November 15, 1996 in Seven

Hollywood Technologies Pass Back And Forth In ‘Space Jam’

Michael H. Price Fort Worth Star-Telegram
 

If “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” was an advanced propeller model of high-flying techno-moviemaking, then “Space Jam” is the turbo-jet version.

Only eight years have passed since “Roger Rabbit,” a trailblazing fusion of cartoon animation and live-action cinematography, rocked the box office and triggered a rush toward the ideal marriage of computer and movie camera. Benchmarks along the way have included “Beauty and the Beast,” “Jurassic Park” and “Toy Story.”

“Space Jam,” an alien-invasion spoof starring championship athlete Michael Jordan with Bugs Bunny and the “Looney Tunes” ensemble of cartoon characters, is a culmination of that rush. The film opens Friday as Warner Bros.’ big volley in the battle for holiday-season moviegoers.

“I don’t think any picture has combined so many different media as ‘Space Jam’ has,” says Tony Cervone, co-director (with Bruce Smith) of the animated segments.

Smith adds: “And all are interchangeable at different times, so it’s not one medium with another constantly. There’s animation with the computer-graphics environment, animation in the traditional environment, live action in the computer-graphics environment, and live action in the animated environment.”

In an interview, Smith and Cervone emphasized that, even on the edge of new technological breakthroughs, it all still begins with pencil and paper.

And they acknowledged a debt that they have tried to honor by infusing the hyperslick “Space Jam” with attitude that prevailed among the Warners cartoon pioneers of 60 years ago.

“We’re bearing a standard, here,” Smith says. “Tony and I kind of worked our way into this assignment - just kept asserting our knowledge of the ‘Looney Tunes’ characters, acting like we knew what we were doing, until the powers that be just put us in charge.”

This is where the element of “attitude” came in.

“Y’know,” says Cervone, those ‘Bugs Bunny’ cartoons - practically all the ‘Looney Tunes’ and ‘Merrie Melodies’ of the Depression and wartime years, on up through the ‘50s - they were not polite cartoons.

“They were smart-mouthed, sarcastic, iconoclastic - disrespectful of authority figures, and often kind of anarchistic.”

So it has bothered them, the animators said, to see such champions of impoliteness as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck be institutionalized into “corporate icons.” Bugs, as a smiling statue in front of a Warner Bros. shoppingmall store, seems a pale imitation of the genuine article.

“And so here we’ve got this idea of teaming up Michael Jordan with the ‘Looney Tunes’ characters,” says Smith, “with the opportunity to give Bugs and the gang their first fully original, feature-length starring picture - and what better opportunity to recapture that old smart-alecky magic of the original Warners cartoons?”

In “Space Jam,” the fate of this planet hangs on a basketball game between Bugs Bunny & Co. and a mob of alien conquerors. Bugs, resourceful hare that he is, drafts Michael Jordan to even the odds.

One of the problems in filming live-action/cartoon scenes is that it’s difficult for anybody to “interact” with a blank space that eventually will be filled in with paintings of a cartoon character. As a consequence - and this problem even occurs in the generally accomplished “Roger Rabbit” - the humans may not be making full eye contact with the cartoon characters. Overcome this problem, and you’re a big step closer to convincing the audience.

The “Space Jam” solution was to photograph Jordan on a specially painted set (green walls, green floors), interacting with players (dressed and masked in green) who would at length be replaced by cartoon illustrations. The saturation of green enables the computers to isolate Jordan and place him in lifelike fantasy situations.

The co-directors asserted that all animation within the 90-minute feature was done by hand. Only when completed, with painted backgrounds, was the cartooning fed into the computers for detailed coloring, lighting and enhancement.


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