositing for the movie was a world interaction scene: Roger not simply goes downstairs but he falls and crashes some boxes on a thin can, let them noisy falling down.

Roger goes downstairs hitting a box on a thin can.

Roger goes downstairs hitting a box on a thin can.

A real toon… in a real world

During the shooting different techniques had been applied in order to help actors to imagine that the toon characters were actually just in front of them. They need something to focus on, some reference point because they’re just looking into the air. The risk was that they would seem to look through, instead to look at. So they started to shoot every scene with a doll, so that the actor could settle with the eye movement. They would then pick the dolls out and shooting without the dolls and then they checked them to see if the eye lines were the same.

Three different steps: a shot with a doll, one without it and the final result.

Three different steps: a shot with a doll, one without it and the final result.

The same approach was used when actors must pretend to take Roger Rabbit by the neck. You can feel that a 60 pound weight rabbit is exactly in the Eddie Valiant’s or Judge Doom’s hand, even if actually there is nothing in there.

The director Robert Zemeckis decided that also the actors scripted for being the voice of cartoons must be there on the set and they would give real time voice. Charles Fleischer, the voice of Roger, was on the set reacting to all movement that Bob Hopkins pretended to do on the white rabbit, projecting himself on the place of him. They would to emulate a situation in which there were two actors.

Moreover, Charlie, to be in character, wore Roger’s clothes, live acting outside the camera.

Charles Fleischer acting outside the camera in Roger's clothes.

Charles Fleischer acting outside the camera in Roger’s clothes.

Physical Effects

Every single shot in the film needed a physical interaction to cartoons’ movement on the set: whether minor, i.e. something that caused it to move, or more complicated, such as creating the shape of a perfect rabbit blasting out of a room. In any of those instances, the physical effects team had to create devices that mimicked what it would be like if a cartoon character had in fact been in the reality and caused something to happen: they pick something up, or touch something, or show that they do the same things that you are.

Roger quit the room through the window, leaving his shape on it.

Roger quit the room through the window, leaving his shape on it.

In one of the most famous scenes, Roger Rabbit dances on the table, moving and crashing real dishes.

There are two key points of physical effects. The first is the movement of carriage on which Baby Herman talks to Valiant and that makes an important role in his gesture. They built for this a pretty sophisticated robot which was exactly the same length as baby herman’s arm. The robot had a remote controller off to the side, where a human using his own arm would manipulate the small robot.

A robot is controlled by an operator with is arm. It simulate the moving of Baby Herman's cigar an of his baby carriage.

A robot is controlled by an operator with is arm. It simulate the moving of Baby Herman’s cigar an of his baby carriage.

The second point is the role of puppeteers, that are used to create the illusion of life out of unreal objects.In the octopus bartender scene, the animators didn’t want to have mechanical rates because they wanted the arms to be constantly moving and flowing. In other words, they didn’t want to have to paint out chemical leaks and they preferred instead an invisible man. So there were a group of puppeteer that moved all glasses, shaked the Martini and served it to customers.

Before compositing, the octopus bartender appears as flying glasses, that are actually moved by a group of puppetteers.

Before compositing, the octopus bartender appears as flying glasses, that are actually moved by a group of puppetteers.

A real man… in a toon world

At the end of the movie, the detective Valiant goes to Toontown in order to save Roger: now is a live-action actor that should move in an animated world.

The used technique is the classic blue screen, but the ability of Bob Hopkins to reproduce toon-like situation is quite impressive.

The following video compare the final cut of the video and the live-action version without the animation compositing. We suggest you to see carefully 3 parts in particular: the simulation of Valian pressed on the floor (1:01), his comic fall with the hat that remains at its place (1:43) and the Hopkins’ naturalness in moving the toon street (2:57).

More on “Who framed Roger Rabbit?”

A Rabbit’s Tale: The making of Who framed Roger Rabbit 

The Making of Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Roger Rabbit & the Secrets of Toon Town

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