The artist behind the iconic look of one of cinema’s most memorable animated locations is coming to Maumee. On December 13, Len Smith— the animator who designed Toontown, a central location in Who Framed Roger Rabbit— will appear at the Maumee Indoor Theatre to accompany a screening of the movie.
Smith’s career in children’s entertainment stretches back over 35 years, through work on numerous films, television shows and books. His ability to appeal to kids with his work is easily explained, by Smith, “I’m a kid myself. I have just never lost that connection.”
Growing up drawing
The road to Toontown for Smith began in childhood, with inspiration from his father. “I could always draw. My dad could draw. So I grew up watching him— he had a scholarship to art school and he didn’t pursue it. He became a carpenter. And I saw how hard he worked, and how hard my grandparents worked, and I thought, ‘There’s got to be an easier way.’”
Smith began working in animation in the mid-80s with a job at Hanna Barbera. He was a layout artist and character designer for shows including Snorks and Pound Puppies. “Layout is kind of combining the characters and the backgrounds for the animators to know where the characters go. The guy who trained me to do that left and went to Disney Feature Animation. And he called me one day and said, ‘I need an assistant for this project.’ And I didn’t have any idea what the project was, but I said ‘Sure.’”
The project was Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the 1988 film about a hard-boiled detective trying to clear the name of a famous cartoon bunny. When Smith’s boss’ wife had a baby, the boss was called away from the production for a while. However, there were some important locations that had yet to be designed.
“So it kind of fell to me to design Toontown,” Smith said. “All the faces on the buildings. And the animators saw what I was doing, adding faces and characters to inanimate objects, and they decided to animate Toontown itself based on what I was doing. So that’s how I became the designer of Toontown.”
Roger Rabbit ended up becoming a massive hit, both critically and commercially. The film proved to be influential in the realm of filmmaking, pioneering techniques to combine cartoons and live action. Smith also notes how the film acts as a farewell to an era of animation. “It’s one of the last hand-made animated movies. Certainly after that, not even ten years later, everything went to CGI. Everything went to the Pixar style. So this is a touchstone— not only to the movie itself, but also to the golden age of animation.”
More than a movie
The Toontown Tour event at the Maumee Indoor Theatre will screen Roger Rabbit, followed by a Q&A session with Smith. “I’ve seen other events like it, where people involved with the movies have Q&As. And I have a lot of information about the film. This film was entered into the Library of Congress two years ago. This is one of the most iconic, important animated films.”
Nowadays, Smith works on a variety of children’s books as an illustrator. He hopes that Maumee moviegoers come away from the event with a greater appreciation of a largely bygone era of animation. “It’s more than just a movie,” Smith said of Roger Rabbit. “There were a lot of artists that really poured themselves into this film.”
$15 general admission, $30 VIP
5pm. Sunday, December 13
601 Conant St., Maumee
419-897-8902 | ticketleap.com