Who Shot Roger Rabbit

by David Konow
The tech worked for Toons.

It’s difficult to believe that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is now 25 years old. And if you weren’t around when the movie first wowed audiences in theaters, it’s even more difficult to comprehend its significance to special effects. Animation and live action were brought together before by Disney, but Roger Rabbit took it to a whole new level. Just like the first time you saw Star Wars and Jurassic Park, you knew you were watching a major game changer in terms of filmmaking technology, but the technology never got in the way of the storytelling.

Throughout Robert Zemeckis’s career he’s brought parallel worlds together. He had previously put fictional characters around The Beatles coming to America in his directing debut, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and he zapped Marty McFly back and forth in time in Back to the Future, so bringing together the real world and and the world of animation was a task totally up his alley. That is, if he could secure the job.

Roger Rabbit was first set up at Disney in 1981, when Robert Zemeckis was still trying to make a name for himself as a filmmaker. He had already directed the 1978 feature I Wanna Hold Your Hand for Universal, which did no business, as well as co-writing, with Bob Gale and John Milius, the Steven Spielberg disaster flick 1941. Following 1941, Zemeckis helmed the comedy Used Cars (also co-written with Gale) which was much beloved by fans, and had some of the highest test scores in Columbia’s history, but it was still a financial flop.

Disney executive Tom Wilhite, who was also a major driving force behind the special effects-ladden Tron, wanted Zemeckis to direct Roger Rabbit, but Michael Eisner wasn’t a fan of his work. Eisner eventually changed his mind after seeing Back to the Future, but Zemeckis was initially disappointed that he was working with Disney because he felt the Warner Brothers characters were much more interesting to work with. Still, Zemeckis was able to bring Warner Brothers cartoons into the film, which was quite a feat to pull off for a Disney production.

As recalled in the Eisner-centric book Keys to the Kingdom, Zemeckis insisted that the animation in Roger Rabbit used every frame, a very time consuming, and expensive, proposition. Legendary animator Richard Williams was brought on to direct the animation sequences (another drama-filled Hollywood story we've written about before). A minute of animation reportedly took a team of twenty people to bring to life. This was clearly not going to be a cheap movie, which drove the terminally stingy Disney crazy at the overruns.

As the budget climbed past the original $29 million to $40 million, Eisner cornered executive producer Steven Spielberg and yelled, “You promised me I would never see a four!” In fact, the budget went over $50 million, and according to one report, Roger Rabbit may have cost as much as $70 million by the end of its production. That rising cost can largely be attributed to the technical ambitions the film.

Dean Cundey was the cinematographer on Roger Rabbit, and he has shot many movies that broke new ground throughout his career. Cundey shot Halloween’s masterful opening steadicam segment, and he was also the DP on John Carpenter’s The Thing, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and Apollo 13, to name a few. One can only imagine how difficult it had to be to reinvent the wheel so many times, but as Cundey told me, “I’ve always enjoyed doing things that haven’t been done before, and taking something to a new level as far as technology or technique. Roger Rabbit was really a major new step.”

One of the biggest challenges of shooting Roger Rabbit was Zemeckis wanted to move the camera a lot, which was a big no-no when it came to combining live action and animation. As Cundey recalls, “We had been given rules by Disney: ‘You can’t move the camera. Shoot wide shots so you can movie the animation around inside. Light the set very evenly.’ And we said, ‘We’re going to violate those rules because we want to do something different.’”

To get the quality that the director demanded, Cundey chose to shoot Roger Rabbit with VistaVision. VistaVision was a cinema format created by Paramount in the ‘50s in which 35mm film had higher resolution and finer grain, and used in epics like The Ten Commandments. VistaVision was designed to rival the curved widescreen of Cinerama, but Paramount discontinued it after seven years of use. Still, VistaVision would continue to be used throughout the years, especially for FX shots, and it is also considered the catalyst for the 80mm IMAX.

Mitchell VistaVision camera, at New York's Museum of Moving Image.

As Cundey explains, “VistaVision shot regular 35mm film, but it ran through the camera sideways so you ended up with a frame that was twice the size. It was wider, but the negative was larger. What that meant was you got better quality, especially when you started compositing shots, because in those days compositing wasn’t done at the computer, it was done on an optical printer.”

The problem was there were no existing cameras that could shoot in VistaVision. Paramount had built a few in the 50s, but they had already been dismantled, and it was an obsolete filming system that was by then only used for optical FX. “ILM used the VistaVision system, but it was for isolated shots in a movie, never for an entire film,” Cundey continues.

The solution was building a VistaVision camera that could actually shoot dialog. “ILM actually built the camera,” Cundey says. “I would go up and consult with them, and give them suggestions for features we needed.”

But creating the cameras was just the beginning; using them properly was another hurdle to tackle. With the VistaVision camera, “You couldn’t look through the camera and see the shots as easily,” Cundey recalls. “It was very awkward.

“Composing shots by the camera operator is done by reflex,” Cundey continues. “You look at the frame, and what you see in the frame tells you where to place the subject, how to move the camera, how fast to move it, etc. Well this was a film where most of the time the lead character wasn’t in the frame. So my operator, Ray Stella, always had to imagine, or any of the other animated characters in the frame, then automatically recompose the frame to allow for that. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been room in the frame to put in the animated character later.”

But as we know now, the gambles Zemeckis took paid off, big time. Roger Rabbit was a huge hit, grossing $156 million in the US, and $329 million internationally, a huge box office take for the time. (Adjusted for inflation this would be nearly $300 million domestic, and over $600 million foreign today.) It also won two Academy Awards, for Best Film Editing and Best Visual Effects.

Basking in its success, Zemeckis would go on to direct Back to the Future II the next year. And just around the corner from Roger Rabbit, Cundey would shoot another major game changer with Steven Spielberg and Jurassic Park.

"The goal is to always provide the audience with something they haven’t seen before, and to somehow embellish what we’ve already done."

“A lot of the films I’ve worked on have benefitted from a previous film,” says Cundey. “I’ve often taken the experiences, techniques, and technology I do in one film, and apply it to the next film on a new level. Jurassic Park was definitely an example of that. I was taking the same kind of thought process that came out of shooting Roger Rabbit, but I was using another completely untried technique, which was photo-realistic computer generated characters.”

“One of the things I really enjoy about this industry is the fact that we’re always doing something new. The goal is to always provide the audience with something they haven’t seen before, and to somehow embellish what we’ve already done. So often what we do is like an untried research and development experiment. You get used to flying by the seat of your pants through a lot of these new techniques, and you learn as you go. Just about the time you’ve got it mastered, which is by the end of the film. You start another one. Somebody else comes up with an idea, and now you’re off and running.”