As a writer of all things film, I am unable to turn my brain off and watch things for fun anymore, although I have a long list of movies I want to watch, and especially long is the category, “re-watch”.  So, I noticed Who Framed Roger Rabbit was on Netflix, and I haven’t seen it in a long time. Cori you should re-watch that; a mental note to self. Well in fact, I got to thinking about combined animated and live actions films and realized I knew nothing about them, but I could list quite a few that were a huge part of my childhood.  Regardless of whether is was mental trickery to make pleasure out of work or work into pleasure, here I give you a quick history and rundown of the technology used to create some of my (I bet yours, too) favorite family films.

The oldest movie I could remember that utilized this type of technology was Disney’s ever controversial, Song of the South where Uncle Remus (James Baskett) sings “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” in a cartoon world with fun forest animals. However, I was completely unaware of just how old this idea is. This live action-animation genre has been around since the beginning of moving picture history. For example, the earliest example I could find was The Enchanted Drawing by J. Stuart Blackton (father of American animation) a silent two-minute clip distributed by Edison Studios. A man draws the face of a cartoon on a large easel along with a bottle of wine and glass. The images miraculously move, change and the wine bottle hops right off the pad and becomes real instead of animated using stop motion technology.

This idea was further explored and allowed for Koko the Clown, a little animated character to have a boxing match with a real-live kitten. Disney Studios, a leader in animation, picked up on the popularity of the genre and cashed in. The Alice Comedies were the opposite idea as its predecessors. Alice (Virginia Davis) was a live character that was able to travel to the cartoon world and interact with it in a much more animation-heavy situation for the one reel shorts. As time progressed and sound was brought to the pictures, this made the live action and animation combo genre even more magical with the use of song and dance. Disney created notable films such as The Three Caballeros, Anchors Away, and one of the most well known of its kind, Marry Poppins which debuted in 1964.

Image: Mary Poppins - Walt Disney Pictures

Image: Mary Poppins – Walt Disney Pictures

Among its 13 nomination for Academy Awards, Marry Poppins won Best Film Editing and Best Visual Effects.  As most of you know, the film is about a rather magical and mysterious nanny who comes with the wind change to look after the Banks children. Ms. Poppins (Julie Andrews, my hero) and her dear friend Bert (Dick van Dyke) often take the children on adventures and one day in particular they jump right into a piece of sidewalk chalk art and become immersed in an animated world with animated settings and characters. These sequences include a carousel ride on animated horses, a wild fox chase, and a few musical numbers such as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Lovely Holiday” where Bert dances with animated penguin characters as Mary watches with delight.

Again, Disney switches their game up to keep things interesting and in 1977 they bring an animated character to the real world with Pete’s Dragon. Pete (Sean Marshall) is a little boy who makes friends with a mostly invisible dragon named Eliot (voiced by Charlie Callas). Yet, when they are alone, Pete is visible as an animated character to both Pete and the audience. Disney used Sodium vapor process compositing to create this experience wherein there are three layers of scenes; live foreground, live background and animated middle ground. The assistant director, Don Hahn actually moved on to aid in creating the next big thing in live action and animation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

This film changed the game entirely for its genre. It utilizes animated characters in a way that was much more believable and impressive than ever before. The penguin waiters and Eliot the Dragon both make appearances in this 1988 film although the main character is a silly rabbit, Roger (Charles Fleischer). This film redefined the way live action could mix with animation. Bob Hoskins plays Eddie Valiant, a private investigator who travels all over the real world and Toon Town to find out who framed Roger in a murder. This film was a miraculous collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Disney so they were able to use both Disney and Warner Bros. characters. In some of the most popular scenes, Daffy Duck battles Donald Duck in a nightclub over a piano duel.

In a time before CGI, the film was composited with animation. In rehearsal, many of the characters including Roger had stand-ins by their voice actor counterparts (Fleischer insisted on wearing a bunny suit when standing in for Roger) or sometimes rubber mannequins were manipulated with robotic arms or strings to keep the correct eye contact of the actual live action characters. After filming took place, postproduction lasted fourteen months. The animation was completed using cels and optical compositing where the animators were given photo stats (black and white printouts of live action scenes) and they drew on animation paper layered on top which was better because animated characters could be drawn in relation to the live action characters. After the rough animation process, the footage was sent to ILM for compositing where the characters became three-dimensional via the use of highlights and shadows, and would react to the light on the live action set. All this hard work paid off though, because Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the first of its kind to win three Academy Awards (more than Marry Poppins) for Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects and Best Film Editing. Not bad for going 30 million dollars over budget, huh?

Image: Who Framed Roger Rabbit - Warner Bros.

Image: Who Framed Roger Rabbit – Walt Disney Pictures

After the incredible feat that was Roger Rabbit, CGI began showing up on the scene in the early 90’s. Movies I remember coming out when I was a kid such as The Pagemaster starring Macaulay Culkin, utilized all three elements; live action, animation and CGI. One of my all-time favorite examples of the genre is Casper, which was the fist feature film to depict a fully CGI character in a leading role. You guys thought I wasn’t going to mention Space Jam? Yeah right. By far the coolest film I had ever seen when I was a kid, and popular amongst every kid I knew which depicted an alternate explanation for Michael Jordan’s retirement in 1993 and come back in 1995. It generated 230 million dollars and became the highest grossing basketball film of all time.  

These types of films truly amaze me in that they have no bounds. From the very first moving picture sketches, artists and directors have been teaming up to marry the world of animation with that of live-action. It is one of those incredible breaches of drawing as an art as well as photography, and infuses the two with the magic that is moviemaking. From films like Avatar, Elf and The Smurfs we can see that this type of film will live on and continue to amuse children and parents alike. There seems to be no constrictions on what can happen in the film industry and I look forward future live action and animation endeavors. Speaking of which, there’s a wiki list of to be determined titles that we should all have our eyes and ears on…