In the last post, I broke down the primarily live-action shots in Who Framed Roger Rabbit that lead into the the piano duel between Daffy and Donald. Those shots demonstrated straight-forward film-making and clear shot flow, at least among the shots where human actors were the focus. Here I’ll break down the subsequent animated portion of the piano duel, where the usual rules of good film-making are tossed out the window. You can watch a Quicktime of the sequence in the previous post.
Before we get started, notice how this sequence is very carefully told from Eddie Valiant’s point of view, except for the main sequence of the piano duel. We follow him into the speakeasy, looking over his shoulder, seeing what he sees; we note the stage and then the bar from his point of view; we later see Jessica Rabbit’s ‘reveal’ through his eyes. Yet the piano duel violates his POV at every turn.
As I did in my first post on ‘shot flow,’ I’ll use a yellow circle on the last frame of each shot to show the audience’s likely focal point at each cut. I’ll repeat the yellow circle in exactly the same place on the first frame of the next shot, to demonstrate how well the shots hook up. Since there are some shots in this sequence that have two characters, or two parts of the same character, competing for the audience’s attention, I’ll use a slightly translucent yellow circle for what I think is the secondary focal area.
The action begins with Daffy comfortably in center screen. This will be the last time he’s so well framed:
I’m not sure we follow the action in the first shot except in retrospect, since there’s no set-up or antic to Donald kicking open the piano flap to spin Daffy off the stool. Without preparation, it happens too fast. Still, it is fairly clear, but it’s across the cut that we get lost. We go from a wide shot, in which Donald’s tail is a tiny portion of the right-hand portion of the screen, to an extreme close up, in which the tail is to screen left and looks just like a hand. Because the background completely changes, and because no other parts of Donald’s body are visible to orient us in the second shot, the cut is confusing. At the beginning of the second shot, it’s frankly difficult to tell what we’re seeing. If the screen location of the tail had been appropriately matched across the cut, and especially if the second shot weren’t such an extreme close-up, it would probably work. Here I don’t think it does.
This cut is even worse. The audience’s focal point is again misaligned between the two shots (so the hand-like tail in the first shot hooks up with a real hand in the second), but now we’ve crossed the 180 degree line and switched from a close-up of the white piano to a close-up of the black piano. As in the previous cut, the complete change of background is disorienting. For the acting in the two shots to be continuous, we have to assume that Donald’s body has magically stretched to extraordinary lengths, even though we didn’t see that happening in the close-up. We don’t really see the body stretch in the second shot, either, because the framing with the piano blocks it, so in this shot it really appears that Donald has split into two characters. It could hardly be less clear what’s happening.
In the above cut the focal point is actually aligned (assuming you’re looking at Donald’s face and not his behind in the prior shot), one of the few times this will happen in this section. I think it’s only after the above cut that the audience finally appreciates that Donald is playing the white piano with his butt.
If you had any question about what I mean when I say the camera has crossed the 180 degree line, study the above cut. Every single thing on the screen in the first shot is reversed in the next. Unless you’re trying to shock or disorient your audience, this is a bad thing. Crossing the line is usually the enemy of clear storytelling.
I think in order to induce dizziness in the audience, this shot continues with not one, not two, but three zip pans back and forth across the action. Note also how at each extreme of a pan, the camera overshoots and settles with the piano taking up most of the frame, with poor Donald struggling to stay in the composition. At the end of all three pans, fully half of the screen space is unused, forcing most of Donald’s body to be cut off. Note also in the final frame below how the part of Donald likely to attract the most audience focus, his face, is shoved into the extreme upper left corner of the screen:
You know what I’m going to say here, right? Yep, the camera has crossed the 180 degree line again, reversing Donald, while also misaligning the primary focal point.
The action within this shot is another antic-less bit that happens too quickly to read in real time. Daffy pops out of the piano and punches Donald, taking all of 6 frames to do this action, with the first 3 frames showing only a blur of his boxing glove. It might be a funny gag, but it’s past us before we can perceive it.
No parts of this cut hook up. If you study the frame-grabs, you can see that the animators did their job of animating continuous action, but the action doesn’t read across the cut. The crossing of the 180 line, and the dramatic reframing so that none of the silhouettes match, are the main culprits, with the overwhelming complexity of piano detail of the second shot adding to the confusion.
This is still a fun scene, even though Daffy’s arms and body blend into the black piano, so we can’t follow much more than his face.
Yep, crossed the line again, and for good measure we see Daffy has been shoved almost off the screen. We also get the glistening, distracting highlights and detail on the piano. The reflections throughout this sequence are treated with almost fetishistic relish, leading me to believe many of these shots were composed more for the reflected action than the actual action. Perhaps this was a ploy to make the toons more believably integrate into the real world. If so, it comes at the expense of clarity.
The 180 degree line hasn’t technicaly been crossed, but Daffy’s position is still reversed across the cut (facing screen right to facing screen left), and we end up with a disastrous composition. Most people know that creating a ‘frame within a frame’ can be a great cinematic camera technique, but here the internal ‘frame’ around Daffy is partly composed of hundreds of detailed diagonal lines and a blindingly bright piano. Within that internal frame, Daffy’s face is tonally matched to the murky background. The result is that, instead of highlighting Daffy’s facial performance, it’s harder to follow.
There’s some wonderful, demented animation acting in this shot, but most of it is difficult to see clearly.
Check the last frame of the shot immediately below. If the guy in the foreground weren’t pointing, would we even notice the cannon inside the white piano? And who can see Daffy against his black piano?
Now why exactly do we cut to a composition in which Daffy is at the extreme of screen right, when the key action is developing behind him? Why do we need to see all that piano? Really, how much better would the cannon gag work if the audience could actually see what Donald was setting up to do?
Eventually we get the chance to actually see the situation, and then quickly cut to Eddie’s developing reaction.
When we cut back to the animation, we get another inexplicable composition. Note how the entire right-hand side of the screen is showing us nothing. The cannon is pointed to screen left, but of course we don’t see any of Daffy and the black piano. A simple turn of the camera towards the left would give us a perfectly clear composition, and allow us to anticipate, and enjoy, the upcoming action.
Because of the poor, incomplete framing, a zip pan is required to follow the action when the cannon fires. Frame by frame this looks great, but at speed it cannot be perceived.
Once again, a zip pan overshoots, showing us a lot of nothing filling the left half of the screen.
Back to live action. Not only does Bob Hoskins do an absolutely wonderful ‘take’, but note how perfectly clear it is. The shots don’t hook up, but the Hoskin’s shot does have good staging, good framing, no distractions, no useless camera move. His reaction was set up in a previous shot, and paid off in this shot. There’s not a single shot of Donald or Daffy doing something funny that is as clear and well staged. To wit, we cut back to horrendous staging, with half the screen wasted, and Daffy shoved into the lower right corner:
We cut to an extreme wide shot, in which Donald and Daffy are almost invisible, and the audience’s focal point is up in the rafters. I realize this is a small, compressed image, but seriously, where the hell is Daffy? One moment we’re looking at him, the next his 2 pixels of screen space are lost in the murk of the background.
This cut demonstrates the kind of cutting and framing I regularly make my Animation Mentor students change as they’re creating their short films. It’s essentially a classic jump cut, in which the camera maintains the same general composition, but simply jumps forward. These two shots should have been combined, with the whole bit shot from the tighter framing of the second shot. The piano collapsing, the hooks, Daffy’s and Donald’s actions – all would have read better.
In my judgment, there isn’t a really well-done cut between any two animated shots in this entire sequence. And remember that the problems that are obvious in these tiny screen-grabs are amplified a thousand-fold on a theater screen. Simply put, the entertaining animation of two great cartoon characters, facing off in a dream match-up, is consistently undermined by bad film-making.
There are 20 shots in the section I’ve analyzed here (including the two shots of Eddie Valiant) taking place over 780 frames. That’s 39 frames per shot, or barely more than a second and a half each. Such frantic cutting requires extraordinary attention to staging and composition and the way shots edit together, or else confusion reigns. I can only guess that confusion was the goal, given the clarity and simplicity with which the live actors are treated before, during, and after this sequence.