Flesh and Ink: A Century of Live-Action/Animation Hybrids

Mary Poppins Returns isn’t just the return of a beloved character. The film is a throwback to filmmaking styles of yesteryear, where films could be frothy and whimsical excuses to simply have a nice time. But it’s also notable for its inclusion of a technique rarely seen today, and indeed across cinema: the blending of live-action footage with traditional animation.

Incredibly, the earliest example of the live-action/animation hybrid is also the earliest example of animation of any kind. The Enchanted Drawing, produced in 1900, featured a live-action man interacting with a hand-drawn face on an easel, while grabbing drawn objects and pulling them into the third dimension.

Later, from 1918 to 1929, Betty Boop creator, Popeye animator, and “bouncing ball” singalong inventor Max Fleischer created a series of silent shorts called Out of the Inkwell, in which animated characters leapt off Fleischer’s easel into reality. These would also herald Fleischer’s invention of the Rotoscope, which allowed animators to trace live-action footage to create more natural movement – a technique we’ll return to later.

Walt Disney got in on the action, too, well before creating Mickey Mouse or even his predecessor Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Through the early to mid ‘20s, Disney made a series of silent shorts called the “Alice Comedies,” starring live-action girl Alice and cartoon cat Julius. Starting with a short entitled Alice’s Wonderland, in which “Alice” stumbles into Disney’s own cartoon world, Alice went on a range of adventures, getting into trouble and peril (and, in a characteristically Disney move, excoriating union workers) in a mostly-animated environment. 56 Alice shorts were released over four years. Many have since been lost.

Such was the technical difficulty of blending animation with live-action that many “hybrid” films would feature just one or two scenes of interaction between the two – and even then, the interaction would be limited. Many of Disney’s features fall into this category. These range from the all-but-buried, notoriously racist Song of the South, to the newly-sequelised, enduringly famous Mary Poppins.

Poppins features a dazzling sequence wherein Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke sing, dance, and race horses in an animated fantasy world. Poppins represented huge advances in combining the two techniques, with the live-action actors appearing to interact in complex ways with their animated costars. So impressive was it, the film won an Academy Award for Special Visual Effects, as did its spiritual successor Bedknobs and Broomsticks. By the time Pete’s Dragon came along in 1977, though, even including an animated character for a feature’s entire running time wasn’t enough to garner so much as a nomination (not that it could’ve won against Star Wars, of course).

For a perplexing quantity of nostalgic millennials, the title synonymous with live-action/animated work is the extremely 1996 release Space Jam. Blatantly focus-grouped, product-driven, and cynical, Space Jam is one of the ‘90s’ least-expected cult phenomena. The film’s aliens-vs-Looney-Tunes basketball tournament was a naked excuse to bring then unparalleled celebrity Michael Jordan into the film. Jordan is transported to the world of the Looney Tunes (the characterisation of which infuriated Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones), and forced to play basketball with them, meaning the bulk of Jordan’s filming process would have involved talking to tennis balls on sticks on a bluescreen stage. Perhaps that explains why his performance is so lacklustre.

While Space Jam somewhat unconvincingly transported a basketball star into the world of cartoons, WB’s pseudo-followup Looney Tunes: Back In Action brought cartoons into the world of Hollywood to do battle with the Acme Corporation. Needless to say, the spirit of Looney Tunes is more intact in Joe Dante’s film – and the effects are stronger, too. Dante drops his animated characters into LA, Vegas, Paris, and space, and uses a wide array of techniques to blend them in with the actors, props, sets, and even fluids with which they interact. It’s silly, ridiculous, and for fans of the source material, pretty endearing.

But neither Back In Action and Space Jam would exist without Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit, released in 1988.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the undisputed king of hybrid motion pictures – not just featuring animated characters, but creating an entire universe where cartoons coexist with human beings, and where the laws of physics occupy a curious halfway-point between the two. Roger Rabbit is a technical marvel, its wizardry undiminished by the current trend towards photorealistic animated characters, and it helped invent many of the techniques now used in CGI-heavy productions. In more ways than one, it’s one of the greatest and most quietly influential movies ever made.

Roger Rabbit’s effects team won an Academy Award for what was the most comprehensive mixture of animation and live-action to date. Animated figures were not just composited into the frame; they took light from practical sources, interacted with physical objects and people, and blended seamlessly with live footage no matter what plane of action they occupied. They did all this in every scene of the film, often with multiple characters at once. Many shots even utilised a moving camera (notoriously difficult to match with traditional animation). In retrospect, Robert Zemeckis was clearly the right man for the directing job, given his position at the forefront of many an effects technique over the years. The end result still holds up today as a remarkable achievement in effects, a once-in-a-lifetime blend of competing animated IPs, and a terrific movie to boot.

As impressive as Roger Rabbit is, however, it’s got nothing on the preposterously difficult process employed in 1993 by Bolexbrothers Studio on Dave Borthwick’s The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb. The film features human actors interacting with stop-motion animated characters, but unlike, say, Ray Harryhausen’s fantasy films, no compositing is used to blend the two into the same frame. Rather, the filmmakers animated their actors as well – literally, by having them remain very very still and repositioning them between frames alongside their stop-motion costars. The results are bizarre and honestly pretty terrifying. There’s nothing else quite like it.

Other innovators brought alternative approaches to the hybrid medium. In the US, Ralph Bakshi often mixed live-action with animation in transgressive films like Coonskin, claiming the two techniques could “coexist with neither excuse nor apology”. His animated Lord of the Rings notably featured traditional animation, silhouetted live-action sequences, and rotoscoped animation. In the UK, Terry Gilliam often bridged animated and live-action sequences in the various Monty Python projects by using photographic elements as animated figures. And over in Europe, Jan Svankmajer created his own unique combination of filmmaking forms in surreal titles like Alice, one of the stranger Alice In Wonderland adaptations around.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of live-action films utilised stop-motion animation as visual effects throughout the 20th century. This technique, too, dates back to the silent era, with Willis O’Brien’s pioneering work on the The Lost World and the half-lost Ghost of Slumber Mountain paving the way for equally revolutionary work from Ray Harryhausen and his disciples. From the ‘20s to the ‘80s, stop-motion was a principal means of adding fantastical creatures to live-action films. Jurassic Park, in 1993, would be the first to toss the technique aside (mid-production!) to truly reinvent the medium with CGI.

Nowadays, nearly every blockbuster is a mixture of live-action and animation; we just don’t consider them in the same terms. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was one of the earliest CGI-heavy live-action movies to fess up to this, crediting Industrial Light and Magic with “visual effects and animation,” and when you think about it, animation fills innumerable live-action films. Any recent live-action movie with a transforming robot, a giant ape, an alien, or a talking raccoon has relied heavily on animation. Indeed, in terms of process, David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon remake is much the same as its predecessor – just with many more pixels at the animators’ fingertips.

Motion capture adds an interesting wrinkle to this narrative, but it, too, is merely a more-advanced version of existing processes. While Gollum, Caesar, Thanos, and other mo-cap characters are based on footage and tracking data from live performances, they’re actually rendered on screen (and, it’s worth adding, their performances optimised and tweaked) by animators. These techniques are several technological steps up from, but not entirely dissimilar to, Fleischer’s Rotoscope, which was patented over a hundred years ago. And any time you see characters doing things that aren’t physically possible – hell, any time you see human characters doing such things – they’re probably animated wholesale.

Technology has a funny way of steamrolling over itself. Convincingly mixing animation and live footage was one of the more challenging tasks in filmmaking for decades, and as a result, it rarely appeared. Then, just as technology caught up with ambition in that realm with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, CGI came along almost immediately thereafter, dominating the industry and rendering cel animation passe.

Modern CG characters owe their existence to the advances made on their cel-animated predecessors, and because of the vast difference in visual aesthetic, many audiences will never make the connection between the two. It’s a shame: the technical wonder of seeing cartoons interact with human beings is something CGI has all but eradicated. And the magical delight of a cartoon hanging out with a human being is something CGI will never match.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: