Its star is an unknown talent, a hapless Bugs Bunny in clown pants from an imaginary place called Toontown. But the movie that bears his name, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, marks a milestone in the history of animation. Previous attempts to mix cartoon characters with live actors have been woefully unconvincing. In Disney movies such as Mary Poppins, the animated intruders looked flat, as if they were crudely • painted onto live-action images—which they were. But in Roger Rabbit, which opened in 1,100 theatres across North America last week, the cartoon personalities sharing the screen with human costars look and act as if they belong. Subtle shading gives them a three-dimensional appearance. They can grab an actor’s tie or squeeze his cheeks. They can fire real guns and crash through walls. They even cast shadows. And the Canadian behind the miracle is Oscar-winning animation wizard Richard Williams.
As Roger Rabbit’s director of animation, Williams was the creative linchpin in a $55-million summit deal between Disney’s Touchstone Pictures and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, which collaborated to produce the movie. His task was the most complex ever undertaken by an animator. Roger Rabbit’s animated sequences, which appear in 55 of the film’s 103 minutes, cost an average of $300,000 per minute. Williams marshalled a team of 34 animators—including five other Canadians— in London, England, where he has lived for the past three decades. Aided by a staff of 340, he spent 214 years drawing the characters into the movie, frame by frame. “Richard is a genius,” said Rabbit director and Spielberg protégé Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future). “I never worried about the animation. I knew it would be breathtaking.”
Genius: When asked about Williams, colleagues often begin by mentioning his genius, as if that were the most obvious and indisputable fact about him. They sometimes add that he is crazy, not unlike the characters he creates. In fact, friends say that Williams was crazy enough to almost turn down Roger Rabbit. He was reluctant to put aside a labor of love that has preoccupied him for 23 years: his own full-length animated
feature named The Thief and the Cobbler, loosely based on the Arabian Nights. But his fellow animator and friend Chuck Jones (creator of the Road Runner) called him and said, “You dumb bastard, you can’t turn down a chance to work with these guys—Spielberg, Disney. Take the job and you’ll be able to do anything you want.”
Success: Over a supper of grilled shrimp at a Los Angeles restaurant earlier this month, the Toronto-born Williams reflected on the wisdom of his decision. “I’ll be able to dine out on the rabbit for a bit,” he said, a spark of glee animating his blue eyes. Williams, 55, has already tasted success. He has won
240 international awards, including an Oscar in 1972 for A Christmas Carol. And he charmed audiences with animated opening sequences for the Pink Panther sequels, for which he created a slinky reincarnation of the cartoon cat.
Discipline: Animation directors are accustomed to having creative control, but Roger Rabbit forced Williams to submit to a new discipline. “My function was to be the director’s pencil,” he said. Zemeckis told him that he wanted “Disney’s articulation, Warner Bros.’ characters and [cartoon pioneer] Tex Avery’s humor.” As well as offering original characters, Roger Rabbit brings together the largest single collection of animated personalities ever presented in one movie. It includes cameo appearances by Disney’s most famous characters, including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, along with such Warner staples as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Even Betty Boop, the 1940s Kewpie doll, shows up in black and white.
The impresario who gave the movie its sense of ecumenical participation was Spielberg. He persuaded Warner Bros, to allow six of its characters to
appear alongside Disney’s for a bargain rate of $6,000 each. “Spielberg,” said Zemeckis, “was probably the only guy in Hollywood who could pull them all together.” But there were a few holdouts. Popeye, controlled by the King Features syndicate, was priced out of the picture. Explained Roger Rabbit coproducer Frank Marshall: “His agent wanted too much money. It was ridiculous—not even worth trying to negotiate.” The movie echoes the ironies of its casting. In one scene, as Dumbo flies by a window, a studio executive says: “I got him on loan from Disney— him and half the cast of Fantasia. The best part is: they work for peanuts.”
Complex: Working with imaginary costars put unusual pressures on Bob Hoskins, a British actor best known for his Oscar-
nominated role as a prostitute’s chauffeur in 1986’s Mona Lisa. He had to direct much of his dialogue at an inÍ visible point in space into which the rabbit would later be painted. Before long, he said, “I was hallucinating all the time.” Even off the set, Hoskins added, he would see cartoon characters at the breakfast table, “weasels mostly.” By the end of the six-month shoot, he said, “I was practically comatose.”
But once the filming ended, Williams faced another two years of highly complex animation work. In such movies as Mary Poppins, the camera was locked into a fixed position for scenes containing animation, so that the drawings would line up perfectly against the liveaction footage. But Zemeckis kept his camera moving constantly, and Roger Rabbit's characters had to be redrawn by hand in every single frame. According to Williams, no fewer than a million drawings went into the final movie.
Weird: But last fall, Disney executives began to panic because the animation work was behind schedule. Williams kept £ assuring them that once the Q animators got used to drawing I the characters, the work would £ accelerate. He was right. “They g started turning out stuff so I fast,” said Williams, “that I
couldn’t keep track of it.” And Roger Rabbit opened on time.
Williams has defied expectations before. Growing up in Toronto, he went to Northern Vocational school but spent his time drawing instead of studying— and never graduated. When he had tried to enrol in the school’s art program, he recalled, the teacher—an established painter named L. A. C. Panton—spent an hour telling him he had “absolutely no talent.” But he was encouraged by his mother, a commercial artist, and his father, a graphics marketing executive who got him a job drawing posters for Dr. Ballard’s dog food.
By age 14, Williams was earning his own living as a commercial artist. And at 15, he hopped a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles, hoping for a date with Disney. It was 1948, and he stayed at the YMCA on the legendary South Hope Street— the same downtown street where Roger Rabbit's opening scenes take place in 1947. “It was weird seeing it re-created,” said Williams. “It makes you wonder if these things are preordained.”
After three months in Hollywood, he finally visited Disney Studios. There, an illustrator told him, “Learn to draw.” Williams returned to Toronto and enrolled in painting at the Ontario College of Art. No longer interested in animation, he left OCA after four years and travelled to Spain to paint. But when an idea came to him for an animated tale, he headed to England to make his first film, The Little Island, which won a British Academy Award in 1955. Williams went on to win an Oscar—and made witty animated sequences for
What's New, Pussycat?, Casino Royale and the Pink Panther movies.
But in 1976, his only fully animated feature, Raggedy Ann and Andy, was an exercise in frustration. Although the film fared well commercially, he lost creative control to its producers. “I was like a boxer who is winning every fight, then gets the daylights beaten out of him,” he said. “It took me seven years to recover.” Burned by the experience, he spent the time making commercials and working on The Thief and the Cobbler. But now, he added, Roger Rabbit has given him a new lease on life.
Revenge: Williams can look back on his early roadblocks with a sense of triumph. At high school, he was also told he had no ear for music, but he is now an accomplished jazz cornet player. “The great Disney animators were all natural musicians,” he explained. “Animation is drawn music: you have clusters of drawings and clusters of notes, and it’s all got to swing.” As for Panton, the art teacher who denied his talent, he ended up as Williams’s principal at OCA before his death in 1954. “After I was successful,” said Williams, “I always had this fantasy of getting even. But then he went and died on me.”
Ten years ago, the animator finally got his revenge when OCA offered to make him an honorary fellow. “Do I get to make a speech?” Williams asked with evident mischievousness. With that speech, an all-out, humorous denunciation of his nemesis, Roger Rabbit’s crazy genius had the last laugh.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.