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The Secret History of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”

ROSS ANDERSON is currently writing the definitive book about the making of Roger Rabbit, beginning with Gary K. Wolf’s novel and Disney’s early Roger Rabbit development unit, continuing with the production of “Who framed Roger Rabbit”, and through the follow-up shorts, merchandising and theme park presence, and development work on sequels. He wrote this piece exclusively for Cartoon Brew about the 25th anniversary screening of “Roger Rabbit” that took place last week in Los Angeles.

On Thursday evening, April 4th, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted the first public screening of the new digital print of Who framed Roger Rabbit. The preparation of the digital print coincides with the release of the 25th anniversary Blu-ray edition of the film, and the Academy hosted a terrific show.

When the tickets were made available on-line they sold out within a day or two. The film was enormously popular when it was released and it has been a touchstone for film and animation enthusiasts ever since. I can’t take credit for the touchstone/Touchstone remark—that came from Rich Moore, director of Wreck-It Ralph, who was the moderator of the panel discussion that followed the film screening.

The event attendees were polite and mature in their behavior, although many of them hadn’t been born when the film was released. The enthusiasm for the film has some of the earmarks of coltishness, but it is not as though the adoration is a personal ‘find’ and a delight against all reason. There are ample reasons to delight in the film, and everybody has their own joys that they find in it.

Mine – is that I had been a life-long animation enthusiast who found it difficult to share my enthusiasm with friends. I was in university when Robin Hood was released. I would have been harassed unmercifully if my interest in Disney animation had become known to my dorm-mates. Who framed Roger Rabbit made animation ‘cool’ again…and it made money, which increased the enthusiasm of the studios. Many people in the animation industry credit the film with ushering in a silver age of feature animation.

Academy member and veteran animation director Bill Kroyer introduced the screening. Bill was a young animator at the Disney studio prior to the first onslaught of CalArts grads, who included John Lasseter, Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Henry Selick, John Musker, Jerry Rees, and Darrell Van Citters. They were all frustrated with how Disney animation was functioning in the early-1980s.

Tom Wilhite, the young Disney Live-Action Studio Head, saw their frustration and did what he could to enable projects that would satisfy their creative juices and keep them at the studio. Aside from John Musker, they were all eventually fired or left the studio of their own accord, but out of that early grouping came Tim Burton’s Vincent and Frankenweenie and John Lasseter’s The Brave Little Toaster, which Wilhite eventually produced, with Jerry Rees directing, as ‘Hyperion Pictures’, after he, too, left Disney. Wilhite also brought Tron to the Disney studio and was responsible for setting up the Roger Rabbit development unit at Disney in 1981, helmed by Darrell Van Citters.

Bill Kroyer was one of the first ‘animators’ to do computer animation. He and Jerry Rees were assigned to the Tron production to work with the early CGI providers. The computer software at that time was not intuitive at all, so there was more hand-drawn ‘logistical guidance’ for the programmers than most people realize. That was Bill and Jerry. Their involvement also fired up John Lasseter’s interest in computer animation. The Brave Little Toaster was intended to be the first full length CGI animated feature.

Tom Wilhite sent memos to scoop up Bill Kroyer, Jerry Rees, John Lasseter, Ron Clements, Mike Gabriel, Randy Cartwright, and Glen Keane for the Roger Rabbit unit… Wouldn’t that have been something?

Tron was released in 1982, at a time that the Darrell Van Citters’ Roger Rabbit development unit was getting into full swing. Screenwriters Peter Seaman and Jeffrey Price had just come off of Trenchcoat, a Disney mystery/comedy, and Wilhite assigned them to prepare a screenplay for Roger Rabbit. At that time Wilhite also sent memos to Darrell and Marc Stirdivant, the Disney house producer assigned to the development unit, to scoop up Bill Kroyer, Jerry Rees, John Lasseter, Ron Clements, Randy Cartwright, Mike Gabriel, and Glen Keane for the Roger Rabbit unit. Other things were happening at the studio, and soon most of those people were gone… but wouldn’t that have been something?

Back to the screening – Bill Kroyer called out many of the attendees who had been instrumental in making the film. This list isn’t exhaustive, but those who did stand up included voice actors Charles Fleischer (Roger Rabbit, Benny the Cab and others), June Foray (Lena Hyena), and Tony Anselmo (Donald Duck), animators Andreas Dejas and Nik Ranieri, screenwriters Seaman and Price, editor Artie Schmidt, London studio manager Max Howard, producers Steve Starkey and Don Hahn, and, of course, director Bob Zemeckis.

The film screening was wonderful. The digital print was clear and fresh and the colors popped out at you. Not having seen the film on the big screen for twenty-five years, I found it difficult to discern whether the viewing pleasure was due to anything particular associated with the digital print or simply that I was sharing the big screen experience with a room full of similarly enthusiastic viewers. The quality aspects of the digital restoration were being hotly debated within knots of people after the screening was over.

A panel discussion followed the screening. It was hosted by Rich Moore and included Peter Seaman, Jeffrey Price, Andreas Deja, Charles Fleischer, Joanna Cassidy, Steve Starkey, Bob Zemeckis, and Don Hahn. There were many reminiscences from the production. Most of them were well known to the real Roger Rabbit enthusiasts, but the ones who resonated the most for me were those that put the ‘25-years’ into perspective. We have heard about Who framed Roger Rabbit having way more special effects than Star Wars, but it was also one of the last of the great ‘optical’ effects films. It was a different era.

Zemeckis reminisced that, “we had FedEx and ¾” tape – we had technology by the tail.” He spoke about the first finished animation that came over from the London studio unit. It was the portion of the introductory Something Cookin’ cartoon in which the chili sauce falls off the shelf in Roger’s kettle-head. The British animators spelled ‘chili’ in the British manner, with two l’s (‘chilli’). The scene had to be completely re-animated.

In the scene which the camera trucks over the newspaper headlines showing the Toon cases solved by Valiant & Valiant on Eddie’s desk, the London studio had used the banners of LA newspapers of the time (1947), without having asked permission of the newspapers. One newspaper ended up refusing permission to use their banner – and this complicated scene had to be completely re-shot. Another anecdote was that Paul Newman had been considered for the role of Eddie Valiant. Charles Fleischer immediately shot back that Judge Doom would then have had to use ‘dressing’ instead of ‘dip’.

The greatest benefit of the digital presentation was the close-ups on the actors’ faces…there was sublime acting and emotion that contributed enormously to the ‘reality’ of their interaction with the ’toons.

Don Hahn made a call out for Richard Williams, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday. Richard had hoped to attend but was unable to make it. Also, during the panel discussion, it became clear that the presence of Bob Hoskins was greatly missed. He was universally acclaimed for his work on the film. I must say that the greatest benefit that I saw with the digital presentation was in the close-ups on the actors’ faces. There was sublime acting and emotion that contributed enormously to the ‘reality’ of their interaction with the ’toons. We ‘felt’ it and it was an integral aspect of the great ‘conceit’ of the live-action/toon combination, but the subliminal effects were often lost in the chaos of the action. In this viewing, they popped out at me.

It was a great night. Following the conclusion of the panel discussionm, the many Roger Rabbit production participants reunited on stage to catch up on 25 years. The ‘celebrities’ amongst them were cornered for autographs, and the ‘no photography’ policy of the Academy theater was completely thrown out the window as the hundreds of cameras that were spirited into the theater finally came out.

A group shot was hastily organized and there were many more Roger Rabbit alumni present than had been called out during the evening’s introduction. I counted at least twenty-five alumni. I had the pleasure of speaking to many of them and seeing several of them the next day. It was a special night for Roger Rabbit fans and a special night for those who were involved in making it.

  • siskavard

    Great article! Would have been great to see that in person.

    • Defiitely.

      CartoonBrew Wish List: Calender Link at the top with various happenings around the animation world

      • Peter

        AGREED! Case in point: The link above for “Friday” night’s Tribute to Robert McKimson is actually for an event that happened last December. A quick read calendar would be great.

  • Bill K

    This is an excellent article by Ross. I’ve always been a fan of Roger Rabbit since I saw one of the original sneak previews in Costa Mesa, CA. Some of the footage was black-and-white and was later deleted (including the horrifyingly delightful scene where Eddie Valiant takes of his cartoon mask in the bathtub).

    I’m really looking forward to reading Ross’s book. This is a fascinating part of Disney animation that’s gone untold, and I’m glad that Ross has taken the time to tell it.

  • Tim

    Can’t wait for the book. I’m super interested in the considerations that went into Eisner’s decision to label it a Touchstone film instead of a Disney film. At a time when he was trying to reinvent the Disney brand, it couldn’t have been an easy decision to make!

    • Pedro

      It was labeled a Touchstone film because there were a few crude jokes that Roy Disney wanted removed. Spielberg had final cut and said no.

  • Retlaw

    great article! love to hear more. Any chance that we get to know more about Alan Menken’s treatment for a sequel?

  • oulala!

    it would be interesting to know why Dick William didn’t show up there, could be some untold story there?

    • I think the simple reason is that he doesn’t have a residence in Southern California.

  • Floyd Norman

    Back in the eighties, my desk at Disney was littered with original animation art, photographs and material from the shoot currently in progress in the U.K. I was so impressed I tried to interest Disney in doing a “Making of Roger Rabbit” book. Naturally, Disney had no interest in such a project. Why should I have been surprised?

  • Acme

    Anything about Roger Rabbit 2 development?

  • Great article! And wonderful news that there will be a ‘Making Of’ book, a modern one too, wonderful! :D

  • Daniel J. Drazen

    For me, “Roger Rabbit” was the last time I experienced movie-going as a communal event rather than my happening to be in the same room with other people watching the same movie. We were an audience and not a group of strangers. It really hit home when that audience went “WHOA!” as Jessica made her entrance (the time before that was during a screening of “The Fox and the Hound” when Amos Slade got his foot caught in his own leghold trap and the audience applauded). Yes, Netflix permits the convenient viewing of films not in general release but watching movies has become more autistic, as it were. That’s a loss.

    • IJK

      I still experience those “audience moments” when I go out to see films like the Batman Trilogy, Avengers, Iron Man 3, even Wreck-It Ralph had a great audience.

      You really gotta go for those opening days, that’s when you get the most eager people.

  • Matt Jones

    Looking forward to that book!

  • sounds great, want to read that book..

  • Dave O

    Great article. I found out about this screening too late though I would have hopped on a plane and been there in a heartbeat if somehow I finagled a ticket. I’ve always wondered about why this film never achieved a cult status and this article eloquently make the point that essentially this movie was a curveball coming out of nowhere. Suddenly animation was ‘cool’ and every kid that could hold a pencil wanted to make cartoons. Twenty-five years later, it retains its curveball status, but never a cult one. Largely because Disney simply has never figured out what to do with it since its initial release, mainly because the film’s brashness and adult themes clashes with their increased homogenization.

    I saw the (really good) documentary on ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’ at Independent Film Fest Boston this weekend and even seeing the clips they used of ‘Roger Rabbit’ on the big screen made my heart skip. This film badly is due for a theatrical re-issue, even just a limited engagement.

  • Aaron Mincey

    The shoe and the dip. I will never forget :'(

  • Roberto Severino

    I know this is an old post, but this movie had a big impact on me when I saw it as a young child. It was incredibly cartoony and hilarious to watch and I’ve watched it several more times since then and it still holds up for me like with Tex Avery’s “Northwest Hounded Police.” I would consider it an essential for all cartoonists and animation students to view.

  • Aaron Mincey

    you’ve ruined me! lol its all good :)

  • Nancy Avery-Arkley

    My name is Nancy and I am the daughter of the late Tex Avery. He created Roger Rabbit. Richard Williams watched my fathers MGM 1952 cartoon, “Magical Maestro” That was the rabbit that he copied, and even the clothes.