Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Revealing The Hidden Story Behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit?


Ross Anderson is a writer and journalist who is currently working on telling the definitive story of the making of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? - the pioneering film that is 25 years old this year. FLIP asked him a few questions about his new book, and also about how Rabbit fans and alumni can get involved with the project, and help Ross to tell the complete story of this modern animation masterpiece.

FLIP: You’re writing a book about “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” – tell us about the book!

Ross: The book is the story behind the making of Roger Rabbit. It will be very comprehensive – starting with the novel, “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?,” by Gary K. Wolf, and on to the very early development period within the Disney studio in the period 1981-1984.

Roger Rabbit was resurrected when Eisner, Wells, and Katzenberg arrived at Disney and finally started to fly when Spielberg and Zemeckis became involved. The book will cover the production of the feature film, focusing mostly on the animation, both in London and also at the Glendale unit. It will also go through the shorts, merchandizing, theme park presence, and – of course – the sequel.

When I started on the book, work on a sequel was going to be in the ‘past’ tense and then there was a glimmering of excitement with interviews from Zemeckis, Frank Marshall, Steven Starkey, and others. Now, Gary K. Wolf is making a bit of noise about a sequel. He is also publishing his (third) Roger Rabbit novel this November with an on-line publisher (Musa). It sounds as though it might be related to one he has had in the can for many years… on hold due to Disney’s confusion over a prequel/sequel… but I’ll have to wait until November like everybody else.

The book will also provide some history of the situation at the Disney studio in the early 1980s. It is really necessary in order to put into context why the film didn’t develop the necessary traction within Disney to be greenlit in the early 80s and then why decisions were made that ultimately saw the film being made off the Disney lot.

My interest in writing a book grew out of a particular interest in that very early development period at Disney. I saw an animation drawing of Roger at an auction (way before eBay!) that was based on a very different model. It was shortly after the film was released and I started to do some research. The 1981 Disney annual report included a small picture of Roger, on the same old model, and referenced Darrell Van Citters. I sought him out and we had a periodic correspondence. I have several friends who worked on Roger Rabbit and finally decided that I was ready to work at assembling all of the bits and pieces of the story.

I traveled quite extensively with my job and it enabled me to meet many key people, including Gary K. Wolf and Tom Wilhite, who was Disney’s live-action Production Head in the early 1980s and was instrumental in bringing Roger Rabbit to Disney… as well as Tron. I live in eastern Canada, so I’m a long way from Los Angeles – but over the past few years I have made a couple of trips to LA for interviews and gathering information.


FLIP: Are you looking to contact people who worked on the film?

Ross: Absolutely. I had been limited on how much time I could devote to the book while having to work at a job that paid the bills and balancing it with a healthy family life, but I am now semi-retired and energized. I have done a lot of interviews, but there is a lot of ground to cover… especially in writing such a comprehensive book. Many of the contacts came by way of word-of-mouth.

Animation has been a life-long passion of mine and I am very well read. The people I’ve spoken to realize that I know my stuff and see the passion and interest in writing a balanced story. They have cleared the path and made additional contacts for me.

I have been a dinosaur regarding social media, but I finally opened a Facebook account and it has been wonderful for getting connected with people who were involved with Roger Rabbit. There are many people who aren’t active in those forums, so I’m still on the hunt for contacts. Even on a production as intimate as the animation units on Roger Rabbit, there were work groups that didn’t mix so much. The character animators in The Forum [The Building in London where the animation was done] were on a different floor than the Effects crew, for example, and their experiences will have been slightly different. More input means more stories, more colour, more insight, and more corroboration. Ultimately, it means I’ll be better able to represent what really happened in a balanced and meaningful way.

I am also looking for contacts from ILM, Amblin, and the live-action side of the production.


FLIP: What is it about this particular film that is worthy of a book?


Ross:Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ was made at a time when every animated feature film didn’t have an accompanying ‘Art of…’ book. The people who were involved in making it knew they were part of something special, and they took ownership in making sure that it was special. An enormous amount was written about the film in the popular press and the trade press and the fan magazines at the time of its release. Still, a lot of that was part of Disney’s marketing program and one might have thought that the film was made by Bob Zemeckis, Dick Williams, Bob Hoskins, and Charles Fleischer all on their own. They tended to be the public ‘faces’ of the film, but a lot of people were involved. For many, it remains the biggest event of their careers.

For all the reasons that the trade journals and popular press touted the film at the time, it was a very special production. It certainly wasn’t the first film to combine animation with live-action, but it raised the bar so high that it might as well have been. It included stop-motion animation, puppeteering, and classical hand-drawn animation jazzed up to give the effect of 2½D. ILM did almost three times the number of special effects shots on Roger Rabbit as it did on the first Star Wars film. The people involved with the film thought, at the time, that they were on the vanguard of something new. In fact, it was one of the last great optical effects films.

It had a great script and was a well-made film, even without the background details that make geeks like me salivate. It captured the imagination of people who wouldn’t previously have been caught dead going to a ‘cartoon.’ The money rolled in and studios realized that they could still make money with animated films… they just had to be done really well. The successes of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’ were the one-two punch that ushered in the renaissance of animation in the early 1990s. I’m surprised a book hasn’t been written already.

It is not correct to say that it has become a cult film because that implies it wasn’t appreciated and understood at the time it was released. ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ was enormously popular when it was released – but people have an enduring affection for it.

I was able to attend the ‘Toontown Reunion’ event hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in April. It was the first public screening of the new digital print and there was a panel discussion following the film. People love the film for all kinds of reasons; for the excellent film-making, for the wonderful and subtle acting, for the ‘geek factor’, and, sometimes, for very personal reasons. I have always had a passion for animation… from my earliest memories.

When I was a teenager, in the early 1970s, it was almost embarrassing to be caught going to a Disney film of any sort and I wasn’t brave enough to speak about my interest with friends. ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ raised the interest in animation amongst the general public and raised the level of discussion – and expectation. It allowed me to come out of my ‘animation closet.’ The most interesting part of the ‘Toontown Reunion’ evening is that the animators and other people involved in the making of the film were as jazzed to be there as the fans.

The production being in London meant that many people were away from home and the production crew became their family for that time. It was very different than typical studio productions in LA. It was, and remains, a very special time in their lives. I am the same age as many of the people who made Roger Rabbit, and in interviewing them I’ve found that their affection for Disney was based on similar shared experiences, one of which was the family sitting down on Sunday evenings to see Walt introduce the show. The shows we loved the most were the ones when Walt would ‘draw back the curtain’ and give us a look behind the scenes of the magic. The book is my way of presenting the ‘magic’ that was 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ and giving readers a little peek behind the scenes.



FLIP: Why has nobody ever produced a sequel?


RA: The film rights to the Roger Rabbit characters are shared by Disney and Amblin, but the film’s title shows it as a presentation of Touchstone and Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s name was on it and he didn’t want a sequel to be shoddy. Many scripts for sequels have been developed over the years; one, in particular, seemed destined to be made – it was a prequel that had Roger breaking up a Nazi plot in America prior to WWII. Whether the story just didn’t gel or key people weren’t available or the subject didn’t fit with Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ aspirations – it didn’t get made.

A series of Roger Rabbit shorts were put into production to maintain the interest and to develop the franchise. The first one, ‘Tummy Trouble,’ led off Disney’s ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.’ Spielberg expected the second one, ‘Rollercoaster Rabbit,’ to lead off ‘Arachnophobia,’ which was Frank Marshall’s first film as director. Frank was a principal in Amblin and was one of the producers of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit.’ ‘Arachnophobia’ was the first film to be released under Disney’s Hollywood Pictures label. Michael Eisner decided to prop up ‘Dick Tracy’ with ‘Rollercoaster Rabbit’ instead and Spielberg was upset.

The third Roger Rabbit short, ‘Hare In My Soup,’ didn’t get past the pre-production stage. It is not for me to say whether Spielberg denied his approval due to Eisner’s actions. Ultimately, a third short was released – ‘Trail Mix-Up.’ Relationships were strained, which didn’t help the case for a feature film sequel. A CGI test-of-concept was directed by Eric Goldberg in 1995. By that time many of the key players were busy on other projects and the sequel has grown to be a thing of legend.

In the past couple of years Frank Marshall and Bob Zemeckis have alluded to a willingness to do a sequel. Zemeckis even said that Peter Seaman and Jeffrey Price, the original screenwriters, were working on a screenplay for the sequel. The latest I’ve heard is that a screenplay is on a desk somewhere at 500 S. Buena Vista, but that we shouldn’t be holding our breaths for it to be produced. Gary K. Wolf has been promoting a screenplay, entitled ‘The Stooge,’ that he says is in Disney’s hands. Concept artwork is on the internet. Gary is also publishing his third Roger Rabbit novel, ‘Who Wacked Roger Rabbit?,’ on-line at Musa.com in November.

The central conceit of Roger Rabbit is that real humans are interacting with Toons. I’m not sure how that would work with CGI Toons so real that ‘they could be real.’ To do the film as it was done in 1987-88, may now be such a herculean task that, as Don Hahn suggested during a panel discussion at this year’s Comic-Con…

“I think that -- in this day of multiple sequels -- that it's nice to have a movie that may possibly be just a one-off.”

The working title of the book is, ‘Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Hat: The Story of Roger Rabbit.’ If you’d like your story associated with Roger Rabbit to be told… contact Ross at therabbitguy2013@gmail.com.

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