Recap: 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' 25th Anniversary Presentation
by Ben Pearson
April 5, 2013
"What you feel when you see a movie like this is more than appreciation – it's gratitude." This quote, from the late Roger Ebert's review, received much applause when read aloud at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills on Thursday, during a 25th anniversary celebration of Robert Zemeckis' classic film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. A newly restored digital print was screened, then Wreck-It Ralph director Rich Moore moderated a panel featuring many of the cast and crew who worked on the movie: actors, associate producers, animation supervisors, screenwriters, and—of course—Robert Zemeckis himself.
I was very young the last time I saw this film, and seeing it now as an adult made me love it even more than I already did. There are a ton of references to other films that younger audiences simply wouldn't catch — a man plays the tune from Fantasia on a saxophone as cartoon brooms sweep up trash, someone references an invisible rabbit named Harvey — and the whole plot is full of excellent film noir tropes and peppered with adult humor, backed by a phenomenal jazz score. A few L.A.-centric jokes about how great the public transportation is had our audience cracking up (irony!), and the film is elevated by the way the human actors play everything straight, as if a world in which toons and humans mingle is completely normal.
The night was a huge celebration of not only this movie, but the labor-intensive process that Zemeckis and his team went through to make it. The film was released in 1988 and graphics software and digital effects still hadn't been invented yet, so all of the animation had to be hand-drawn, penciled, inked, and painted. Tens of thousands of hand-drawn frames were shot through optical printers, a process that has been mostly left by the wayside with the rise of CGI animation. After the screening was over, Zemeckis revealed, "This was truly a labor of love. No sane person would do this. We did it for the love of the art form." Times were certainly different back then, as associate producer Don Hahn quipped, "The most amazing technology was that I got a fax machine halfway through production."
In a world without digital effects, even the slightest mistake had huge consequences. There's a long shot that tracks over Eddie Valiant's desk, filling in backstory about his relationship with his dead brother through newspaper headlines. But one of the major newspapers in London refused to allow the filmmakers to use their masthead, so instead of digitally removing and replacing it, they had to set everything back up and completely redo that entire shot. ("There's nothing worse than doing a retake of such an elaborate shot like that one," Zemeckis said.)
The Roger Rabbit panel consisted of director Robert Zemeckis, actress Joanna Cassidy (Delores), voice actor Charles Fleischer (Roger Rabbit, Benny the Cab), supervising animator Andreas Deja, associate producers Don Hahn and Steve Starkey, and screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman. Rich Moore asked about the history of the project, which began in 1981 when the writers took their first crack at a screenplay that, at the time, only included Disney characters along with their own invented ones like Roger and Jessica Rabbit. Zemeckis read the script back then, but the film "just wasn't happening"; after Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner took over Disney, the script then found its way to producer Steven Spielberg, who brought it back to Zemeckis, and the pair began working on it.
With Spielberg's considerable influence, the filmmakers were eventually able to include Warner Bros. characters like Bugs Bunny in the film. "It's astounding that they made this movie," Zemeckis said, shaking his head in disbelief. This was the first time he had seen it on the big screen since the film was originally in theaters, and he regaled the audience with stories about designing the character of Roger with animator Richard Williams, receiving pencil tests on three quarter inch video tape and thinking that was great technology at the time, and creating the iconic look of Jessica Rabbit.
"When Russell (Hall, supervising animator) and Richard (Williams, animation director) first designed Jessica, they had her in a halter. I said, 'Oh, we can't have that. It doesn't look like it's from the '40s, it looks like it's from the 60's.' They go, 'They'll never let you do it any other way. I said, 'No! We've gotta take that halter off. We've gotta give her a good toony chest.' And they were stunned that we were able to design her that way."
Don Hahn joked about how they would have to distract Roy Disney from Jessica whenever Disney would come visit the studio, pointing him to pictures of Mickey Mouse and assuring him that Mickey would appear in some capacity. But, like with many of Disney's animated films, there was a streak of naughtiness in these animators. Zemeckis recommended getting an original Laserdisc and freeze framing it to find some "really good stuff" — read: nudity — before subsequent releases removed a lot of that material. Hahn suggests that at the very end of the movie, in the scene when [spoiler] the train knocks the Dipmobile off the tracks, if you slow that down, there might be some "interesting" things to see in the windows as it speeds by.
Animator Andreas Deja also noticed an embarrassing mistake that he made during post-production, and he revealed it to the audience after the screening. There's a sequence when Valiant returns to his office and lies down in his bed to sleep, only to discover Roger is hiding out there. They both leap out of bed, and as Roger explains what he's doing there, you can see a handprint on the mattress where the character is supposed to be leaning against it while he's talking. The handprint appears and then disappears, but Roger is standing a few feet away all along, an animation mistake that simply slipped through the cracks to the final version.
The panel had nothing but fantastic things to say about the work of Bob Hoskins (who retired last year), and his skills at pantomiming and comedy were praised by all. When asked about the casting process, though, Zemeckis revealed that Hoskins was not their first choice for the part.
"We had other actors in mind, and I won't mention who they were, but I think we screen tested four actors and they all did a great job. The thing that I was struck with, with Bob, was that he looked like he belonged in that wardrobe. He looked like he belonged in the movie. He looked like he was of the '40s. There was something about the way the rabbit antagonized him that really, really worked. And it was to Jeffrey Katzenberg's credit because, naturally, I wanted, like, Paul Newman in the movie. But he said, 'You've got all these cartoon characters. You don't need a giant name.' And it actually makes the movie, I think, really special because he doesn't bring any celebrity to the character. It's kind of pure that way. So it worked out great."
With Hoskins now out of the acting game, it's extremely unlikely that we'll ever see him reprise his role in the long-rumored sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Speaking of that, a couple fans asked the panel about the status of the sequel during a brief Q&A session, and here's what the director had to say:
"I don't know. Jeff [Price] and Peter [Seaman] wrote a screenplay. It's sitting there at Disney, so we don't know what's going to happen. You just never know."
(Someone else asked if they would elaborate on what the story would be in the sequel, but everyone refused to talk about it any further. Hopefully that's a good sign it's still in the works.)
There's such an incredible interaction between the cartoon elements and live action ones in this movie, and that kind of movie magic totally holds up when watching it 25 years later. Whether you're watching a toon weasel splash water on Valiant's face or the animated Jessica Rabbit pulling Valiant by his tie, Zemeckis explained, "The trick to it is live action actors sincerely believing those characters are there," and their commitment still shines through today. The director also talked about one of the movie's most difficult scenes to shoot, which took place in the Ink and Paint Club.
"All the physical props in the movie were either done by puppeteers holding, like, guns on armatures, or we had these little miniature copycat robot arms that we used to figure out where the toons were. But the really insane thing about the Ink and Paint Club is we had this idea of all these penguin waiters who were running around with trays. So the entire stage was built eight feet off the ground and all the floors had slots designed into them, and there were puppeteers with rods coming up through the floor with these trays flying around the set. It was all pre-designed. And then we were turning it over to the animators and they said, 'How many of these trays are there?' And I said, 'I think there's about thirty.' 'So let me get this straight: we have to animate a penguin for each one of these trays?' 'Yeah, and then you've got all these other guys in the bar, all this other stuff to do.' So basically you had to back in the animation to anything that was moving."
Sounds like a ridiculously intensive process, but all of that hard work certainly paid off. The film won three Academy Awards, including Best Visual Effects. For me, Who Framed Roger Rabbit works even better now than it did all those years ago because I have a better understanding of all of their references and humor. I'd highly recommend checking it out if you haven't seen it in a while, and the 25th Anniversary Blu-Ray is available for purchase on Amazon now. What do you think about Zemeckis' Who Framed Roger Rabbit?