Monday, August 12, 2013

The Actor Behind the Pencil

by Andrea Blundell

You’ve seen Jacques Muller on the silver screen. Not his face per se, but his characters’ faces. You see, Jacques is a legendary character animator who’s worked on such films as Space Jam, The Rescuers Down Under, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and what he’s most known for, the Oscar-winning film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Musa Publishing is excited to announce that Jacques is revisiting Roger Rabbit and Toontown after twenty-five years to design the cover art for Gary K. Wolf’s upcoming release, Who Wacked Roger Rabbit? And in the process, he’s telling us all about what it’s like to be a character animator, and what it was like to work for Disney and be a part of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Jacques still remembers going to the studio in Camden Town London that first day on the job of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and getting his first glimpse of the work-in-progress film. “[Don Hahn] invited me to have a look at the last rushes from the previous day. So I entered the small projection theatre, and I saw the main scenes of the opening kitchen sequence out of order but in color. Like in a Tex Avery cartoon, my jaw dropped to the floor.”

Jacques initially worked on the film as an assistant to Phil Nibbelink, who, along with Andreas Deja, was seen as the best of the Disney animators. But after a few months, he was promoted to an animator position by Richard Williams, the animation director. “I was beyond myself with joy. [I sat] next to Andreas Deja and Nik Ranieri, not far from Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells. Rubbing elbows all day long with people like these you surely cannot fail. Something is bound to happen as the inspirational vibrations floating around abound in such quantity.”

Jacques worked on scenes with several of the main characters, including Roger Rabbit. “My first scene [was] with Roger in the bar, when Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) is holding him under his arm, trying to open the can of dip. Eventually Roger unfolds his entire body, still held by the neck. He pedals in the air with his big legs and feet for a moment and then comes to a stop. The scene only lasts ten seconds of screen time, but my crew of assistants and I spent a full month on it.” Jacques also contributed to a major part of the warehouse sequence near the end of the movie, where Roger and Jessica are attached to the hook.

Jacques became very familiar with drawing Roger Rabbit’s character, and what he calls his 'plastic structure, contrast of shapes and volumes, and his dynamic property.'

“Richard Williams based his creation [of Roger Rabbit] on a triangle shape for the body, crowned by a pear-like skull, crossed by a sausage-like shape for the cheeks. Bob Zemeckis asked him to come up with a combined character mixing the WB qualities; those of a Tex Avery from MGM and a bit of Br’er Rabbit from Disney's Song of the South.”

Jacques worked for Disney for five years, and he describes the Disney experience from two perspectives. “On one hand working for Disney was like having two giant boosters attached on your belt to propel you into the stars. When the studio decided on it they could make you instantly famous—for a week or two—which happened to me during the launch of Roger Rabbit in France. Appearing on national evening news on all TV channels, radio stations, main magazines, etc, was an experience, but only that. The nature of our world is such that fame for most of us is a very temporary thing, and I am quite fine with that.

"On the other hand working for Disney allowed me to approach The Disney Phenomenon from very close. I spent quite a bit of time at the main Burbank studio and at the archives. This was a fantastic experience to be on the grounds where Uncle Walt and his enormously talented artists made it all happen. Then there were the many encounters with great people like Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Marc Davis, Joe Grant, and other veterans; and all my fellow animators of course. Finally I should mention my traveling with Roy Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg to Paris on a promotion tour [for Oliver & Co.].”

Jacques currently splits his time between teaching classical animation at Nanyang Polytechnic of Singapore, and working on animation projects. He is finishing a short film in 2D called “A Horse’s Dream,” among many other independent projects.

When asked about the toughest part of animating, his passion immediately shows through. “The biggest challenge in character animation (la crème de la crème) is to deliver a performance that rings true. When all the parameters combined bring to the screen a moment of suspended disbelief; where the work stops being a bunch of drawings, and suddenly an entity appears and moves (in one way or another) the audiences' emotions. Look at all the great characters from the Disney studio; they move you terribly through laughter, empathy, dislike, or wonderment. So it is really of an actor's performance that we are talking about, but an actor behind a pencil or a mouse.”

And now, Jacques is bringing that passion, that performance behind the pencil, into the world of book cover design. “Gary K. Wolf is the one who first mentioned the cover of his new Roger Rabbit book to me. He mentioned that he has a cel of Roger and Jessica on his wall that he enjoys looking at every day. I asked him if he could send me a picture of it. And then, guess what, it was one of my scenes with the couple attached to the hook that appears at the end of the movie! I told this to Gary, and his first response was to offer me [the chance] to do the cover of his next book.”

Because Disney owns the trademark to the film character of Roger Rabbit, Musa needed options for the cover art if Disney refused to grant them the use of the character. Jacques’ experience on the film will allow him to bring an authenticity to the book cover without violating those rights. Another perk of the job is getting the opportunity to visually create a whole new cast of Toontown characters from the new book. “It is a welcome challenge to create new original characters for Toontown. I like the idea and find it extremely exciting. I am especially interested in creating a Jessica antithesis.”

Regardless of who ends up on the cover, there is no doubt that Jacques Muller will bring his passion and authenticity to the drawing table as he revisits Toontown and Roger Rabbit. And soon, you will have seen Jacque’s face on the e-reader screen too—that is, his characters’ faces!

You can read the full interview with Jacques Muller in the September issue of Penumbra. And keep an eye out for Jacques’ latest artistic work when Gary K. Wolf’s Who Wacked Roger Rabbit? releases on November 22, 2013, from Musa Publishing.


Vonnie said...

What a cool, behind-the-scenes article. Huge, huge amounts of work behind each scene.

Jacques Muller said...

yes you have no idea. Because of the constant movements of camera we had to draw every frame of the 57 minutes of animation. That's 57 times 1440 drawings per character. You have two characters = that's 2880 drawings per minute; ten characters that's 14400 drawings and so on. But you also have to consider all the many ruffs to get one drawing right; may be 3 or 4 per clean drawing + the rim of light effects + the tones and shadows levels + the coloured cels. At the end we had rows of characters on ones (single frames) etc...etc...