Revisiting Cinefex (35): Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Willow

Cinefex 35Cinefex #35 contains behind-the-scenes stories on two big films of the late 80s, although both front and back covers feature just one: Robert Zemeckis’s milestone marriage of live-action and animation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? While the front is dominated by Roger himself – looking as manic as ever – the back is reserved for his curvaceous spouse, Jessica, a cartoon drawing responsible for triggering impure thoughts in around 90% of the men in the average theatre audience. The second movie under discussion is Ron Howard’s 1988 fantasy Willow, notable from a visual effects standpoint for its innovative use of computer morphing for a magical character transformation scene. Two films. 68 pages. Let’s go!

  • Romancing the Rabbit (article by Adam Eisenberg)
  • Willow (article by Jody Duncan Shannon)

The 1980s was the decade when traditional (by which I mean optical and mechanical) visual and special effects were being pushed to the limit. Techniques don’t get much more traditional than hand-drawn cel animation, so it was inevitable that sooner or later one of the new breed of young ambitious filmmakers would drag the well-worn concept of combining animated characters with live action into the modern age. The filmmaker in question was Robert Zemeckis, riding high on the success of Back to the Future. The film was Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Making Roger Rabbit – in which one of the lead actors is a hyperactive cartoon rabbit – was an extraordinarily complex business. Luckily we have Adam Eisenberg on hand to make sense of the madness. His behind-the-scenes article is a winner on every level as it takes the production completely apart, with detailed insights into preproduction, the gag-filled live-action shoot, the animation itself, a second ‘Toontown’ shoot with actor Bob Hoskins working his guts out on a bluescreen stage and finally the painstaking optical work needed to bring everything together.

rc35rrThe man in charge of Roger Rabbit‘s animated content was Richard Williams, most well-known at that point for his Casino Royale and Pink Panther title sequences. Initially sceptical of the project, he was tempted when he discovered he and Zemeckis were on the same page: ‘We both agreed that the key to doing this movie was interaction.’ Williams was finally won over when Zemeckis proved how clever the storyline was by acting out the entire first shot of the movie for him. Now that’s a deleted scene I’d love to see.

A proof-of-concept test scene, filmed at ILM and animated by Williams, set the seal on the project – and prompted executive producer Steven Spielberg to comment that he’d ‘only seen film history twice in his life. The first time was … Star Wars – and now [I’ve] seen it again with this rabbit.’

Eisenberg’s article devotes many column inches to the special effects used in the live-action shoot to create the critical interaction between the as-yet-undrawn cartoon characters and the physical set. Producer Robert Watts remarks that, ‘About eighty percent of the movie we were shooting with only half the cast present … Thus it became like shooting a giant “Invisible Man” movie.’ Gags ranged from puddle splashes all the way through to sophisticated robotic arms that would ultimately be obscured by the animation. Responsible for these were Michael Lantieri and George Gibbs.

The range of on-set effects is really extraordinary: a self-riding bicycle, a stretching automobile, a piano that played itself. ‘Every day we were required to provide some effect,’ says Lantieri. ‘Every shot – no rest.’ Equally critical was the performance of Bob Hoskins, who had to make his audience believe he really was seeing an imaginary rabbit. ‘I studied my daughter Rose,’ he says. ‘Rose has invisible friends that she plays with.’ In the end, Hoskins got so good at visualising Roger that ‘I lost control … I would hallucinate the Toons in very weird places – like in restaurants off the set.’

Creative insights from Bob Zemeckis, Richard Williams and visual effects supervisor Ken Raltson give this article great depth. Zemeckis recalls a conversation with George Lucas in which they discussed how difficult it is to cut a movie when one of your stars hasn’t even been drawn yet, while Williams reveals that different animators would draw Roger differently.

Ralston comes into his own when he talks about the fine line between keeping the animated characters looking like cartoons, yet giving them enough dimension to lock them convincingly into the real world. Among other things, his team at ILM developed ways of laying coloured shadows over the animation – an industry first. ‘What we came up with we call 2¾-dimension,’ he says.’

All of this is presented in the usual mind-boggling Cinefex detail. Take the iconic Jessica Rabbit musical number in the smoky Ink and Paint Club, for example. The scene featured a live-action motion control shoot with an actress, moving split screens to optically remove the lower half of her body, animation with multi-layered effects overlaid to create shadows on Jessica and sparkles on her dress … and much, much more. So much more, in fact, that ILM optical supervisor Ed Jones puts his department’s workload for both Roger Rabbit and Willow (in production at the same time) at ‘almost three-and-a-half years’ worth of work in eight months.’

What’s clear from this article is Zemeckis’s absolute commitment to the project – and the trials he faced in bringing it to the screen. Richard Williams remarks that when Zemeckis ‘would run the movie without the animation, it would look like a dog. He would get into terrible depressions.’ Yet Zemeckis not only pulled it off, but created a critically acclaimed film that grossed well over $300 million worldwide. What’s more, he’s continued since then to push the envelope of visual effects with such groundbreakers as Forrest Gump (think digital limb removal and the integration of modern actors into archive footage) and The Polar Express (think game-changing performance capture).

ILM legend Dennis Muren was recently in the press for advocating a ‘less is more’ approach to visual effects, based on the assumption that audiences are fed up with each new effects-heavy film trying to trump the last for sheer spectacle. While most people would agree that Roger Rabbit is a full-on, all-stops-out cinema experience, Muren’s viewpoint finds a strange echo in Robert Zemeckis’s closing remark from this 1988 article. ‘[Roger Rabbit is] an epic movie,’ he says, quoting Robert Watts, ‘not because we’re going to have an army of fifteen thousand people and blow up an entire village in one shot, but because what we’re trying to do is have an animated rabbit pick up a crumb.’

As long as filmmakers like Zemeckis are still operating, I’m sure there are going to be plenty more crumbs to enjoy.

By the way, I love Roger Rabbit (though I confess I never quite got to love Roger himself – he was always a bit too manic for my taste). In an age that tends towards hyper-realism when combining real and animated characters (The Smurfs, anyone?) it’s worth remembering that the real wit and wonder of Roger Rabbit comes first from its storyline – which both depends upon and celebrates a conscious clash of visual styles – and second from the fine line walked by the creative team in making the cartoon characters just real enough to be believed, yet ultimately still part of their own, kooky, two-dimensional universe.


Adam Eisenberg’s article is a tough act to follow, but Jody Duncan Shannon manages it adroitly with her in-depth analysis of Willow, George Lucas’s foray into fantasy. While it didn’t reach anywhere near Roger Rabbit‘s worldwide gross of over $320 million*, Willow did okay. More to the point, it contains some rather interesting visual effects.

rc35wWillow was an early outing for Ron Howard as director. However, it’s producer Lucas who haunts much of the article’s subtext. In extracts from interviews with ILM staff including Mike McAlister, John Knoll and Chris Evans, there are frequent references to ‘what George wanted’. McAlister spends time towards the end of the article musing on what it meant for ILM to be working on a Lucasfilm production at this stage of their development. ‘This was for the boss,’ he concludes, contemplating the ‘shoot from the hip’ approach that resulted in an unusually large number of ‘fixes in post’, ‘and the boss gets to work however he wants.’

Like Roger Rabbit, Willow features its fair share of firsts. Matte supervisor Evans enthuses about in-camera composites of paintings, miniatures and projected live-action, claiming that ‘it has never really been done before – certainly not to this degree.’ There’s also a beautifully clear and informative description of pin-blocking, a technique by which actors playing tiny fairylike beings called brownies were filmed on a bluescreen stage for later insertion into moving background plates. It’s an early form of match-moving, relying on eyeballing the movement on the plate and manipulating the bluescreen footage on a motion-control animation stand frame by frame to follow the action. (The man responsible for much of this painstaking work was John Knoll, who has since risen through the ranks to supervise the visual effects for some of ILM’s biggest shows in recent years.)

As well as fairies and forests (some built in miniature using juniper sprigs left over from E.T.), Willow also boasts a two-headed fire-breathing dragon. Phil Tippett talks us through the creature’s design and construction, and doesn’t hold back on communicating his disappointment about the way it eventually appeared on screen. ‘We couldn’t do everything we would have liked to make the puppets realistic,’ he says, adding that his attempts to have the two heads play off each other just ‘wound up being comical.’

Fantastic though all this stuff is, much of it is familiar to the average VFX devotee. But Duncan Shannon’s Willow article has a couple of magic tricks up its sleeve. First is a visit to Available Light, the Burbank facility that provided animated mouths for the film’s talking animal characters. ‘We’d get into these raging discussions about how much of an “ooh” sound a possum can make,’ quips company head John Van Vliet. Second is yet another milestone on the road to digital, namely the scene in which the character Raziel undergoes a rapid transformation through a number of wildly differing animal forms, including a goat, an ostrich and a tiger. The scene was supervised by Dennis Muren.

The effect was achieved by using a computer morphing programme that took footage of partially-transforming puppets shot in front of the ILM bluescreen and stretched it in two dimensions to achieve blends between the different creatures. CG supervisor Douglas Kay breaks down the process of scanning the original footage (at a whopping 3500 x 1400 pixels), while George Joblove talks digital bluescreen extraction and Doug Smythe explains the actual morphing process. ‘It was as if we had printed each frame of film on a rubber sheet,’ Smythe says, ‘and then used an array of pins that could be stuck into the rubber at various points and moved around.’

(It’s tempting to view two-dimensional morphing as a disposable step along the way to fully 3D CG simulations. However, it’s recently found its feet again in films such as Captain America – featured in Cinefex #127 – for which visual effects company Lola used similar techniques to digitally shrink the body of actor Chris Evans.)

And so Willow leaves us with another reminder – as if we needed one – that ILM was the undisputed champion of the visual effects ring throughout the 1980s. With both of the effects-heavy films under discussion this issue, the facility was punching hard and fast … while all the time quietly ushering in the new age of digital.

The pictures

The Willow article shows off the ILM matte painting and miniatures departments to great effect. Caroleen Green’s painting of Bavmorda’s throne room is particularly impressive. But I can’t resist the beautiful sequential shots of Tad Krzanowski’s third-scale goat puppet undergoing its amazing transformation into a curious hybrid that will eventually become an ostrich.

The Roger Rabbit article has a good range of stills from the movie, together with some excellent before-and-afters showing how the special effects rigs were covered by the animated characters. Then there are all the behind-the-scenes photos showing poor Bob Hoskins strung up on wires in various positions of extraordinary discomfort. My favourite is a shot of Hoskins patiently enduring the attention of the effects crew while wearing a mechanical rig designed to make it look like Roger is squirming around under his coat. On the actor’s face is a classic ‘How did I get into this?’ expression, while the rig’s design gives the unfortunate impression that this multi-award-winning thespian has inexplicably grown a pair of spring-loaded nipples.


Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

One thought on “Revisiting Cinefex (35): Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Willow

  1. I caught Willow just recently. I wouldn’t say it’s great, but it isn’t nearly as awful as it’s been made out to be. 🙂

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