Before Space Jam, Bugs Bunny made his live-action feature debut with Doris Day
A Looney Tunes/live-action mash-up may seem a modern phenomenon, but in 1949 Warner Bros.' biggest star made a cameo in the musical My Dream Is Yours. This was Bugs' second appearance in a feature: He'd hopped into an animated sequence in the 1948 musical comedy Two Guys From Texas — though this Dream scene, in which Bugs dances to an Easter tune alongside Day and Jack Carson, was his first time mixing with human stars.
The idea of mashing up live-action actors and animated characters was nothing new. Walt Disney's first commercial project was just that, a series of shorts known as the Alice Comedies that paired a child star (Virginia Davis) with an animated cat named Julius against an animated landscape. And in 1945, over at MGM, Gene Kelly memorably danced with Jerry the Mouse, a creation of Hanna Barbera, in Anchors Aweigh.
But Bugs Bunny was the preeminent animated character of the late 1940s, certainly the highest in the Looney Tunes hierarchy, and most recognizable to audiences alongside Mickey Mouse. He was a feather in Warner Bros. cap and a natural choice for a studio's bid for synergy.
At the time My Dream Was Yours was in production, the studios were terrified of losing their audience to television, viewing it as an enemy to cinema and box office revenue. What they needed were gimmicks to get butts in seats, and thus, a Bugs Bunny crossover cameo was devised.
But it wasn't an easy prospect for animators. A musical number like this Easter dream sequence required painstaking double-time work by animators to match the frame rate of human motion to avoid a choppy, strobe effect.
Tom Sito, renowned animator and USC Cinema school professor, explains the complicated process involved in bringing together live-action stars and animated characters at this time. "The film speed is 24 frames per second, so 24 pictures per one second of time for natural fluid movement," he says. "We usually film things on twos, which means you photograph each frame twice. That gives you more of a normal speed of the way people really move.
"When you match with live-action," he continues. "You can't do twos, you have to draw every single one of those 24 frames. Because life is on ones. It's moving at that speed. When you match it with things on twos, the movement looks choppy. So, you have to match the live-action exactly."
Not only did artists have to animate twice as many frames, but it also impacts the lighting and camera movement. "You have to lock down the camera," Sito details. "You can't do any kind of panning or camera moves. Because the characters would have to match that move, and you might have to deal with perspective, which makes it even harder to do.
"Also, the lighting," he concludes. "The character has to be lit exactly the same way as the live-action person. Characters are usually painted kind of flat. But human beings, you have two or three light sources on, so you have to match the characters' shadows. In those days, shadows were animated by hand and had to be an additional pass underneath the camera to create what we call ground plane shadows, which is the shadow that Bugs would cast on the ground."
Since My Dream Is Yours, Bugs has graced plenty of live-action feature films, including 1972's What's Up Doc?, 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit (which Sito animated on), 1996's Space Jam, and July 16's Space Jam: A New Legacy.
Sito says Bugs can fit into nearly any film because of his contemporary appeal. "Part of the power of Bugs Bunny as a character is his adaptability," he offers. "Bugs always seems relevant because he's a modern character. He's very much a modern person who was animated with adult audiences in mind."
Whether Bugs is hoofing with Doris, trading jokes with Babs, or tearing up the court with LeBron, he's always a welcome presence, offering his timeless carrot and shtick.
A version of this story appears in the July issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now or you can order a copy online. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.