Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released 30 years ago today and despite the major innovations that have emerged since it remains an achievement without equal. Leaping over business, technological and creative hurdles that had been up until that point had no real precedence in the industry, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a rare perfect storm in the art of filmmaking—a studio vehicle, a personally driven vision and a piece of sheer technological innovation, it’s without question that the film stands as an exceptional Hollywood product that also happens to be great art.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit also happens to have one of the most tumultuous journeys to the big screen in Disney’s history. A production plagued by overbudgets, a rotoscoping process that had not even existed until that point, and numerous conflicts of interests, Who Framed Rabbit notorious development is riddled with controversy and fun facts, here’s just five of them:
Walt Disney Pictures
The cost of Warner Bros’ cartoon property in Who Framed Roger Rabbit was stupidly cheap:
When Who Framed Roger Rabbit was being made the only licensed cartoons in the film were characters already owned by Disney (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, etc.) and the original ones developed by Zemeckis’ team of animators (i.e., Roger Rabbit). However, Robert Zemeckis had also intended to use the property of Chuck Jones’ widely famous cartoon. Iconic characters such as Tweety, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam and, of course, Bugs Bunny all make appearances in Zemeckis’s film all for the low fee of $5000 a character, a number—even with inflation—is remarkably cheap for a film of this scale. However, such a price did not come all too easily as it only happened as a result of Spielberg’s influence and an agreement that if property, such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, were to be shown, they’d have to be shown with an equal amount of time as their respective Disney cartoon counterparts, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
The production of Who Framed Roger Rabbit was nearly shut down after a substantial increase to its originally set budget:
Initially, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was given a budget of 29 million dollars (a price alone already making it most expensive animated film ever greenlit). But even that unprecedented amount would be eventually surpassed, culminating to a whopping 50 million. This almost spelt the end for the film when Disney’s President Michael Eisner learned that the buget had soared past the 40 million mark and attempted to shut down production. Thanks to Jeffrey Katzenberg (the now former head of Disney and DreamWorks animation), Eisner was persuaded from doing so, ultimately convinced by Katzenberg that the film would be good for Disney Animation which had—until that point—had not entered its animated renaissance. The decision to hold up production ultimately proved the right one as the movie would go on to make its budget back seven times over and create a renewed interest in Disney Animation that would bring The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin to existence.
Robert Zemeckis wouldn’t have gotten away with nearly half the stuff he did in Who Framed Roger Rabbit without Steven Spielberg’s participation:
Steven Spielberg was famously known at the time as Robert Zemeckis’ mentor, which didn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone who watched Back to the Future and recognized a similar pop sensibility in Spielberg’s own projects. Though less acknowledged was how Spielberg was equally, if not more, fundamental to the existence of Who Framed Roger Rabbit as the upstart Zemeckis. The project was a mere curiosity before being picked up by Disney, but once Back to the Future had shot Zemeckis through the ranks of Hollywood’s most sought-after directors Spielberg—who had been cradling the idea until this point—handpicked him to envision the project. Spielberg, however, didn’t merely hand over the project. His influence, along with some business savvy, helped Zemeckis envision his product exactly as he intended—this was in spite the fact that Zemeckis had went 20 million dollars overbudget, had created an overall “darker” vision than Disney wanted, and that he had successfully cloned the cartoon properties of several outside companies.
Walt Disney Pictures
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is officially an adaptation of the 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit but is truly an adaptation of Roman Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown:
Did you know Who Framed Roger Rabbit was an adaptation of a neo-noir novel called Who Censored Roger Rabbit? Both books share the same conceptual basis, with the primary exception being that Censored was ultimately about the comic strip industry whereas Framed centred on the Hollywood studio backlots. Premise-wise, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was actually more inspired by Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, released seven years prior to the release of Gray Wolf’s Censored. The script, written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, was inspired by Los Angeles’ suburban expansion, a real history that also inspired Chinatown. A peculiar detail because Who Framed Roger Rabbit seems to be firmly ingrained in the 1940s tradition of film noir and animation, not in 1970’s grittier, more socially aware New Hollywood tradition
Before any animation was added (making it a technical marvel 30 years later), Who Framed Roger Rabbit was conceived of rubber dummies, mechanical arms, puppet strings and a tenuous hope that the not-yet-animated cartoons would live up to Zemeckis’s wildly ambitious vision:
The post-production process of animating Who Framed Roger Rabbit was among the most arduous in any animated film at the time. The process did not require simply rotoscoping animation in live-action settings but a painstaking attention to detail that required coordination, lighting and effects that had not been attempted in any animated (or live-action) medium at the time. Among these difficulties involved lighting animated characters, whether in a dark or light space, so that they would look convincing in a shared environment with their live action counterparts. Despite the animation’s deserving infamy, the little notice given to the sheer creativity involved during the actual filming process, before any of the animation had been fully developed. Props such as marionette strings, robotic arms and rubber mannequins were used in lieu of actual cartoon characters, props that would stand-in for what—at that point—only the mind’s imagination could conjure.