An Oral History of the ‘Roger Rabbit’ Animated Shorts
In the film-noir-esque world of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the slapstick, accident-prone hare is one of the most famous toons in show business. He’s the signature star of Maroon Cartoons, he’s married to the beautiful Jessica Rabbit and he can take a refrigerator to the head better than anybody. However, the 1988 film — which turned 35 last week — provided just a slice of Roger’s life.
To that end, Who Framed Roger Rabbit opened with the cartoon Somethin’s Cookin’, in which Roger is assigned the task of babysitting Baby Herman, who proceeds to come in contact with every dangerous kitchen object imaginable. Roger runs after the baby, trying to save him over and over again, while getting a teapot stuck on his head, becoming trapped in a burning hot oven and having about two dozen razor-sharp knives catapulted toward him. The short ends abruptly with Roger “blowing his lines” by having birds spin around his head instead of stars. Then the live-action-meets-animation world of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is revealed, and the excellent murder mystery begins.
Interestingly, Disney created three more animated shorts starring Roger, Baby Herman and Jessica. Like back in the days of Looney Tunes, these Roger Rabbit shorts were run in theaters before a film. They included Tummy Trouble, where Baby Herman swallows a rattle; Roller Coaster Rabbit, where the gang visits a carnival; and Trail Mix-Up, where the trio goes camping. More shorts were planned, but they were ultimately canceled when the prospects for a Roger Rabbit sequel dimmed.
Again, each was a throwback to the kinds of cartoons created in the 1940s and featured stunningly beautiful animation. And most importantly, if you ask Roger Rabbit, they’re funny as hell. Of course, if you ask the team behind the trio of shorts, they’ll be more than happy to tell you about how they turned Roger bite-sized and had a blast spending millions to make themselves — and Steven Spielberg — laugh, which is exactly what I did to properly commemorate Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s 35th anniversary.
Don Hahn, Producer on Tummy Trouble: I produced the animation on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and after the movie was a hit, we said, “What’s next?” At the time, there was the sense that we would do a sequel, and because of that, it was important to keep those characters alive. You can do that in small ways, like in publications or in Disneyland with an attraction, but Roger Rabbit was a film character, and you really needed to have films to keep him alive, so that’s where the shorts came from.
That, and the posters on R.K. Maroon’s wall in the film itself, because there were some very silly posters with very inappropriate titles that I helped do with the animation people — they were all designed by Joe Ranft, the Pixar genius, and they were painted by Brian Sebern.
Rob Minkoff, Director of Tummy Trouble and Roller Coaster Rabbit, Story Artist on Trail Mix-Up: When Who Framed Roger Rabbit was finished, Don Hahn came to me and said, “We’re interested in doing some shorts of Roger Rabbit, would you be interested in handling the development?” I, of course, said “yes,” and Disney put me in charge of the unit to do Roger Rabbit shorts.
We had a handful of story artists working together, including Bill Kopp, Pat Ventura, Mark Kausler, Kevin Harkey, Lynne Naylor and others. We developed three different shorts. One was Tummy Trouble, one was Roller Coaster Rabbit and the third one was in a French restaurant where Roger was going to be a waiter — it was going to be called Hare in My Soup.
Bill Kopp, Story Artist on Tummy Trouble, Roller Coaster Rabbit and Trail Mix-Up: For guys in animation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was huge. I went on opening day to the Cinerama Dome, and I think every animator that I ever met was there. We were blown away. So when the opportunity came along to come up with gags and a story for Roger, who could turn that down?
Charles Fleischer, Voice of Roger Rabbit: After Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I hoped there’d be more of Roger for me to do, but you never know. When they approached me about returning for the shorts, I was excited. I love Roger.
Hahn: Richard Willaims and Bob Zemeckis had determined what a Roger Rabbit short was with Somethin’s Cookin’. Roger was a punching bag; the baby was the innocent who had no idea what harm he was causing. These three shorts followed that pattern.
Minkoff: After we assembled the story team and put ideas together, there was a big presentation for Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, as well as other Disney executives. They came in, and we pitched all three shorts. They decided in the room which to go forward with, and I’m pretty sure they decided then that Tummy Trouble was the one they wanted to do first. After that, I got called into a meeting with Charlie Fink and Roy Disney Jr., and they told me “We’d like you to direct the first one.”
Kopp: I kind of became the pitch man for the shorts in the big story meetings with Bob Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. I would run everybody through it. It’s funny, whenever there was a weak gag, I’d try to scoot through it, but Spielberg would always catch it.
Hahn: We made Tummy Trouble as stupid and funny and dangerous as we could. In that era, the 1940s, cartoons were for a general audience, they weren’t for kids. So there were some things that were rough around the edges, and we got a bunch of the original animators to create the feeling from the original movie.
Barry Cook, Director of Trail Mix-Up, Special Effects Animator on Roller Coaster Rabbit: There’s a little bit of 3D animation in Roller Coaster Rabbit and Trail Mix-Up, but besides that, everything in these three Roger Rabbit shorts was done like it was back in the day. There were hand-inked lines around the characters, hand-painted cels, each cel was photographed on film. It was all old-school.
Kopp: I don’t think any of them would have succeeded if they weren’t done in that old-school style. That’s part of its soul. We were given a lot of time to do them as well. They were also expensive. They cost like $3 million a piece. Everybody was very serious about it.
Minkoff: We all approached these shorts from a place like they’re from history. They’re not “new.” We worked to make them period pieces as much as we could.
Hahn: We had Frank Marshall direct all the live-action endings. We always wanted that same feeling where you pull out of the cartoon and you’re on a set.
Once they were completed, Disney wanted to attach them to the biggest possible audience, so Tummy Trouble ended up with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. It was unusual to do shorts with films back then — this was before Pixar — but it was a big treat for people to go to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and get to see a Roger Rabbit cartoon.
Roller Coaster Rabbit
Minkoff: As we were doing Tummy Trouble, we began doing Roller Coaster Rabbit simultaneously. They took that to Florida to make it the inaugural production of Disney’s Florida animation studio. That was part of the Disney/MGM Studios tour, and when I joined, we were all on display for the studio tour. We were in a fishbowl; it was very weird. I used to shut my blinds every day, and eventually, I was spoken to about it. They told me they’d prefer I not shut my blinds, but since there wasn’t a specific rule about it, I still shut them.
Kopp: I took Roller Coaster Rabbit to Florida, and then Rob came in to direct it. They sent us to Magic Mountain at Disneyland, and we filmed the tracks from the front car and used that for the roller-coaster sequence. We got first-class treatment in Disneyland because we were working for Disney.
The bull in this cartoon makes me laugh so much. When Roger gets the bull by the horns and the baby grabs the balloon by the crotch of the bull — I can’t believe Disney let us get away with some of that stuff. But that was the deal with Roger, a little bit of edge.
Minkoff: The part where they go off the film strip was very much a conscious homage to Tex Avery, but late in the process of developing Roller Coaster Rabbit, someone said to me, “Do you know what this is from?” I said, “What do you mean?” And they said, “It’s from a Popeye cartoon.” They played the cartoon, and three or four of the gags were the same as a short where Popeye is at a fair with Sweet Pea. It was shocking, but we were too deep in to change anything, so we just didn’t talk about it. Let’s call it an homage?
Kopp: Roller Coaster Rabbit is a near-perfect cartoon, especially in terms of the gags and their escalation. It has a strong setup, and it builds where each one is a little more intense than the previous. Then you wind up on the coaster, which is a big, catastrophic crescendo. We wanted no cuts; we wanted gags that could flow together. It came together perfectly.
Cook: Chris Bailey was going to direct Hare in My Soup, and they’d done a lot of research for it. Ric Sluiter, who was the art director on Roller Coaster Rabbit and Trail Mix-Up, went to Musso & Frank in Hollywood and took pictures and did in-depth research. There was also a full story reel on it; I don’t know what happened to it though.
Kopp: Once Roller Coaster Rabbit was approved to go, we moved onto the next one, which was going to be Beach Blanket Bunny. It had Roger, of course, and Jessica in a bikini. There were a lot of beach gags and a shark. I don’t think we ever storyboarded the whole thing, but it was bumped to do Trail Mix-Up instead. We abandoned it because it didn’t have that structure like Roller Coaster Rabbit did.
Trail Mix-Up came from me and Pat Ventura. We blocked it out, and it kind of sat there for a long time. I don’t know if any of us were sure that Trail Mix-Up was going to get made. It sat there for a long while before it got picked up again. By the time it did, I had already left to go to Warner Bros.
Minkoff: After the second Roger short, they asked me to read the script for the proposed Roger Rabbit sequel. I read the script and went to a meeting with Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. They told me they wanted me to pitch myself to direct the whole thing. I was hired, and after I’d spent a year on it, it was shelved, which was a bit of a career blow for me. Then they asked me if I wanted to work on Trail Mix-Up, I said “yeah” and started working on it. Then The Lion King happened, and I stepped in as a director on that.
Cook: When Rob went off to direct The Lion King, he highly recommended me for the job of directing Trail Mix-Up. It was a great experience. We liked being a little naughty on those. For example, I love when Roger’s around the campfire, and he says to Baby Herman, “Scoot back Baby Herman, you don’t want to burn your weenie.” That was a little off-color, and we had to get studio permission for it. There was another line they wouldn’t allow though. It’s a part where Baby Herman is chasing a Beaver, and Roger says, “Baby, come back, you’re too little to play with beavers!” I also loved the sawmill sequence. Some people wondered why there was a sawmill in the middle of Yellowstone National Park, but that was the funniest part about it to us.
One highlight for me was when I was invited over to Amblin to show Trail Mix-Up to Steven Spielberg. This was when they were making the first Jurassic Park, and he said to the Jurassic Park crew, “We’re going to watch a cartoon!” I sat next to him, and he’d elbow me and say, “I love that gag!” every time he liked something. I also remember the cameraman Dean Cundy falling out of his chair laughing. When you watch a short cartoon like that with a group, it’s really something special.
There was an alternate ending to Trail Mix-Up. At the end of the film, the characters fly into Mount Rushmore and destroy it, but my idea was to have Roger and his pals crash into Mount Rushmore the day Alfred Hitchcock is shooting North By Northwest there. We were going to incorporate live-action shots of Cary Grant and a silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock. We had it all cut together, but Disney put the kibosh on it. They were like, “You guys are close to finishing the film, that sounds like a very expensive sequence. We have to get the rights from Universal. Let’s just wrap it up in a simpler way.”
Minkoff: I’m not sure why they only made three Roger Rabbit shorts, but I suspect that, without a sequel in the works, they saw little reason to continue them. While theatrical shorts were how the animation industry started, at some point they stopped being commercially viable. There was no concept of how to make money from shorts. They were being put out with a theatrical feature, so it was like an “extra.” The studio was just putting them out for the sake of doing them.
Hahn: Three Roger Rabbit shorts could give you a nice boxed set of three cartoons. Also, these shorts were expensive, so the question likely became, “Do we keep spending money on these and do 10 or 20 of them, or do we just wait for the feature to come along?” Which, of course, it never did.
Kopp: Those are three really good cartoons, but part of me suspects that, maybe we were starting to repeat ourselves a little? Perhaps there was a feeling of “We’re done here.” Still, everything about Roger Rabbit is wonderful. His character design is great. He’s fun to squish around. He’s fun to draw, and he’s very elastic. He reminds me a lot of the Daffy Duck shorts Bob Clampett did in the early days of Looney Tunes.
Cook: Having worked on Roger Rabbit, I now feel like I’m part of that tradition of those classic cartoons like Looney Tunes. I also never had more fun at work in my life than working on these Roger Rabbit shorts. We had huge budgets on very short films and some of the best artists in the world and all we had to do was make it funny. That was the only directive from the top brass — make it funny.
Fleischer: The construction of Roger is classical — it took something from another time period and brought it to the present, so it seems like he’s always been here. Look at the talent involved in bringing him to life: Bob Zemeckis, Richard Williams, Steven Spielberg. Magic happens, and Roger Rabbit is magic.