Robert Zemeckis’ animated/live-action hybrid noir murder mystery broke boundaries of filmmaking technology and technique, and 32 years later it’s every bit as fresh, warm, and funny as it ever was. Starring Bob Hoskins as gumshoe PI Eddie Valiant on the trail of a sex scandal involving a Hollywood studio bigwig, Who Framed Roger Rabbit expertly peels back the layers of conspiracy and deceit behind LA’s public transit wars leading to the fearsome Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd).
But in an age before CGI and green screens made visual effects so easy, it was the seamless blending of animated characters with real people and real environments that got audiences buzzing and earned the film critical praise (and $329 million at the worldwide box office). It cemented Zemeckis as Hollywood’s go-to technology-based director, brought Hoskins to the attention of a new generation of fans, and signaled a turning point in animation many think led directly to Pixar, the Disney renaissance, and the Golden Age we’re enjoying today.
io9 tracked down Lloyd and co-star Joanna Cassidy (who played Valiant’s brassy main squeeze Dolores), director of photography Dean Cundey, and screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman to chat over the phone about how Roger Rabbit came together and what it meant for cinema both at the time and in the future.
A hat full of homages
Because the incredible visual invention captured the lion’s share of attention when Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released worldwide during the last half of 1988, it was easy to miss what an effectively built noir film it was, every bit as emblematic of the genre as Chinatown, Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon.
The novel by Gary K. Wolf (Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, 1981) was set completely in an animated world, so putting the author’s animated characters in a live-action world was a wildly different take. Although this has been done on screen before, it had never been done like this.
Peter S. Seaman, screenwriter: We wanted it to be period correct, something from the late ‘40s with the hard-boiled detective and the drinking problem. It followed the path of previous detectives—Humphrey Bogart, Chinatown, The Verdict (with Paul Newman). Eddie Valiant wasn’t up to the task. He was a wounded character.
We were trying to give [audiences] something familiar because we were about to give them something shockingly unfamiliar, the idea that at one time, cartoon characters used to walk the same sidewalks as the movie stars in Hollywood. We lured you into complacency by saying ‘Oh yeah, this is a film noir that’s going to seem familiar.’
It was a cool idea to marry live-action and animation, but that’s not reason enough to make a movie. Bob Zemeckis said ‘you guys have to have a good story. You’ve got to write this so it stands on its own feet.’ We had a friend that was a native Los Angeleno and in looking for the next M story he told us about the Red Car thing [Southern California’s Pacific Electric Railway, the envy of the mass transit world from the 1920s until political engineering around expanding the freeway system undermined it, finally closing the passenger service in 1961]. That really made it worthwhile from the story standpoint.
Jeffrey Price, screenwriter: The whole thing about the Red Car and public transportation, Judge Doom and all that, that was our invention.
Audiences in the 1980s were a little more attuned to sci-fi and horror, the heyday of film noir long gone. Would they understand and appreciate the tropes of the fast-talking gumshoe, the sultry redheaded dame, and the murder plot revealing a deadly conspiracy?
Jeffrey Price: Yeah, I think so, and it was helped by the fact that Chinatown had come out not too long before that, which was a very big movie. We weren’t doing a parody of Chinatown but we benefited from that being the hit it was. So there’s no doubt that the audiences were primed for it when they saw Roger Rabbit.
The proof of concept
Jeffrey Price, screenwriter: We were trying to honor the great heyday of animation, which had fallen fallow by the time we made the movie. We were in the advertising business and we knew some of the great animators that worked at Looney Tunes and MGM.
[Roger Rabbit] was also in the tradition of Warner Bros. in its heyday. They satirized a lot of movies. A lot of the cartoons had Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Bogart, or Cagney in them. They used to do send-ups of the movies that were released by the same studio.
Dean Cundey, cinematographer: Bob [Zemeckis] and I approached it as if it were a live-action movie. If we were doing a live-action movie that happened to have animated characters in it, how would we do the storytelling? How would we move the camera? We decided not to accommodate the animation and not compromise. We wanted to be sure whatever we did was true to the technique and artistry of live-action film.
One of the keys that made it charming and successful was that we didn’t make the compromises Disney suggested for speed and efficiency. Bob, Richard Williams [the late animation director], and I said ‘Let’s devise a test that violates all the rules.’ So we did. Roger comes down a stairway in a back alley, walks in and out of shadow and the camera tracks him and there’s interactivity with the trash cans. All the things we were told were difficult or impossible.
It was so encouraging and successful Disney looked at it and said, “This is going to be very expensive and time-consuming. Let’s go for it.”
After being cast as the voice of Roger, stand-up comic and actor Charles Fleischer was on set every day, delivering his lines to give his co-stars a live performance to react to. Famously, he had a life-size Roger Rabbit suit made to wear throughout production, leading to a (perhaps apocryphal) story of a studio exec in the commissary seeing Fleischer in costume and commenting about how cheap Disney’s live-action/cartoon rabbit movie looked. We started by asking him if there are any parallels between Roger’s personality and his own.
Charles Fleischer, the voice of Roger Rabbit, Benny the Cab, and Greasy and Psycho (the weasel gang): Unquestionably. I’m a stand-up comedian so my purpose in life is to make people laugh. I related more to Roger than any human characters I’ve ever played.
Joanna Cassidy, Dolores: The worst thing would have been for Dolores to have been written like a victim. That’s not my way. The Ava Gardners and Katharine Hepburns of the world were always my role models. That’s who I grew up on. It was my instinct to play Dolores like that. That sort of character was really imprinted on me.
I was watching [Ingmar] Bergman films when I was 14, and although he always tried to dominate women, his women were always—I hate overusing the word “strong”—very powerful.
After his beloved turn as the scatterbrained but brilliant Doc Brown in Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985), Christopher Lloyd re-teamed with the director to play Who Framed Roger Rabbit villain Judge Doom. Where Doc was like a whirlwind entering a room—all flying papers, wild hair, wide eyes, and manic energy—Doom was like a walking funeral, dressed completely in black but with cadaverous white skin, slow-moving, straight-backed, soft-spoken, menacing and with a funeral dirge-like musical cue whenever he entered.
Christopher Lloyd, Judge Doom: There is a part of me that’s kind of quiet and a bit calculating about how I’m going to deal with reality. But there’s another side of me that is more frantic like Doc Brown.
But I enjoyed Judge Doom because he knows what he’s up to and how to achieve it. He’s calculating and merciless. I don’t remember making any suggestions that were significant, I felt the character was pretty clear on the page. It was just a matter of bringing it to life. The concept that Zemeckis had in the costume and look made it really easy. As Judge Doom I look villainous.
A lot of people have come up to me since Roger Rabbit opened to say that they saw the movie while they were kids and they had nightmares afterwards. The first few Disney films, Bambi and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, etc., each gave me nightmares too, so I thought it was a reasonable payback.
Appearing in almost every scene, Hoskins had the hardest job on set, with co-star Joanna Cassidy saying that where she often worked 10 hours days, Hoskins worked 16 or more. The veteran British actor passed away in 2014, aged 71.
Joanna Cassidy, Dolores: He was masterful. He had a photographic memory. He was a genius.
Charles Fleischer, the voice of Roger Rabbit, Benny the Cab, and Greasy and Psycho (the weasel gang): I loved working with him. He was an extraordinary talent. It was a great privilege for me. [Note: He adopted a Cockney accent for this next part.] Great guy, Bob Hoskins. Taught me rhyming slang.
Christopher Lloyd, Judge Doom: Bob Hoskins was so wonderful. I’m so sorry he wasn’t around longer, but he had a lot of energy, determination, and whatever the task he just dived right into it. He was very adaptable, a great actor, very earnest, and loved the work. It was great working with him.
Shooting the rabbit
Dean Cundey, cinematographer: We had 3D maquettes—sculpted rubber posable figures—of Roger or the weasels or the other toon characters, all full-sized according to how they were supposed to look in the film. We’d rehearse the scene with the maquettes, either Bob [Zemeckis] or I manipulating them to move through the scene so the actors could visualize where to look as if they were really there.
Then we’d choose one take so the animators after the fact could look at it and figure out where Roger would have to be, whether the camera’s panning or moving across the floor or whatever so the animators had a reference for what the action was supposed to be, what the characters were supposed to be doing. It was a big help for creating the interactivity as well as a big help to the animators.
Joanna Cassidy, Dolores: Sometimes it required a lot of takes and we got to see some of the drawings along the way.
Jeffrey Price, screenwriter: It was so expensive. We had to really think out the whole thing, and there wasn’t a lot of waste. There was maybe one scene that was cut out in the movie, but we had to think it all the way through.
We’d written a few drafts in 1980 and 1981 and then left the project. Bob Zemeckis wanted to do the movie back then but he was kind of in movie jail. After he went off and made Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future he was out of jail and looking around for his next project.
[Steven] Spielberg gave him a different version of the script but he remembered our version and went back to find it, which is every writer’s dream—that someday they’ll realize just how great our work was and come find us again. But at that point nothing had really been done. Spielberg had been developing it so I’m sure he had some ideas about how it could work technically. It was when we were in production we were told we had to cut some stuff out of the script because everybody by then had a pretty good idea of what it was really costing.
There, but not...
Painting out scaffolds, wires, and other support structures for props is a snap in the CGI era, but every time a toon interacted with a real prop or person, the shoot had to be blocked and staged so the animators could use the toon characters partly to hide the wires and on-set tricks used to manipulate real objects.
Joanna Cassidy, Dolores: We had to really hit our marks because the toons would have to be put in later. So it was very precise.
Christopher Lloyd, Judge Doom: Charlie Fleischer would be the Roger Rabbit on the set. He had his own costume and voice and way of speaking. I wouldn’t say that he was trying to imitate what he thought Roger Rabbit sounded and looked like, but he came up with something pretty crazy and it worked. So whenever Roger Rabbit was in a scene it would be Charlie Fleischer. We’d look at him and have our dialog with him and it helped me out. That was a big contribution.
It was a bit of a challenge dealing with Roger Rabbit physically. We’d rehearse holding a dummy. Bob [Hoskins] particularly had the task of dealing with Roger, wrestling with him, fighting with him, whatever. But we would rehearse a scene with the dummy Roger and we had a pantomimist on the set to guide us through what muscles we’d be using and how our stance would be.
And the dummy had real weight to it, so then, of course, we had to learn how to move without the weight, because obviously what you’ll see is just us. So we rehearsed those things to bring as much reality to the film as possible.
Not your grandparents’ toons
The opening of the film is the Maroon Studios’ ‘Somethin’s Cooking’, which introduces us to Roger and his friend and frequent co-star, Baby Herman (Lou Hirsch). Looking every bit like a classic Looney Tunes cartoon, the scene ends and Roger and Herman leave the animated set into the real world of light, shadow, and 3D depth. It seems a creative and narrative statement of intent on Zemeckis and Co’s part—this is no cartoon.
Dean Cundey, cinematographer: That was a very smart and conscious effort. We begin with conventional animation that’s very flat, the sort the audience is used to, and then have the characters walk through the live-action studio and interact with people in one continuous shot with a moving camera. It sets the overall style of the film right from the top.
Adding animated characters to live-action was done on an optical printer in those days. Now everything’s on computer and much easier and more flexible. In those days you’d take a piece of film negative, put a print film against it, shine a light through it and end up with a print. But to add the animated characters there were other layers and steps. There were times when one shot would have more than 20 passes through the optical printer to create the tone matting, shadows, interactivity, and everything else.
So it was already pretty complex, but every time you make a duplicate the print degrades, it becomes grainy and the color contrast goes up. So to get rid of that effect we shot in VistaVision—it’s a special technique developed by Paramount in the 1950s where instead of the film going through the camera vertically like normal, it goes through sideways and captures an image twice as large. Then when that’s put into the printer and reduced, all the grain and color artifacts and the artificiality disappear.
They used twice as much film but got twice the clarity and sharpness. It’s a technical aspect I think was a big plus for the end result, there’s nothing grainy or low tech about it. It holds up in today’s contemporary world of animation.
The VistaVision cameras had all been dismantled and were no longer used, so Industrial Light and Magic built complete VistaVision cameras from scratch. I took numerous trips up to San Francisco to ILM when they were building the camera to consult on where a video tap should be, where an eyepiece should be, etc. It was a lot of fun helping develop the camera.
Innovation as storytelling
It was a movie of many firsts. When we first approached cinematographer Dean Cundey to talk about Who Framed Roger Rabbit he was delighted, still considering it the most fun adventure he’s had in his career. He was Oscar-nominated, and the film went on to win four Academy Awards, with animator Richard Williams winning a special achievement award, Arthur Schmidt (Forrest Gump, Last of the Mohicans) winning for Best Editor, Louis L. Edemann and Charles L. Campbell winning for Best Sound Effects Editing and Williams, Ken Ralston, Ed Jones, and George Gibbs winning for Best Visual Effects.
But as Cundey points out, for something so cutting edge, Who Framed Roger Rabbit references a long and proud history of blending live-action and animation in the same frame. Disney had already done it with Pete’s Dragon (1977) and audiences had marveled at Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh back when World War II was ending.
Dean Cundey, cinematographer: We decided we were going to do stuff that hadn’t been done before. It would have been too easy to just follow the techniques. In preliminary talks Disney said “We’ll show you how to do it because we’ve done that a lot on Pete’s Dragon and Mary Poppins.” They laid down simple rules. We couldn’t move the camera because it’s too hard for animators to track camera movement. We had to stay away from light and shadow. We had to make sure we lit the set very evenly, which made it very flat.
As we left that meeting Bob Zemeckis and I said ‘Well, those are the rules we’re going to break.’ We looked for every opportunity to do the things that hadn’t been done before like the camera moving with the characters and doing a lot of panning and tilting, the stuff that made live action movies seem natural.
Business (not) as usual
On the 2003 two-disc DVD release commentary, Robert Zemeckis muses that getting so many characters together from different studios was so difficult it would probably never happen again. But Who Framed Roger Rabbit executive producer Steven Spielberg managed the same trick again decades later in 2018, bringing so many characters and artifacts together from across TV, movies, games, comics, and every other medium in Ready Player One it’s hard to keep up with them.
Jeffrey Price, screenwriter: Spielberg had a close association with Warner Bros. and he was able to get most of the Warner Bros. characters we wanted. We then had to get two MGM characters, the crows Heckle and Jeckle, and it was because of Spielberg all that could happen. I don’t think those studios at the time knew what they had in the history of animation. But they quickly realized it. All those characters evolved throughout the original scripts. We had a lot of them and as it became more real we had to winnow it down to the ones we could get.
Peter S. Seaman, screenwriter: We spent about six months at Amblin watching cartoons with Bob Zemeckis, which was great research. We all liked the Tex Avery sort of anarchy for the tone we wanted. And as great as the Disney characters are, they weren’t like that. So Bob felt it was crucial to get the rights to some of those other ones like Yosemite Sam from Warner Bros. If Spielberg hadn’t pulled it off I’m not sure Bob would have made the movie.
The other Bob
Where an entire generation was introduced to Bob Hoskins (and his older fans saw a whole new side to him) with Roger Rabbit, the film was just as pivotal to Bob Zemeckis’ career. He’d started the ‘80s reeling from the commercial failure of Used Cars (1980), but after the one-two-three punch of Romancing the Stone (1984), Back to the Future (1985) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he ended the decade riding high.
Christopher Lloyd, Judge Doom: Of course, he was very involved in the technical aspect of shooting the film. The kinds of films he did often required a lot of technical knowhow and facility and imagination to make things work. But I also found that he was so easy to talk to. If he came to me and desired me to do something a little differently, or if I asked how I could make a moment better, I just felt he knew how to talk to actors.
He took his time. He wouldn’t rush it. He didn’t get impatient. He just comes to my level, and it was very productive. I felt I could go to him and he wasn’t going make a fuss. He was happy to talk about it, whatever the concern was, to work it out. But when we’d have lunch on the set and people would come to talk about something technical related to the film and he’d just spend his lunch hour going through a lot of very complicated stuff. He was certainly into it. But he was very human.
Dean Cundey, cinematographer: Roger Rabbit needed a lot of development of technology, but what’s great about Bob Zemeckis is he understands and learns it. He’s not a director who says “I don’t understand that, maybe you can just take care of all of that.” He was an integral part in the decision making and that’s one of the things that made it possible to do it as smoothly as we did, considering the complexity.
Joanna Cassidy, Dolores: I mean, who’s going to question the character when it’s Bob Zemeckis directing the picture? I wasn’t going to ask any questions.
Charles Fleischer, the voice of Roger Rabbit, Benny the Cab, and Greasy and Psycho (the weasel gang): It was extraordinary. He’s a genius who’s still in touch with being a kid. The set and cameras and everybody there is his big train set. I’ve been blessed enough to work with him in Back to the Future II, Polar Express, and Death Becomes Her, and any chance you get to work with Bob Zemeckis it’s a good day.
Success and legacy
Today, when every crew member and fan has a camera phone, the internet enables information to travel the globe in the blink of an eye. Knowing something about a film in production is legitimate currency among movie geeks and maintaining secrecy around a forthcoming release is a Herculean effort. Back in 1988, with only a few film magazines and the odd studio-sanctioned spot on Entertainment Tonight, security was much easier to maintain—even on a Spielberg production.
Jeffrey Price, screenwriter: Back in those days Spielberg and Zemeckis didn’t believe in telling anybody about the movie until a week before. For a couple of years we were working on it and when people asked what we were doing we’d say we were working on a film called Who Framed Roger Rabbit and people would go “Oh, okay, good for you.” They thought it was a silly-sounding name, and we weren’t allowed to say anything more than that.
Peter S. Seaman, screenwriter: We were never sure up until the last minute. Preview audiences saw it with unfinished animation and pencil tests and it freaked the audience out. So until we saw it with a big audience and it was finished, we didn’t know what we had.
Like Sean Connery with James Bond or Lynda Carter with Wonder Woman, Fleischer will always be synonymous with Roger no matter what else he does. Is that cause for any bitterness?
Charles Fleischer, the voice of Roger Rabbit, Benny the Cab, and Greasy and Psycho (the weasel gang): It’s one of the highlights of my life. It was a true honor. It’s a classic film, it still holds up. You know, in the old days Cary Grant wasn’t like a Gary Oldman kind of actor whereby he transformed himself and created all these different parts that are all essentially different. He was always just kind of doing Cary Grant and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The future of Roger Rabbit
Bob Zemeckis famously never looks backward. He hasn’t made a sequel since 1990's Back to the Future Part III, and he’s notorious for not answering questions about past projects—you’ve no doubt noticed his name is conspicuously absent from this story. When we approached his management with a request and a list of questions he replied only with a single line about the late Richard Williams, the film’s animation director: “He was incredibly talented, a creative powerhouse and a fearless innovator. A true artist.”
He’s made his feelings clear about a possible remake, reboot or sequel of Back to the Future more than once (and it can’t happen without his and producer/writer Bob Gale’s blessing in any case), but despite the director assuring the media that Disney has no interest in a Roger Rabbit sequel, rumors persist.
Dean Cundey, cinematographer: Yeah, I would definitely be interested in being involved. I know they’ve talked for some time about a Roger Rabbit sequel. Disney and Spielberg have gone back and forth about what the story should be. There was one where all the animated characters are drafted into World War II and another about Roger leaving his farm and moving to Hollywood, but I know neither of them could be agreed on by Disney and Spielberg. So I don’t know whether the sequel is really going to happen or not.
Joanna Cassidy, Dolores: I don’t think it’s going to happen. They tried to go on with Blade Runner and the second one didn’t work. I love the film but I don’t think it was necessary to carry it on. But would I come back [to Roger Rabbit] if they did? Of course!
Peter S. Seaman, screenwriter: We did do a couple of drafts of a sequel and I think there’s probably been others, but we did it for Bob and he really liked it and wanted to do it—I think Spielberg did too. But for whatever reason Disney decided not to, so as far as we’re concerned, it’s on the shelf and that’s all we know.
As a filmgoer and movie industry watcher Drew Turney has profiled stars, interviewed artists, reviewed films, written about the industry, and deconstructed what makes movies tick for media outlets all over the world in print and online, and is the author of Falling (falling.io).
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