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Does this picture look familar, you guys. It's from a film that came out more than 20 years ago.it is more than 20 years ago, perhaps, when a groundbreaking merging of Live Action and Traditional 2D Hand Drawn Cel Cartoon Animation took place. It’s a historic union of Disney’s Touchstone Pictures division, Steven Spielberg’s own company, Amblin Entertainment, Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis, and effect artists working for George Lucas’ visual effects facility, Industrial Light and Magic (which, at the time, was also working on George Lucas and Ron Howard’s 1988 fantasy epic, Willow, which marks the beginning of the end of the photochemical technology, and the very beginnings of the digital technology of today, in the digital morphing effects at one point of that film), all of which sought to create a film in which the surreal dimension of the toons, coexisted with humanity in three dimensional space.
The film was no other than Who Framed Roger Rabbit from 1988. In the world of cartoons, reality was absent. Explosions have left characters with blackened faces (which may be at times stereotypical in those days) and world weary expressions, anvils descended from the heavens crush their victims before they sprang back to life like accordions, irrelevant gravity was presence as figures suspend themselves in the space above the yawning gorges.
I think the concept of compositing traditional animation and live action footage wasn’t new, dating all the way back to either the time of Gertie the Dinosaur, or Fleischer Studios’ Out of the Inkwell Series of the 20’s, a scene in You Oughta Be in Pictures (1940), when Porky Pig met Leon Schlesinger in his office, Jerry of Hanna Barbara’s Tom and Jerry Series for MGM dancing with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh (1945), James Baskett playing Uncle Remus and his trek across the cartoon environment of the ever-controversial Disney movie, Song of the South (1946), and Comedian Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews (of the Sound of Music fame) strolling through the animated lands at one point in Mary Poppins (1964). George Lucas, the legendary creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, suggested that the title character of Howard the Duck (1986), which notoriously ended up as an actor in a duck costume, could be an animated character.
As for the early tests and challenges of bringing these zany cartoon creatures called Toons to life, I’ll explain.
The union of live actors and traditional hand drawn characters was usually accomplished by overlaying traditional animation over large prints made of the real life footage, and had its moments of fancy. In the main, however, the humans and the toons were just going through motions occupying the same stage onscreen, so they ain’t interacting with each other! The technological limitations of achieving real interaction may include locked off photography of live action (which makes for a final composite that is contrived and very static indeed) and flattened traditional animation pasted on it, or vice versa, if it’s a live action element composited into the land of the toons.
But for this movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, however, it wasn’t enough to have the human and the toon occupy the exact space merely. For the first time in 74 years or so, the human and the toon would have to reach out and grab each other in either part of their bodies.
Before matters could be greenlit, however, what Steven Spielberg and the new regime of the Walt Disney Company really needs is some assurance that this concept was achievable technically. George Lucas’ ILM facility created some test footage in which the traditionally animated character, Roger Rabbit, to be exact, went down some real stairs, only to trip and landed on, and crash into and scatter a stack of live action boxes, which seem empty to me.
Not only was Roger Rabbit engage physically in a real world setting, that test footage marked the first time a drop move hit the toon thanks to the axe that is the live action camera. Steve was so astonished that he told Bob that the Roger Rabbit test footage was definitively the second time Spielberg has seen movie history, with the first time Steven Spielberg witness film history being the original 1977 Star Wars.
Steve was impressed so did the Disney execs especially Michael Eisner (now replaced by Roger Iger, John Lasseter, and Ed Catmull) so begins in earnest, the making of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
ILM’s task really was to composite with traditional optical technology, 3D live action with 2D traditional hand drawn animated characters, giving the toon-like creatures a believable dimensionality. Roger Rabbit’s scale and complexity would pose in time the same challenge ILM would face 3 years later when hired to crate the CGI liquid metal cyborg, the T1000 for the 1991 film, Terminator 2: Judgement Day: the film’s success depends on expanding effects art and technology to create images that boldly go where no other image have gone before.
American Cinematographer’s July 1988 description of Roger Rabbit’s ambitions is that in order “to convince an audience that a talking cartoon rabbit and his animated colleagues really coexist in the same world [human beings], demands some high-grade movie making, fine writing and direction, brilliant design and photography, sharp editing, sympathetic scoring, realistic sound, and the dedicated contributions of a lot of craftsmen and technicians. Yet, all these elements would be useless but for the remarkable visual effects artists of Industrial Light & Magic.”
Well, if I ever make my epic nine-episode live action/animated feature film saga, Dexter’s Odyssey (made by my Tim Box production company, in association with Legendary Pictures and Cartoon Network and released and distributed through Warner Bros. Pictures), I must convince an audience that the 2D traditionally animated Dexter’s Lab and Powerpuff Girls characters (including those from Dexter’s Lab seasons 1 and 2) really co-exist in the same world with human beings, and characters and creatures realized as CGI, pratical, physical, animatronics, etc., with some high-grade movie-making (including shooting all nine films back-to-back on 24-P HD digital video, Digital Stereoscopic 3D video, and IMAX film, and in a 2.40:1 ratio), fine writing and direction, brilliant design and 24-P HD Digital/Digital 3D/IMAX photography, sharp editing (done digitally) sympathetic scoring (albeit befitting the musical atmosphere of the music scores of the Lion King, Waterworld, etc.), realistic sound design and sound editing, and even the dedicated contributions of a lot of craftsmen and technicians from across several continents around the world. But, like Roger Rabbit before Dexter’s Odyssey, all of these elements might be useless but for the remarkable VFX artists of ILM, Weta Digital, Weta Workshop, and dozens and dozens of other different VFX and animation shops.
Anyway, Ken Ralston, ILM’s effects supervisor on the movie, would later characterize the two-year production as the equivalent of creating three Star Wars movies, much like I would characterize my 15-year (or so) production of Dexter’s Odyssey as the equivalent of creating three Lord of the Rings Movies (like Peter Jackson did).
More than 70% of Roger Rabbit in its total form would travel through ILM’s optical printers—an estimated total of 1,040 shots incorporating some 10,000 separate elements. In contrast, My Dexter’s Odyssey Project, if I ever make it, would have more than 100% of the total 9 films travel through ILM and/or Weta’s digital computer files, creating an estimated total of 42,000+ shots or so, incorporating 500,000+ separate elements or so. As for Roger Rabbit, probably because of the unprecedented use of optical printers, nearly all the live action will be shot using Paramount’s high quality VistaVision format. For the first time since the 1950’s, a major movie would employ that system. And as for Dexter’s Odyssey, because all 9 films would go through so many digital compositing processes, all the live action for my Dexter’s Odyssey project (if I ever make the 9 films) will be shot using 24-P High Definition Digital Video Progressive Scan cameras, the Fusion 3D camera system developed for James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and IMAX cameras used by Chris Nolan to shoot the Dark Knight (200 partially in the IMAX format.
Back to the Roger Rabbit topic, you guys! Anyway, Mike Bolles, Greg Beaumonte, and all the others members at ILM’s Camera Department built specially designed horizontal film format cameras for the main unit and named them, VistaFlex cameras. At the same time, ILM was also gearing up for Lucasfilm’s mythic fantasy film, Willow, which has more than 350 complex VFX scenes. Willow and Roger Rabbit required ILM to produce much more than 1,500 shots for 1988, which an unprecedented number given ILM’s average annual 300-shot output. To meet this massive effects shots onslaught, Roger Rabbit’s optical supervisor and VFX co-supervisor, Ed Jones, expand the number of optical department personnel to 32 people and also organized late night and day work shifts.
Principal Photography on Roger Rabbit would have its own challenges, such as the creation of the special props and rigs as the stand-ins for the traditional animation elements that would later be added in postproduction. In addition, Who Framed Roger Rabbit forced the entire cast of human characters to interact throughout the whole thing with the invisible creatures called Toons. Bob Hoskins, for example, would recall how he’s still haunted by the phantom toon-like creatures he’s been conjuring up throughout Roger Rabbit, even months after the film was finished.
Meanwhile, the traditional animation effort, which would provide ILM with the toons it’d have to composite with live action, may require a team of some 300 animators based in the UK and led by Richard Williams. Additional Traditional Animation work was done in the US, in LA, by Animation director Dale Baer and a crew of just 75. In the traditional animation process, the Photostats of each approved live action frame were printed onto animation registered Photostat paper. With these Photostats as a reference guide placed over clear acetate cels, the Roger Rabbit artists could then hand draw and paint their animation, frame by frame, or maybe one frame at a time.
The animators’ work would be exactin in matching traditional animation performances to lively camera movements, and live action actors and environments. Bob Zemeckis coached the animators in the emotions and expressions he wants from his toons in each frame. To help spur things along, Ken Ralston gave a special pep talk to the animation crews early in the game. Ralston admitted that “There came a day when associate producer Steve Starkey and I had to become the bad cops. We got Williams’ people together and I told them that I’d done a lot of really huge effects pictures like Star Wars and Return of the Jedi and that I noticed there was something missing in that group: FEAR! I told them that I sensed a real lack of terror. I had to make them understand how big this thing really was and that we couldn’t wait until the last second to start working 24 hours a day. I laid it on real thick and explained that all the people at ILM were sitting at the end of the line waiting for their elements.”
Before the flood of traditional animation elements to be composited reach Industrial Light & Magic., Ralston and Jones had begun experimenting with ways to integrate the characters into their real-life environments. There were a lot of test phase concerns that the shadows animated by Williams’ unit had a tendency to chatter one frame at a time—there’s unsteadiness between the matte and its foreground element. These painted shadows also wouldn’t allow ILM to diffuse and soften their edges a way that mimicked real shadows impacting real objects.
It’s finally decided that the animation troops would produce a trio of separate layers of animation:
1. The Principal Character Animation
2. Tone effects for highlighting toons
3. Shadows, which ILM would combine during the final optical compositing phase.
Quarter tones mattes were used to give depth to the images, avoiding the flat look that some cel animation suffered from. To save time, quarter tones will be used for close-ups. Meanwhile, less refined valued halftones were applied to toons that appeared in the background. The tone and shadow elements were particularly important in giving the traditionally drawn animated characters the three dimensional quality they would need to inhabit the real world. 74 years before this film came out in 1988; tones and shadows were filmed in black and white high contrast film stock, which provided grayish colored highlights when composited. The Team at ILM, after viewing tone and shadow passes during the test phase, may feel that this traditional approach muddied the 2D traditional animation, making it stand apart from the live action elements.
Ed Jones said that “Peg Hunter, one of our optical team members, came up with the idea of re-photographing the tone elements onto a clear-based color stock instead of the traditional black and white stock. We experimented and discovered that it was a tremendous solution in terms of creating realistic shadows and enhancements to the shots. No more muddy tones! It was a real breakthrough. In a way, we created a new dimension on Roger Rabbit. The animation didn’t look two dimensional, [although] it didn’t look entirely 3D, either; we called it 2 and ¾-D.”
Peg Hunter adds that “It’s like having a paintbrush and a palette of pastel colors. We were able to apply a delicate brushstroke and add subtle color to enhance the character’s main animation pass. By manipulating the film through filtration, we added layer upon layer of color to the tones to enrich each character. It made the animation blend into the background much more than the old technique of using black and white film stock.
Meanwhile, the toons, who for most of the film had to suffer through the logic of the human world (much like the traditionally drawn animated Dexter’s Lab and Powerpuff Girls characters would for the Dexter’s Odyssey films, if I ever make them), got a little turnabout when Hoskins’ character, a Los Angeles gumshoe named Eddie Valiant had to enter the cartoon wonderland of Toontown. There, in the land of the toons, Hoskins’ flesh and blood character was marred by some of the indignities, which pass for normalcy, that the cartoon world threw at him: getting literally flattened to the floor and ceiling of a speeding elevator and experiencing interminable falls through space.
Integrating Hoskins into his surreal cartoon environment will require ILM’s various elaborate blue screen setups. Special wire rigs help make the actor fly, all the while the blue screen photography was designed with all of the freedoms of live action that marked the camerawork of the whole thing. But there’s a tool called a vidweo compositing system that is very important in achieving the shots and helping to establish the correct scale and perspective that needs Hoskins to be placed in the Toontown Animation.
Videotaped and displayed on a monitor screen are the Toontown storyboard scenes, all the while another videotape from the VistaVision camera filming the blue screen mattes the actor over the storyboards’ images on the monitor, allowing the production to evaluate whether Bob Hoskins will be correctly placed into each shot.
All the pressures of duty for the guys at ILM were typified by the case of some exhausted guy named Ed Jones. After working for months and months, without a single day off at all, he went to a local coffee shop to order his usual toast and cappuccino and there he stood, frozen, and even befuddled at the counter, as he tried to remember the word “toast”. A fellow ILM guy was near him, and despite a few moments of pantomime, the ILM guy help complete his order in the coffee shop.
Bob Zemeckis later commented that working on the movie is really like a movie with a full blast volume. For Roger Rabbit, there were 751 credited members of the production, and the more than 82,000 frames of animation had all been traditionally drawn, the thousand-plus shots all composited with traditional ILM optical printers.
Fast forward to the making of Dexter’s Odyssey (if I ever make them) and you will know that there will be 25,576+ credited members of the production, more than 2,665,000+ frames of traditionally drawn animation, and the forty-two thousand-plus will all be composited digitally.
Anyway, even though Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a monumental achievement and a critical and commercial hit, the production itself really was an ordeal and there are few sequel talks between few who had worked on Roger Rabbit. Roger Rabbit would win both the American and British Academy Awards for best visual effects, but Ed Jones would create his own souvenir of the experience: a paperweight in the shape of a piece of toast, a personal reminder to him of the rigors of making movie history.
Ed Jones observes that “the only reason to do another Roger Rabbit would be if you could push the technical envelope and do it all digitally. It would be a more precise effort because in the digital realm you’d have more control over the individual elements and all of the edge characteristics. There would be no degradation or loss of quality in the compositing as you layer in all the separate elements. I believe computer animation paint systems and digital composites could capture the energy and authenticity of the original cartoons.”
Well, over the next 15 years or so, I’ll fulfill Ed Jones’ prophecy of pushing Roger Rabbit’s technical envelope and do it all digitally, with computer animation/computer paint systems, digital composites, etc., by making what I hoped for to be the next Who Framed Roger Rabbit/Lord of the Rings/Star Wars/Jurassic Park, etc., the epic 9-part tale of the epic journey of Dexter (also known as Dexter Odysseus Zarus), his sister, Dee Dee, her friends, Lee Lee (whom Dexter will fall in love with) and Mee Mee, and 8 other companions (forming a fellowship called the Caravan of Timboxia), through the lands of the realm of Timboxia, to reach the land of Astronoma to overthrow the evil Dark Lord of Astronoma, Mandark, and to prevent the Lands of Timboxia from falling into the evil hands of Mandark (who, according to prophecy, a Caucasian male (like Dexter and a Asian female (like one of Dee Dee’s friends, Lee Lee) would one day destroy). It would be released in nine three hour parts but filmed concurrently at the same time (with some additional shooting along the way) using 24-P HD digital cameras, the Fusion 3D camera system introduced with the 2008 Brandon Fraiser vehicle, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D, and IMAX cameras (like the ones Chris Nolan used for the 2008 Batman movie, the Dark Knight). It would combine live action, visual effects wizardry both old and new, 2D Traditional hand drawn animation, CGI, animatronics, and other techniques, etc. to groundbreaking effect. It would be the live action/animated feature film series saga to end all Live Action/Animated feature films. The project (made by my Tim Box production company, in association with Legendary Pictures and Cartoon Network, and released and distributed through Warner Bros.) will be Dexter’s Odyssey.
So, do you like my account on ILM's involvement on Who Framed Roger Rabbit or not? What did you think of it? Well, tell me.
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