Who Staged Donald and Daffy?

My posts on shot flow in the piano duel from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? were cross posted on the TAG blog and the comments there give key background on how this sequence originated. First, cartoonist Larry Levine wrote:

Chuck Jones originally layed out this scene during the film’s early pre-production & one can only dream how much better his version would have been . Even though Chuck was listed as a creative consultant, he (and Friz Freleng) had VERY few kind words for ol’ Roger.PS: The Jones layouts can be viewed on the WFRR 2-disc DVD.

Jones’s involvement was news to me, since I don’t have the 2-disc DVD. Then Mark Kausler wrote:

As to Chuck Jones version of the Daffy, Donald sequence in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? being better than what Joe Ranft, Bob Zemeckis and myself came up with, here’s the story in a nutshell: Chuck worked for weeks on his version with some help from Dick Williams, but his board was mostly about Daffy and Donald coming out on stage and bowing to the audience. Crickets chirped for Daffy, wild applause greeted Donald, the usual late Warner Bros. Chuck Jones gags. Bob Zemeckis and Stephen Spielberg thought this treatment was lacking in energy, so they assigned the sequence to Joe Ranft and I to punch it up. We turned it into a piano duel, with all the dynamite gags and Daffy and Donald completely wrecking the pianos. The cannon gag was in there, but I don’t remember just where in the sequence it was when we were boarding it. Our staging was pretty straightforward, no fancy cutting or crossing the axis, mostly two shots with the focus on the characters.
When D.P. Dean Cundy set up the live action “plates”, it had to be carefully determined what was cartoon and what was live. Some of the gags were modified or lost to accommodate the rigged real pianos and the set. The final cutting and staging was Dean’s and Bob Zemeckis. Bob’s mantra was “keep ’em in the air”! He didn’t want to use any time in having the ducks bow to the audience, just have them in constant motion from the opening shot. It’s hard to apologize for the frenetic cutting and camera movement so many years after the fact, but, hell, that’s what yanked the crank in them days! By the way, Dave Spafford did some of the really zany Daffy scenes where he plays the piano with chicken carcasses and the like. I did a scene or two of Donald’s tail playing the keyboards. I don’t think Bob Zemeckis cared one whit about “The Five C’s” here, he just wanted ENERGY, nothing else. It was a real delight to board this stuff with Joe Ranft, I’ll never forget it. By the way, don’t judge the finished shots from the frame grabs shown here, they are way too dim, the original footage was much brighter and easier to read despite all the axis crossing.

Mark’s comments confirm what I suspected — the director of photography took what were undoubtedly well-staged boards from Mark and Joe and, making his best guess of how the animation should play, arranged the set and the rigged props and shot the plates. Imagine filming a scene without actors, then dropping in the actors later. It’s a setup for a mess, especially if you don’t really understand what animation can do. I can also imagine that a live-action filmmakers may not have been used to looking at animation storyboards, and Cundy and Zemeckis may have thought they were too static. The desire to “keep ’em in the air” doubtless dominated Cundy’s work, essentially preemptively gilding the lily by using frantic staging, busy sets, and manic camera moves. The frantic, manic animation called for restraint from the cinematographer and director, and that lack of restraint undermines the sequence.

Anyone reading this should know who Joe Ranft and Mark Kausler are. Joe is probably best remembered as the secret weapon behind Pixar’s early success, serving as head of story on Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, and on and on, as well as key contributions at Disney and other animated films. The animation industry lost one of it’s best when Joe died in a car accident in 2005.

Joe Ranft

Mark has one of the most varied and impressive resumes in animation, as both an animator and artist and as an animation historian. I have one a framed cel from his short film, It’s The Cat on my wall (the image below isn’t the cel I own, but mine’s similar).

It’s The Cat

I would dearly love to see the piano-duel sequence shot the way Ranft and Kausler boarded it. It was a brilliant idea to make them battling musicians. As I wrote before, there’s some wonderful animation in there (props to Mark and Dave Spafford and everyone else who animated those ducks), and if the camera work and staging were clear, the thrills and excitement of the sequence would come out of the character animation, the way it should.

For what it’s worth, I’m glad that Zemeckis didn’t go with the Chuck Jones version. I revere Jones’s early work, but I would have been bored to see Daffy and Donald replaying a gag that we’d seen repeatedly from Bugs and Daffy. Also, with Valiant’s reluctance about coming back to Toontown, the sequence called for some Toon action that was over the top, to play off of Hoskin’s disdainful sneers, and to provide a counterpoint to Jessica’s appearance.

ADDENDUM (March 3 at 11:40 AM) – Mark Kausler and Larry Levine had some more informative comments over at the TAG Blog about how the piano duel sequence boarding worked:

Anonymous Mark Kausler said…
Something that I didn’t talk about in my previous comment was that there were two storyboard crews working alongside each other on WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? The live action boarders would sometimes be fed business by Joe and I, and sometimes we got sketches from them to re-draw or insert cartoon characters. The Daffy/Donald boards we drew were carefully labelled “toon” and “real”, to work out which props were actual and which were animated. Then the entire sequence was re-drawn by the live board crew. They put their trade-mark yellow arrows all over the drawings to guide Dean Cundey and the set builders. The story process on Roger was layered and complex, the results on screen were often quite complex as well.

Sunday, March 02, 2008 11:21:00 PM

Blogger Larry Levine said…

Mark, What was Chuck Jones’
response when his storyboards for the Donald and Daffy scene weren’t
used? What was his role as consultant after this point?

Monday, March 03, 2008 3:41:00 AM

Anonymous Mark Kausler said…
Larry, Chuck was not kept on as a consultant, he was let go or he left voluntarily, I don’t know which. He had a private office at Amblin’ and Joe and I had unofficial orders to not “bother” him. He never came back to our quarters, either.

4 Responses to “Who Staged Donald and Daffy?”

  1. madmind Says:

    I don’t know if I am the only one but it is always extremely interesting for me to read such stories like the one above.

    Sometimes I think that they are even more interesting than the final scenes or the movies (which doesn’t count for WHO FRAMED…of course).

    Thanks for this great follow-up post to your insightful analysis.

  2. Kevin Says:

    I totally agree. We can learn a lot looking at the preproduction ideas and planning, and comparing them to the final result.

    If Mark or anyone else who worked on WFRR? is reading this, feel free to fill in more on the making of this landmark film.

  3. Floyd Norman Says:

    I’m just delighted this film turned out as good as it did. Clearly, it was no easy task.

    I followed the action from my office at Disney and visits to Amblin on occasion. I received at lot of art work and photos from the shoot in the U.K. I was still amazed the crew could pull this thing off, and get the film done on schedule.

    I really wanted to do a “Making Of” book, but Disney gave me the thumbs down. Too bad. “Roger Rabbit” was a landmark film.

  4. Kevin Says:

    Arrgh! How awesome it would be to have that book, Floyd! I guess it wasn’t until a few years later that management figured out how cool those “Making of” books could be. And WFRR would have been a fascinating film to see some behind-the-scenes info (especially if written by someone who really understood animation, like you). Any fascinating tid-bits to share here?

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch