Merges Animation with Live Action

Noted for its combination of animation and live action, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a success for both the studios that produced it and, more important, for animation as a genre. The film revived interest in animation, an art form that had not had real success on the big screen for more than a decade.

Summary of Event

Before the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988, there had been a lag in the production of full-length animated films. Even the powerhouse Walt Disney Studios produced only two full-length animated features during the early 1980’s. The drought of animation in the film industry would come to an end with the release of this film, which at the time was the most expensive motion-picture project ever completed. The big risk would pay off for Disney subsidiary Touchstone Pictures and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. The joint project returned $156 million domestically on a $70 million investment and sparked an era of high-quality animation. Motion pictures;Who Framed Roger Rabbit
[kw]Who Framed Roger Rabbit Merges Animation with Live Action (June 21, 1988)
[kw]Animation with Live Action, Who Framed Roger Rabbit Merges (June 21, 1988)
[kw]Live Action, Who Framed Roger Rabbit Merges Animation with (June 21, 1988)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (film)
Motion pictures;Who Framed Roger Rabbit
[g]North America;June 21, 1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit Merges Animation with Live Action[06830]
[g]United States;June 21, 1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit Merges Animation with Live Action[06830]
[c]Motion pictures and video;June 21, 1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit Merges Animation with Live Action[06830]
Zemeckis, Robert
Williams, Richard
Wolf, Gary K.
Fleischer, Charles
Hoskins, Bob
Lloyd, Christopher
Spielberg, Steven

Roger Rabbit was the creation of Gary K. Wolf. In his novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? cartoon characters (referred to in the film as Toons) live side by side with humans. This was translated to the screen by director Robert Zemeckis, who had often worked with Spielberg and was best known for his Back to the Future series. For Wolf’s world to be realistic to moviegoers, it was decided that Roger Rabbit would combine live-action film and animation. Zemeckis enlisted Richard Williams, noted for his long career in top-of-the-line animation, to direct the animation scenes.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit takes place in an alternate 1947 Los Angeles. The movie’s plot closely resembles film noir mixed with outrageous classic-cartoon antics. This was made possible by Williams’s clever use of animation, the directing style of Zemeckis, and the music composed by Alan Silvestri. Silvestri had the difficult task of combining two music styles—slapstick cartoon and 1940’s detective thriller—into a seamless package that made sense to the audience.

One of the most notable characteristics of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the number of animated cartoon stars that make cameo appearances. The filmmakers secured the rights for screen appearances by classic characters from Disney, Warner Bros., Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), and Paramount Pictures, along with Walter Lantz’s Woody Woodpecker. For the first time, Bugs Bunny shared the screen with archrival Mickey Mouse. In fact, the contract between studios stipulated that the stars of each studio must have the same amount of screen time and number of words spoken. The studios’ lesser players, such as Daffy Duck and Donald Duck, were less limited and therefore able to interact in a much more outrageous scene, co-animated by Chuck Jones (creator of Looney Tunes).

Other classic cartoon characters making cameo appearances in Who Framed Roger Rabbit are Disney’s Goofy, Pluto, Minnie Mouse, Daisy Duck, and Clarabelle Cow; the Warner Bros. characters Tweety, Porky Pig, Sylvester, Yosemite Sam; and MGM’s Droopy Dog. These cameos helped support the idea that Toon stars have everyday lives that they live alongside humans. The film includes an undertone that the Toons are considered inferior to humans, a reference to the racial tensions of the United States in the mid-twentieth century.

The rest of the animated cast was created by Williams at his studio in London. It was Zemeckis’s intention that the original cartoons for Who Framed Roger Rabbit have the animation quality of Disney, a character resemblance to Looney Tunes, and the wit of Tex Avery’s cartoons.

The film begins with a cartoon starring Roger Rabbit—voiced by Charles Fleischer—and his sidekick Baby Herman. The director’s three objectives were met right from the beginning, as audiences were awed by the opening sequence, their awe continuing throughout the more than three hundred individual animations that followed.

During filming of the live-action parts in England, the actors had to perform convincingly against thin air. Fleischer was on the set for every Roger Rabbit scene to read his lines and interact with the actors; he wore a Roger Rabbit suit to stay in character. Multiple puppets, proportioned to fill the space of the animations they represented, were in place during first takes to give the actors a feeling for where they must stand, move, and look; animators could then look at these first shots to decide how to position the cartoons. The crew also built robotic devices that would move items in the air. Animators would then draw over the thin machines to make the cartoons look like they were interacting with objects that were held, such as guns, glasses, and trays.

The plot tells the story of Roger Rabbit and detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), who involuntarily takes Roger’s case. Their nemesis, Judge Doom, played by Christopher Lloyd of Back to the Future fame, frames Roger for the murder of Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the owner of Toontown. Acme has a risqué relationship with Roger’s animated wife, Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner), and has promised her and the other Toons the deed to Toontown upon his death.

On Acme’s death, the deed goes missing, which gives Lloyd’s Doom a chance to shut down the outrageously animated portion of Los Angeles to construct a freeway. This part of the plot is based on the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, when General Motors and its partners undermined public transportation in Los Angeles to promote the automobile.

After the live action was finished, the animators began work on the film. The project required two years to complete, during which other studios were called in to do fill work for the animation. After animation was complete, the film was sent to George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, where the cartoon scenes were shaded and digital effects were added to make the real world and the cartoon world seem to coexist. During these last two phases of production, the project came close to being canceled on several occasions for going over budget and exceeding its schedule.

After Who Framed Roger Rabbit premiered in New York City on June 21, 1988, and was released nationwide the following day, audiences surged to see it. In 1989, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the film four Oscars: two for Best Effects (Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects), one for Best Film Editing, and a Special Achievement Award presented to Richard Williams for the film’s animation direction and creation of the cartoon characters. Academy Awards


Who Framed Roger Rabbit became a milestone for the film industry. It proved that animation projects could attract audiences and revenue as they had during the golden years of Disney full-length animated films. The film ended a drought for animated features and helped to spur resources and publicity for the genre. It also contributed to the Disney Company’s continued domination of the genre, encouraging the production of such successes as The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). Touchstone Pictures
Amblin Entertainment
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (film)

Spielberg’s animation studio, Amblimation, went on to produce a few television series before merging with his Dreamworks animation division, which went on to produce its own successes, including Shrek (2001). Warner Bros. went on to capitalize on the resurgence in Looney Toons’ popularity and produced spin-offs like Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs (both of which involved Spielberg).

In film history, Who Framed Roger Rabbit set the standard for the future merger of live action and animation. It seamlessly integrated the real world with that of cartoon fantasy better than any previous attempt, and it raised the bar for further animation productions. At the time, it was also the most expensive film produced. It marked the first time Warner Bros. mascot Bugs Bunny, Disney patriarch Mickey Mouse, and other veteran animated characters meet on the screen, thus reviving the classics of the golden age of animation and allowing a new generation to enjoy the style of their art. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (film)
Motion pictures;Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Further Reading

  • Johnston, Ollie, and Frank Thomas. The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. New York: Disney Editions, 1995. Mostly a testament to the animation that came before Roger Rabbit, this book shows the process by which the old cartoons on which Roger is based were created.
  • Laybourne, Kit. The Animation Book: A Complete Guide to Animated Filmmaking. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998. A quintessential guide to animation techniques used in classic and golden-age animation, including those used in this film.
  • Williams, Richard. The Animator’s Survival Kit: A Manual of Methods, Principles, and Formulas for Classical, Computer Games, Stop Motion, and Internet Animators. London: Faber & Faber, 2002. Description of the animation process for the film by the director in charge of the animation.

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