An Interview With Phil Nibbelink, Roger Rabbit Animator

Phil Nibbelink working on Roger Rabbit circa 1987.

Phil Nibbelink has worked on a number of highly successful animated projects over the years. He served as an animator on memorable Disney film productions like The Fox and the Hound (1981), The Black Cauldron (1985) and The Great Mouse Detective (1986). His contributions on those films allowed him to join one of the most ambitious projects ever made, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), as a Supervising Animator.

Collage of images of the 1992 Amblimation team

Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall took notice of Nibbelink’s talent and asked him to co-direct An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991) with Simon Wells. The American Tail sequel would launch the Amblin animation studio, Amblimation. He would continue to work with Amblin and Amblimation on the films We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story and Casper. He worked on an animated version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats for Amblimation for many years before the project was ultimately abandoned.

Collage of images of the Amblimation team around the production of Balto

I spoke to Phil Nibbelink about his work on Roger Rabbit, his contributions to Amblimation and his experience working with Steven Spielberg.

You were working at Disney when the opportunity to work on the Disney & Amblin project, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, came to you. How did that opportunity arise?

Richard Williams (Animation Director) came to Disney Animation Studios before production started on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He was trying to find talent and there were a series of meetings with Robert Zemeckis (Director), Steve Starkey (Associate Producer) and Steven Spielberg (Executive Producer). Richard was very good friends with Andreas Deja (famed Disney animator), and I was very good friends with Andreas also. We went out to dinner and we talked a lot at the studio. It was such a great project, and I just asked if I could be a part of it. I was actually working on Oliver & Company (1988) at the time for Disney. I left that project and flew to London to work on Roger Rabbit.

When you came onto Roger Rabbit as a Supervising Animator, were you aware of how difficult the film would be? With the mixing of live action and animation on such a large scale, were you prepared for everything when you accepted the position?

By the time I heard about it, Zemeckis had shot a test with an actor for all the possible animated contact issues. Everything from eye line contact, to human contact with an animator character. Zemeckis shot a live action test and I think Richard Williams shot animated test footage also. I saw all of that and I said, ‘I wanna be a part of that show.’

Was making the film as difficult as you thought, or was it not as challenging as you anticipated it being?

Animation by its nature is labor intensive. Everything is difficult. Animation is never easy. Roger Rabbit was difficult because there were far more steps than a normal animated film.  It was like making a movie three times. There was the live action shoot, there was the animation and then there was the compositing. Three different companies were working full time to make one movie.

Every frame was printed on an 8×10 glossy, and then they had to peg punch each one of those frames. Thousands and thousands of photographic prints filled a huge storage room. When I was assigned a scene, I had to pick up like 500 frames from that scene. Zemeckis liked long takes. There were very few short shots. You would go through this big stack of prints.

There were two parts that were the hardest. The slow camera moves were difficult. For example, if Roger Rabbit was sitting behind a desk, he has to float slowly with the desk as the camera panned slightly past the desk.

Possibly the hardest part was the animated characters handling props. Hand animation is inaccurate. The slightest line quiver shows up. We would xerox the pencil drawings on to acetate cels in those days. There would be inaccuracies with the xerox machine. Then when it’s put on the camera and photographed there would be slight inaccuracies. Then those pieces of film go to the optical printer and there are small inaccuracies. All those inaccuracies add up, so when a cartoon hand is holding a real prop, like a gun or something, the hand wiggles and jiggles. That became very obvious when the prop was holding very still.

In the case of Roger Rabbit sitting at the desk, they had a robot arm holding a glass and drinking whiskey or whatever, the robot’s arm was physically fatter than Roger Rabbit’s arm. I had to cheat it and draw Roger Rabbit’s elbow and body next to each other to cover the robot, without it looking weird. There had to be a lot of invention to hide the puppetry arms and things like that with the animation.

Was the process made more difficult because of how Zemeckis shot the film? He spoke about not wanting to make concessions for the animation. He wanted to move the camera and have the same freedom he would have with a completely live action film. Was his style of filmmaking tough for the animation department?

I remember a lot of people were telling Zemeckis that he should lock the camera down. Put the camera on a tripod and hold it still. It would have made a lot of the problems go away. But, that wasn’t Zemeckis’s style. He always had a drifting camera that would dolly in and crane around. There would be perspective changes. That made the animators job much more difficult.

However, the moving camera created the illusion that the character is truly living on the set. When the camera dollies around in an arc, it forces you to believe the character is standing in a real world. The perspective is shifting on the set, the perspective is shifting for the actor and the perspective is also shifting for Roger Rabbit. It forces you to believe Roger Rabbit is living in the real word. It was a neat effect. It was a good trick. I loved it.

There were a lot of legal issues when it came to character rights and the usage of animated icons like Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. Did the property right issues impact you at all as an animator?

I know there were armies of lawyers around trying to line everything up. There were a lot of fights over Bugs Bunny. Warner Bros. was very protective of its franchise characters, and understandably so. Warner Bros. wanted the 1960s or 1970s Bugs Bunny represented in the film. The film Who Framed Roger Rabbit took place in the 1940s. So…the 1940s Bug Bunny was very different looking than the 60s or 70s Bugs Bunny. There was a lot of discussion about us wanting the Bugs Bunny from the film’s time period and Warner Bros. wanting the modern day Bugs Bunny they were currently selling merchandise of. There was frustrations on both sides about that. The artists wanted the character to be true of the film’s era and Warner Bros. wanted it to be something they were currently merchandising. The same was true for Daffy Duck – he had changed a lot over the years too.

What versions of the characters were ultimately used?

I think that the modern day Daffy and Bugs ended up in the movie.

Because Disney was making the film, were they more relaxed about how Mickey Mouse was used?

Mickey, at the time we were making Roger Rabbit in the 1980s, had not evolved much from the 40s version of Mickey. There might have been subtle changes, but nothing the audience would really notice. Bugs had changed a lot more. Bugs kept evolving beyond the 40s. Since Roger Rabbit, Mickey Mouse has evolved a lot. But at the time he had not evolved that much.

Your work on Roger Rabbit led to you co-directing An American Tail: Fievel Goes West for Amblimation. Can you talk about how you were able to land that job?

That crossover happened because Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy and all the fine people at Amblin were visiting the Roger Rabbit production frequently. I got to know all of them, and it was a natural progression. Frank Marshall told me Don Bluth (director of the first American Tail film) passed on directing the sequel and I jumped at the chance. Thankfully they gave me an opportunity.

Was there a lot of pressure taking on Fievel Goes West? It was the first film for Amblimaiton, you were replacing Don Bluth as director, Bluth was already an animation legend by this time, and it is always challenging to make a sequel. Did those things go through your mind when you were making the film?

There is always pressure on every movie. Don Bluth made a beautiful movie with American Tail. We tried to live up to it and go beyond it. We would never be able to match Don Bluth’s style. He had such a distinct style. We had a completely different set of artists. It forced us to go in a different direction.

From there you started to work on We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story, which was the second film from Amblimation. You co-directed that animated film for Amblimation with Simon Wells, Dick Zondag and Ralph Zondag. Can you talk a little bit about that project?

It was a smooth transition. As Fievel Goes West was wrapping up, Simon Wells and I were storyboarding We’re Back! We completed the animatic (an animated storyboard) and Steven Spielberg was very happy with it. We locked it in, and we were ready to direct it. But then Steven Spielberg bought the rights to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. The decision was let’s have the Zondag brothers finish We’re Back! and Simon and I went on to storyboard Cats.

Cats recently got a live action film released in 2019. Amblin had been trying to bring Cats to life for a long time – starting with the animated project you worked on. Why didn’t the animated version of Cats ever work out?

Cats was going to be the third Amblimation project, after We’re Back! The problem was Andrew Lloyd Webber wasn’t happy with where the story was going. So, we went into rewrite country, we did new storyboards, and he still wasn’t happy. It went backwards like that a few times.

Eventually Amblimation moved on to Balto. Then they moved the entire animation team to Los Angeles and Amblimation then became DreamWorks Animation (DreamWorks Animation was co-founded by Spielberg in 1994). Universal (Amblimation was a division of Universal Pictures) still wanted to do Cats, but Simon moved on to direct The Prince of Egypt (1998) for DreamWorks. I went under the umbrella of Universal and I started to work on the next version of Cats. That version looked like it was going to happen. But, then Universal got sold. With that came new management and they went through the projects that were in development and they flushed them all out – and I went with it. I then started my own company and did my own features.

Amblimation never really closed down – it just became DreamWorks Animation?

 It was literally all the same people. They got work visas for like 150 or 180 people. They physically moved them to Los Angeles from London (the former home of Amblimation). It was an international crew. They moved them all and changed the name to DreamWorks Animation.

When you think of DreamWorks Animation you instantly think of films like Shrek (2001) that used digital animation. When Amblimation became DreamWorks Animation – did it abandon the hand drawn style?

I think DreamWorks Animation’s last 2D film was Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002). After that they went 3D with Shrek and those films. With the explosion of Toy Story (1995) – American college kids would go see a CG animated movie, but they wouldn’t go see a 2D movie. The American perception was that 2D movies were for kids. CG was also faster to make than hand drawn animation – it just made financial sense for people to abandon 2D animation. I heard that Walmart was pushing the studios to stop doing 2D animation, because Walmart knew that 3D animation sold better.

In 1995 you worked on the film Casper for Amblin. With Casper, again you were mixing animation with live action, like you did with Roger Rabbit. What was that experience like?

 It was a great. I enjoyed that production. I storyboarded all the live action/animated combination sequences. When they were shooting the film, I sat with the video engineer, a guy named Ian Kelly, a good friend of mine. They would split the prism of the incoming film. Half of it goes to film and half it goes to a video camera within the movie camera. I would get the video camera feed into my computer and I would draw Casper on top of it.  

On set they would have a 3 foot doll of Casper and the director would walk that Casper doll through the scene so that the live action actors would know where Casper was going to be. During that time, I would make quick sketches of where Casper was going to be. Then they would shoot the live action footage and I would then draw Casper into the scene. Then they would play it back to see if Casper lined up with everything they were doing. I sat on set for three months creating this real time animatic for the director and actors.

Phil working on the set of Casper

Casper is a very interesting film visually. It seems like it was a very exciting project to work on.

There was another interesting thing about that project. ILM was doing the character animation on that film. They had never done character animation before, they had done creature animation, but not cartoony characters. They didn’t really know about exaggeration and comedy – all that good stuff. Around this time We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story had wrapped, and Cats was scrapped, so rather than fire those animation teams, we brought them all to San Francisco to work with ILM on Casper.

Phil & Simon In Amblimation Office

You had a very long and successful run working for Steven Spielberg and Amblin. Do you look back on that time fondly?

It was a good experience then and it is a fond memory now. I liked working with those people, they were great.

Spielberg with Phil & Simon

One thing I have learned about Spielberg, based on my interviews with his colleagues, is that he is extremely collaborative. He is always willing to listen and use people’s ideas. Did you have that kind of relationship working with him?

He was one of the best bosses I ever had. He is a lot of fun to work with. He liked story meetings because it was his kind of jazz music. He was like Benny Goodman playing the clarinet. He would do these riffs on ideas. You would throw him an idea…and then he would get an idea…and then throw you back this wonderful idea. What he loved most was if we could catch his melody and continue it, or go sideways with it, it was very much like playing jazz. The story sessions were very much like a jazz quartet. It was kind of hair-raising because you had to be on your toes. But it was always fun.

Phil in Roger Rabbit Office