A Roger Rabbit Retrospective, and 3 Points of Living Animation – LightTrain

Clickety Clack Down the Track and welcome aboard once again! Just a brief reminder: I am not talking about the Oscars this year, as everyone else seems to pump out articles about it left and right and my posts take a longer time to make. For now, here’s one of my backup posts where I chitter-chatter about Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s technical achievements and such…

Since way back in 1900 when the first mix of animation and live-action film, The Enchanted Drawing, there’s always been attempts of integrating 2D characters in our real world. There are a number of examples, however none of these before nor after have ever inched close to the technical brilliance of the Robert Zemeckis and Richard Williams film, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’. Today, I’m proud to list the three major foundations the feature utilizes for fusing together two very disparate mediums seamlessly. Let’s get this show on the road!


With every slight movement from a ‘toon’, there triggers a reaction from various concrete objects, causing boxes to tumble, windows to shatter, and plates to smash. This allowed for the special effects team to craft custom mechanisms for each to mirror their actions. As an example, Baby Herman’s cigar was employed by a servo-controlled copycat automation capable of inhabiting the couple of different degrees, something that couldn’t be accomplished with string or marionettes. And, yes, this proved to be quite a challenge, but the crew behind the scenes of Roger Rabbit knew the fictional universes rules. They most definitely could’ve treked down the simple route and allowed Herman to carry a cartoon cigar or the weasels wield animated guns but they refused to. Secondly, a issue most live action/animation hybrids fall into is that the animation seems to be inhabiting a different plane then the actors, failing to blend the methods and end up sandwhiching them together. This is commonly noticeable when the camera shot is stationary, but luckily Roger Rabbit is filmed like a real film; camera motion is what transforms these moments into something fully cinematic and the cartoon elements didn’t dwindle that. This is substantially more impressive when bringing up their layer composition, which smoothly transitions us into…


Or more specifically Shadow and Light Accuracy, this is a rather vital pillar in every single drawing. It bestows the 2D illustration the illusion of being 3D, and I studied the art of shading in myriad ways, exclusively comic books. This is what puts Roger Rabbit into a league of its own: All the toons are a separate layer by themselves but there is also 5 extra shadow and highlight layers mixed with each other, almost baring similarity to a watercolor painting. The layout begins with a dark matte as a blacklight, a shadow mask, an additional mask acting as a cast shadow, an interpositive, and finally a distinct shadow for any physical interaction between them and an actor. When composed, it gave the characters a special three-dimensionality that was never crafted before. Now, watch this short clip from the film below:

“Bumping The Lamp”

“Bumping the Lamp” was a phrase coined by the Disney executives during Roger Rabbit’s production which meant the animation team breaking all expectations of what was expected from them. For this scene, they actually took the time to shade everything from Roger’s limbs to his head differently with each frame due to the shifting light rather than just give him one shadow design throughout the entirety. Those subtle little details is what convinces your audience that the whole cast whether toon or not are sharing one expanse. And last but not least…


This was important for a variety of reasons: It establishes an emotional connection between the characters, gives a blocking reference for the animation team, and, yet again, settles the delusion that they are hanging around in the same semblance. When this works, it’s convincing synergy, but when it falls short it may pull you out of the atmosphere. This is more often than not the case with the 1964 musical classic, Mary Poppins, as you can clearly pinpoint that, despite all its charm, Julie Andrews constantly seems as if she’s glaring at dead air. Parts like this popped up every so often while filming Roger Rabbit, as well, though the brilliant animators would find a way to work around it, like in the time frame when Eddie and Roger arrive outside Maroon Studios, Bob Hoskins barely missed Roger’s eye contact, and so they had the titular role stand up on his toes against the wall, they thought that up.

It’s easy to say that the public wasn’t anticipating Roger Rabbit’s remarkable level of realism in 1988. But ultimately the best element about this movie is that – even if you have zero knowledge of filmmaking or animation manner – it hardly effects your enjoyment of it as a whole. The true movie magic stems from the storytelling and the heart and the humour, whilst the dedication to the art and the technical nuances is what will inspire up-and-coming artists, and that is something I believe we can all admire.


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Thanks for tuning in!

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