I remember seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit and being excited by the Daffy/Donald piano duel. It was just about my favorite part of the movie. I was also as frustrated by the sequence as I was excited. Here it is:
I was excited because it featured the early, lunatic version of Daffy (before he became an annoying jerk) blowing poor Donald off the screen (well, at least figuratively, since Donald is the one who uses the cannon).
I grew up loving the Warner’s characters and being bored by the Disney shorts, so it was great to see this pairing play out just the way I expected. I loved the sequence, but I recall have the thought at the time, “I wish I could see that again in slow motion, because I missed most of it.” Frankly, that is not a thought anyone in the audience should be having about the action on the screen. I felt like I was just catching glimpses of wonderful animation, despite having a good seat in the theater and trying hard to soak it all in. I still had to strain to follow the action when I watched it later on videotape, despite seeing it on a much smaller screen compared to a theater, and despite being able to replay it repeatedly.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why this sequence was so frustrating. Just about every rule of good camera work, shot composition, staging, and hooking up shots was violated repeatedly. The result is that the sequence simply doesn’t read. I have to guess that not enough care was taken in setting up and shooting the live-action plates, and once that was done the animators were stuck and had to animate their scenes without regard for how each shot would work as part of the whole. What’s ironic, though, is that the primarily live-action shots that precede the animated duel follow all those rules, and are perfectly easy to follow.
This will be a long post, so I’m going to break it into two parts. In this first part, I’ll break down the mostly live-action section featuring Eddie Valiant leading into the piano duel. In part two I’ll analyze why I think the animated portion featuring the ducks is so frustrating.
Here’s Valiant, re-entering the world of toons. The first screen-grab is near the end of a long tracking shot. The camera has kept Eddie (seen from behind) pretty much centered, and now he moves aside to reveal the room and the stage. It’s a nice establishing shot, and cuts to a 3/4 front shot of our gumshoe’s skeptical reaction:
Now we see what Eddie sees — the exuberant guy in the front row motivating a pan by indicating where we should look:
Look closely at the above shot. It’s nicely framed, and for about the only time in the entire sequence to come the white piano makes a nice backdrop for Daffy. The background is a little busy, especially all that dreadful, eye-catching neon, and Donald’s black tux tends to blend into his black piano, but it’s a clear, simply-staged shot.
The next 10 panels represent the subsequent six shots (I show the first and last frame where there’s some movement in the shot). Note how the action continues to be well centered, with Eddie’s head movements motivating cuts and pans. Nice, straightforward film storytelling.
Any confusion yet? No, not a bit. Now, however, the film starts to focus on the ducks, and in just the two shots below some problems crop up. The first shot (three screen-grabs) repeats a previous simple setup. This would be fine, except the camera is unnecessarily far away, making the complicated, super-fast action hard to read:
Check out our first cut on animation between the last two panels above. These show the last frame of one shot and the first frame of the next. Note we’ve subtly violated the 180 degree rule (in the first shot the white piano is to screen right, and now it’s to the left of the black piano). Crossing the 180 degree line is almost always disorienting, and here, where the two backgrounds have absolutely nothing in common, it’s a disaster. Further, much of the screen is also now taken up by the complex guts of the piano. Detail tends to draw our eye. That’s the opposite of what we want to happen here.
We also now see that, from this perspective, the white piano is blindingly white. Our eye tends to be attracted to the brightest thing on the screen. It’s so bright that instead of making a nice background for our characters, it overwhelms them, turning them into little murky blobs. All the lamps on the audience tables also make highlights that are distracting.
And all those diagonal lines, drawing the eye every which way. This would be bad enough, but it’s made worse because our characters silhouettes are so dramatically different from the previous shot (plus the characters are tiny in both shots), that it barely feels like part of the same continuity. Continuing with the same shot where we left off:
The above would be a great pose, except it flashes by too fast for us to perceive, and the two figures blend into each other, making a bizarre silhouette.
Now we get a taste for what a poor choice a shiny black piano is for a prop. Daffy’s body disappears, and random highlights dominate the composition. Daffy’s and Donald’s faces are shoved to the periphery of the screen, so who the hell knows where to look?
Finally things settle down and Donald stays in one place long enough for us to ‘read’ what he’s doing, though he’s still competing for attention with the blazing white piano, which is far whiter than either his feathers or his eyes. Or are we supposed to be focused on Daffy’s murky flapping mouth at the bottom of the scene, delivering the famous “Thith means war”? I guess given that the two characters are consigned to the periphery of the screen space, it’s hard to say.
The following screen-grabs represent the beginning and end frames of the remaining live-action shots (with an occasional extra frame to show the action within a scene), up to the point the duck’s piano duel begins in earnest. We see again that, safely back in the live-action arena, the compositions and camera work settle down and follow the rules. Everything reads. The shot flow is effortless. I don’t need to use little yellow circles to represent where the viewers eye is from cut to cut, because it’s all so clear.
Despite relatively murky lighting and a somewhat distracting backgrounds, everything Valiant and Acme do is clear, and the shots hook up and flow along. In the next post, we’ll see how that doesn’t happen in the animated shots that follow. The unfortunate result is that some fine animation gets put into a blender and switched to puree.