Crossovers — bringing together popular characters from different film franchises — is all the rage these days, like with Avengers: Infinity War featuring huge quantities of Marvel Comics superheroes and Justice League teaming up Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc. But 30 years ago, the fact that Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny shared some screen time with a newcomer in Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a really big deal.

roger rabbit - mickey mouse and bugs bunny

(Photo Credit: Walt Disney)

That film, based on Gary K. Wolf’s 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, was significant initially because it marked the first collaboration between Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Walt Disney Productions, the results of which managed to capture the best of each. The era is the 1940s, a time when the world’s most famous animated characters reside in a suburb of California known as Toontown, the residents of which include Bugs and Mickey, Droopy Dog, Woody Woodpecker, Donald and Daffy Duck (who simply can’t get along), Dumbo and innumerable others, including — no shock here — Roger Rabbit and his voluptuous (and human) wife Jessica. He’s an up and coming star who, during the course of the film, is framed for the murder of cartoon prop supplier Marvin Acme. Enter Private Detective Eddie Valiant, who is given the task of proving the hare’s innocence, while at the same time stopping Judge Doom from destroying Toontown.

“This is one of those projects that evolved over many years,” recalls director Robert Zemeckis in an exclusive unpublished interview that took place with him and everyone else quoted at the time of the film’s release. “The writers, Jeff Price and Peter Seaman, were assigned by Disney to adapt the book, and the resulting script was very loosely based on it. But at that point, the Disney studio was on a very serious decline, and they weren’t about to get the movie off the ground.”

Robert went off to direct other films, including Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future, and rediscovered the project while meeting with Steven Spielberg, who had been sent the script by Disney as a potential joint endeavor. “We were both intrigued by the project,” he says, “and we found that the new Disney regime was not only able to pull this movie off, they were gung-ho to do it. It just needed to age a bit, like fine wine.”

Bringing Roger Rabbit to life was the key challenge.

While the writers went back to work on the script, the biggest concern was whether combining live action and animation could be pulled off with an unprecedented realism, without which the whole thing would have fallen apart. The answer came the form of animator Richard Williams.

roger rabbit - poster

(Photo Credit: Walt Disney)

“One of the first things I said,” he recalls, “was that I hate the combination of animation and live action because you don’t believe in it. You look at each separately and it works, but the combination is deadly. I had, however, done some commercials using Disney characters which combined animation with live action, and I violated all the animators’ rules. I ran the camera through a kid’s legs and then had animated characters do the same, which you’re not ‘supposed’ to do. The thinking is that if you move the camera, it’s harder work, because you have to draw every frame. I figured that doing so would make it work, and bring the combination off wonderfully. ILM [the visual effects company], I was told, had developed a system where images could be combined and it didn’t look like Tony Tiger painted on glass. So our first task was to move the camera, and the second was to find a way to light the characters so they’d look real. And then, most importantly, we’d have to have interaction.

“After an hour and a half meeting with Bob Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg,” Richard adds, “we had the whole thing worked out. Spielberg captured it perfectly when he said, ‘If the rabbit sits down in an old chair, you have dust come up. He should always be touching something that’s real.’ I walked out of there in a daze, saying, ‘Wait a minute, why didn’t anybody think of this earlier?'”

roger rabbit - robert zemeckis

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Robert shot a test at ILM of an actor playing the detective climbing down the fire escape. The rabbit is supposed to follow and knock over a number of stacked boxes. From there, they go down the alley, walking on wet pavement with neon signs flashing and changing the light. Naturally, there wouldn’t actually be a rabbit during the test, so the camera would go down the fire escape and the boxes would fall over when a wire was pulled.

“Then I drew the rabbit in pencil drawings and filmed him on top of the live action,” he continues the story. “When ILM got finished with the test, everybody went ape. It was a hundred percent successful. A cloud of pessimism was replaced by a cloud of optimism hanging over the whole project, because we proved that it could be done.”

roger rabbit - eddie valiant and jessica rabbit

(Photo Credit: Walt Disney)

Notes producer Frank Marshall (who is represented on-screen this summer with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), “We treated Roger Rabbit like a live-action movie. For instance, you start out on an animated character and then you pull back to include a real character. Nobody’s ever done that before, and that’s Zemeckis’ design of the movie. The real challenge to all of us was to keep thinking, ‘Normal movie, normal movie.’ How would you do this like a real movie? How would you dub this scene? You include Toon sound effects, but still make it sound real.”

Bringing together an all-star Toon line-up was an absolute necessity.

Convinced that the animation aspect of it could be pulled off, Robert began pursuing the next most important thing on his agenda: getting the rights from various studios to use their characters in cameo appearances throughout the film.

“That was a prerequisite,” he says, “and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the movie with Spielberg, because he’s the only guy in the world who could have pulled this off. I sort of put pressure on him and said, ‘Look, Steven, I’m not going to do this unless you deliver Bugs!’ The only problem was that we never wanted the movie to be fits and starts. We didn’t want to stop for little cameo bits, and only integrated the guest stars where it made sense.”

roger rabbit - assorted characters

(Photo Credit: Walt Disney)

Next, he found actor Bob Hoskins to portray private detective Eddie Valiant. “I knew what we needed in this movie to pull the illusion off, first and foremost, was a good actor,” he details. “When you start there, the list is very short. We needed someone who had the versatility, as Bob does, to do Shakespeare in the National Theater and be a song and dance man as well. Plus, when I met him I realized that he has the ability to act a role that is basically very downtrodden, and yet maintain a twinkle; a spark of life. If you were too intense about playing this character, you would alienate the audience immediately. You’ve got to have hope, which Bob did. That was the second thing I realized. The third is that he looked like he belonged in that period.”

For Bob Hoskins, who at the time was acclaimed for his role in the film Mona Lisa, this was a dream come true, as the actor had always been a fan of classic animation. “There are plenty of actors who walk around saying, ‘When I was doing this little scene with Larry….’ Now I can say, ‘Yeah, well when Bugs, Elmer, and I hung out together…,” he laughs. “I’ve got a feeling that basically to make you believe in a cartoon, the real people had to be a little cartoony. Being five foot six cubic is kind of cartoony. That’s why they probably picked me. Physically, it was a very tough film to make. The real difficult thing is to actually ‘see’ the rabbit. You had to hallucinate. They told me exactly where the rabbit would be and I’d have to lock my eyes there.”

Charles Fleischer was cast as Roger Rabbit.

Helping him in this task was actor Charles Fleischer, who had been signed to perform the voice for Roger, but who also was a very physical presence on the set as well. Recalls Bob with a smile, “Charlie came up to me on the first day and said, ‘Where’s my costume and make-up?’ I said, ‘Charlie, you’re a voice,’ and he said, ‘No, no. I want to go through the same process as you.’ Then I understood what he was trying to do. He wasn’t going to just come in and read the script. Everything you hear isn’t Roger’s voice dubbed in afterwards. It’s live on film.”

roger rabbit - charles fleischer

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

“I thought wearing the costume would be real important,” Charles states sincerely. “Bob’s initial reaction was, ‘He must be out of his mind,’ but as time went on, he thanked me for it, because it helped him. Frankly, it was a very unusual acting job for both of us. You would rehearse as regular actors, then he would go on camera to act and I would be off camera. But I had to create a character that would work. In the beginning, the tough thing was making sure I knew what the voice was. They needed Roger to have a speech impediment; some kind of vocal hook. So I came up with what I call a muscular flutter of the right cheek. As a Toon, I had to talk fast and maintain the emotional reality of the character that would make Roger believable.”

Robert Zemeckis was particularly gratified to find that every member of the cast and crew rose to the occasion to pull this film off as successfully as they could. “It was one of those situations where everybody was at a perfect place in their career to do this movie and everyone was really jazzed by it,” he muses. “The ILM guys were so sick of doing spaceships and star fields, so they were ready to roll. Dick Williams was ready with the animation, and so was Bob Hoskins. As well as Steven, myself and the Disney studio.”

Production spanned over two-and-a-half years, and while at the time there had been rumors of many disagreements between Amblin and Disney, the only true dilemma was having the film ready for its June 22, 1988 release date.

roger rabbit - princess diana

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Points out Robert, “What’s interesting is that the worry about the time involved was much more severe than the worry about the budget. It was a real concern because what we found out is that you couldn’t simply throw a massive amount of money into the movie to get it finished by a particular date. The reality was that there aren’t enough talented animators to work X amount of hours. Animation is finite, so you divide it up mathematically. We had the greatest team of animators in the world, and there simply wasn’t anyone left to hire. For a year the animation team worked seven days a week, with only Christmas off, to get this movie done.”

Frank emphasizes, “The movie was never out of control. It may have seemed like we didn’t know what to do next, but we were supported all the way. At one point, we couldn’t throw enough money into it, and Disney sort of kept us from relaxing, which was great. It was great having them exert constructive pressure as opposed to destructive pressure. The camps were all in great harmony, because everyone who was working on this movie fell in love with the project and the concept once they got started on it.”

roger rabbit - christopher lloyd

(Photo Credit: Walt Disney)

This is a point that Bob Hoskins agrees with completely. “Surprisingly,” he says, “all those people were working on something that had never been done before, and there wasn’t a single fight anywhere. On every job, there’s always an a—–e, and I spent the whole time looking for who it was, but couldn’t find one. By the end of it, I was getting really paranoid, thinking that maybe it was me.”

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was finished literally a week before the release date, yet, miraculously, the time pressure who not obvious on screen. The film, which cost $70 million to make, pulled in $330 million at the box office, spawned two additional mystery novels by Gary Wolf, and three animated short films. Part of its success, offers Charles, is his belief that the film requires repeated viewing: “It’s an indication of how it will stand up in time as great art. Great art, to me, is something like The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Of course, you can’t possibly get everything out of it during the first listening, so you have to go back to it. And the more you go back, the more you get from it. It’s what I called RVEA — Repeated Viewing Enhances Appreciation.”

Leave it to a Toon to come up with that one!