Richard Williams

Richard Williams with some of the 30,881 draw­ings used in the 412 scenes shot for The Animator’s Sur­vival Kit — Animated

Richard Williams is a Cana­dian ani­ma­tor, win­ner of two Oscars and count­less other awards for his work on Who Framed Roger Rab­bit? and A Christ­mas Carol. He is per­haps best known for his unfin­ished mas­ter­piece The Thief and the Cob­bler. He also pro­duced lit­er­ally hun­dreds of multi-award win­ing TV com­mer­cials through­out the 1960s, 70s, and 80s through Richard Williams Ani­ma­tion in Lon­don and L.A, as well as movie titles and sequences for films such as The Pink Pan­ther, What’s New Pussy­cat? and The Charge of the Light Brigade.

I recently joined Mario Cav­alli for a friendly chat with his old boss, Richard Williams, at Aard­man Animation’s stu­dios in Bris­tol, where he edited the 16 DVDs that make up the full Animator’s Sur­vival Kit and where he has found a quiet place to work on his two ‘new’ projects.

Who Framed Roger Rab­bit? © Walt Dis­ney Pictures

One of the sem­i­nal influ­ences upon me [Mario] as a young boy, the film that made me see that ani­ma­tion could be some­thing other than ‘Dis­ney’, was the work you did on Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. I’d like to ask you, what was the equiv­a­lent inspi­ra­tional piece for you? What brought you into ani­ma­tion?

Snow White!… When I was 5 years old, it’d just come out in Toronto, and my mother was an illus­tra­tor, so I knew this things were draw­ings you see. Because Dis­ney offered a job to her and she wouldn’t go, which was stu­pid… So I knew they were draw­ings. She said I was never the same again.

So I seri­ously wanted to do it and then I went to Dis­ney when I was 15. I earned money and I saved up my money and got on a bus from Toronto to Los Ange­les and walked up and down in front of the stu­dio for a month and a half, try­ing to get in… I was a fanatic! and [chuck­les] then, my mother had a friend who was in adver­tis­ing so (…) he set it up and I was there for 2 days meet­ing a lot of the peo­ple, it was fan­tas­tic as you can imag­ine and (…)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — PRNews­Foto © Walt Dis­ney Stu­dios Home Entertainment

There was a guy there, Dick Kelsey (…) and I said [to him] “What do I do? What do I do?” you know “What should I do, I want to be this ter­rific ani­ma­tor” and he said “For­get ani­ma­tion, go learn to draw” and I said “yeah but look I can…” but he said “yeah yeah car­toons… REALLY learn to draw”… when I was leav­ing LA I rang him up again and said “What should I do?” he said “I told you what to do: Learn to draw! REALLY learn to draw” that went [mim­ics ges­ture of gun shoot­ing at his head].

Shortly after, for some rea­son, I stum­bled into the art gallery and there was a room full of Rem­brandt and I’ve never seen them before, (…) and I said “Oh shit, this is, that’s what art is” and I burst into tears, you know, at this ter­rific thing, and I said “Fuck ani­ma­tion, I’m not inter­ested” and I got into art school (…) and then I ended up just being a painter (…) in Spain.

Richard Williams work­ing on The Ani­mated Raggedy Ann & Andy, 1977. Cour­tesy of Michael Sporn.

So you gave up on the idea for a while, what changed, how did your career in ani­ma­tion started?

Some­how or other I got this idea for this lit­tle island film, and my paint­ings were try­ing to move, and I kept think­ing “This is weird” and then I started doing this tiny lit­tle sto­ry­boards, I said “What the fuck am I doing?” and I used to like Paul Klee a lot, and there were like lit­tle things and it just took over (…) I worked on this pic­ture for 9 months doing a very elab­o­rate big sto­ry­board of the whole thing and went to Eng­land because, TV was open­ing and they had black and white com­mer­cials and I man­aged to get friendly with Eddie Radich Stu­dio, and they were very kind to me, they wouldn’t give me any work but they let me use the cam­era for a bit, advised me in all sorts of ways. (…)

Team photo of Richard Williams’ staff sit­ting in front of the Soho Square stu­dio. Cour­tesy of Michael Sporn.

When did you set up your own stu­dio?

62? some­thing around there… I never wanted a stu­dio but I was friends with George [Dun­ning] and he let me down on a lot of stuff and I just said “Oh, I’m going into com­pe­ti­tion now” [chuckles]

Still from The Yel­low Sub­ma­rine. Cour­tesy of Michael Sporn

An impor­tant piece of work of that time was The Yel­low Sub­ma­rine, wasn’t?

Yeah, at the same time, exactly at the same time, only theirs went every­where where as, because The Light Brigade was a metaphor for Viet­nam, the Amer­i­cans dropped it like a hot potato, so no one saw it. They showed it at the Acad­emy recently and they had five or six of us sur­viv­ing old men who worked on it, Vanessa Red­grave was there… and I was shocked it was so good, and I couldn’t believe it, when it started it was my stuff, it started with the ani­ma­tion… and I’ve for­got­ten that, and

I remem­ber think­ing ‘his will be a major impact” but then nobody saw [laughs] the film and every­body saw the Yel­low Sub.

Tony Richard­son.

But that was the nicest job. Richard­son was a mar­vel­lous guy to work with, I mean you could yell at him and… I remem­ber I was try­ing to do a Turner [as in the painter JMW Turner] and we were doing the illus­trated Lon­don news and he said ‘That’s shit, throw that out… that’s won­der­ful… go that way… have you got a fiver for the cab?’ [chuckles]

Still from The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968.

So the idea of bas­ing the style on the Illus­trated Lon­don News and Punch car­toons of the era…

That was his, yeah. And he said he wanted to use ani­ma­tion and didn’t know any­body that could do it. And it was Tony Wal­ton [Stage and cos­tume designer] who said “get Dick, Dick can do it” so I showed the stuff and they trusted me, (…) they had a rough idea and a script (…) with 2 min­utes for the titles or some­thing and he said “I don’t care if nobody reads the cred­its, just make sure you show the Vic­to­rian age blos­som­ing, you know, the mas­ters of the world” and there was another 2 minute sec­tion on war fever… it’s just like now, you know… Iraq… it was exactly the same… and Vietnam.

And then there was this sec­tion where I had to take the fleet to Turkey and he said “but do it imag­i­na­tively, so it doesn’t look like we could’t afford to film the navy” right? And there was a 2 minute sec­tion where they had lost the bat­tle of Sebastopol, where they were ter­ri­bly beaten but of course we pre­tended it was this tremen­dous suc­cess, so it was an euphoric thing, we won [laughs] and he just let me run.

Richard Williams at his ani­ma­tion desk early 1987 in his Lon­don stu­dio. Cour­tesy of Hans Bacher.

At the time, Richard Williams’ Stu­dio was the stu­dio that could ani­mate any­thing, which was a very refresh­ing idea, very inspir­ing!

Yeah, that was my idea, because the Dis­ney peo­ple said “Oh, you have to get it for ani­ma­tion” and I said “why? they’re just draw­ings! Draw­ings that walk and talk”. They can be good draw­ings or funny draw­ings or ugly draw­ings it doesn’t mat­ter, so why not? “Oh no, you have to do it for animation”.

But in the end the cri­sis for me came through Chuck Jones, his best ani­ma­tor Ken Har­ris. I knew Chuck a bit and he liked my work and we were friends… friendly any­way, and I was rav­ing about Ken Har­ris’ work and he said “How can you tell Ken Har­ris’ work? it’s all mixed it in every­body else” I said “I can always tell it, he can draw slightly squarer” and I made notes when I was a kid when I see these things, and he said “Ok, tell me what he did” so I rat­tled off all these things and he said “Christ! you’re right! Well he’s left me now, he’s retired, he’s a car fanatic… Write to him about cars and maybe he’ll come an visit, his new wife (he just got mar­ried) is a trav­eller…” any­way, so I wrote a let­ter as a fan and back came a let­ter about cars and he came in with his wife and as the lift doors opened, there he was and I saw him laugh­ing and he said “Yeah I look like the coy­ote, don’t I?” [laugh­ter] Because Chuck drew Ken as the coy­ote. [laughter]

Some of the works pro­duced at Richard Williams Ani­ma­tion Stu­dio: “The Pink Pan­ther Strikes Again” (Main title sequence), “Casino Royale” (Main title sequence), “Who Framed Roger Rab­bit?” (Ani­ma­tion direction)

Any­way we hit it off and he stayed. He wasn’t inter­ested in travel so his wife would go trav­el­ling around Europe and he stayed and I got him ani­mat­ing, that was the start of The Thief. I thought, what kind of char­ac­ter could he do that would suit him, a bit like the coy­ote and it would be a silent char­ac­ter? So that’s how it started. Any­way, we had about 3 months with him and he went back to the States. And we had money then, so I said “Come on, please come back as long as you can”, so then it started, he was with me for 14 years.

He’d just come over and when we just fin­ished the Light Brigade, it was the first week in the Odeon, Leices­ter square, and the 4 or 5 of us who did all the work, sit­ting in the bal­cony with Ken. So the film goes through and at the end of it the lights come up and he says “Oh… God… I don’t know how you guys did all that cross hatch­ing… all that work…” and then he leans to me and he said “But it don’t move too good!“‘ [laugh­ter] and it was like [makes stran­gling ges­ture] and he was so mar­vel­lous at any­thing he did.

Ken Har­ris’ sketch for The Thief and the Cob­bler, 1993.

What was it like to work along­side with some­one like Ken Harris?

He did 3 times the amount of work we did, he came at the stu­dio at 7:30 in the morn­ing and opened it up and we were all stum­bling in at 11 and by noon he would have done 3 times the amount of work, and much bet­ter. He wasn’t a drafts­man or… he wasn’t sophis­ti­cated graph­i­cally, but he had per­fect taste even though he could’t do it, he just knew where to put everything.

It must have been 6 years work­ing with him and… Ken (..) said he did a draw­ing every foot, but it was a draw­ing every sec­ond, and I had to try and ani­mate and I would be doing all this draw­ings for him, and he was happy, but if I did too many he’d throw me out he’d say “damn it! You’re try­ing to ani­mate, get out of here”, he had a very bad tem­per and he had angina so he wasn’t allowed to be angry [laughs] his face would go red and he had to get out, any­way after 6 or 7 years, he would take my draw­ings and say “oh, that’s a good draw­ing” and he would cut the head off and paste it in a dif­fer­ent place, or he moved bits of them. And after 6 or 7 years he said “Hey Dick… You’re start­ing to put those things in the right place” and I said “yeah I’m get­ting it aren’t I? I’ve been [makes suck­ling noise] I’ve been drink­ing your blood and I’m get­ting it”, and he said “yeah… You could be an ani­ma­tor” and I was 38, some­thing like that and we had about 100 awards and all that stuff and I had to go to the toi­let and I sat on the steps […] and said “God damn! Amer­i­can ani­ma­tors they’re just move­ment mechan­ics, God damn! I’m an artist, they can’t draw” and I was rag­ing and about after 10 min­utes of this I thought “Yeah, I’m a fake” because he was an obvi­ous mas­ter, you know, when you start to know some­thing you start to realise how good the good ones are. (…) I went to work like crazy, and I did this thing with the magi­cian with the cards, have you seen that? That was my project, I went mad at home, I was work­ing over it and over it…

The next year he came over, (…) and I said “I want to show you this thing I’ve been work­ing on” so he looks at it and says “You’re get­ting the accents right, yeah you’re an ani­ma­tor” that was it!
And then later, about 3 years later he comes and says “Hey!”, now I’m like 45, older, more awards and all this shit, and he says “You could be a good ani­ma­tor!” [laughs out loud] This is all true!

He was a mas­ter ani­ma­tor, a virtuoso…Ken Har­ris did it all.” – Chuck Jones

And then in the end he was 82, he died at 84 and, this is just before he went to hos­pi­tal, I used to go I’d lay out these sequences [for the Thief and the Cobler], I was work­ing in Cal­i­for­nia and I would go to his mobile home and I’d lay out the shot, and he would always take a nap, (…) one day he didn’t get up, so I just kept work­ing and even­tu­ally after 2 or 3 hours, he gets up and he comes in and says “Oh God I’m so old, oh Jesus Christ, I couldn’t get up… oh! you’ve done the scene!” and I said “Well I just kept draw­ing I didn’t know what to do” and he said “Nice draw­ings!… [pause] That’s wrong!” [laughs our loud] and I said “Oh fuck, it’s going to die with you, I’ve had 12 years, I’ve been drink­ing your blood… 12 YEARS! and I’m never going to get it! It’s going to die with you!” and he went [snig­gers behind his mouth] and he said “You’ll be alright!”.
He [Ken Har­ris] was a mas­ter of the charts, he would think ahead, about 6 feet and when I’d be doing the lay­out draw­ings he would say “Well this is draw­ing 265, an impor­tant draw­ing” and I’d say “ok”… “now draw me 382″ and that’d be 2 sheets ahead!… “What?”

And then I found out later that he was very very sim­i­lar to Milt Kahl who was my next big teacher and Milt was the great vir­tu­oso and drew beau­ti­fully and every­thing, more sophis­ti­cated but it was very very sim­i­lar, so that was a big eye opener. I spent years try­ing to mas­ter and I finally got it [laughs] I think it was only 4 years ago.

Milt Kahl’s Sketches for the Jun­gle Book © Dis­ney Co.

Most ani­ma­tors and artists encounter a big hur­dle on their way to mas­ter­dom, an Ever­est to climb in the craft. Did you have such thing?

I’ve done so much draw­ing, so much life draw­ing, and after The Thief was lost I did another 10 years of seri­ous life draw­ing, so I don’t have any trouble.

Get­ting the thing in the right place, the spac­ing has always been a prob­lem. I mean to make it really con­vinc­ing.
I mean, when we were learn­ing ani­ma­tion these char­ac­ters used to run on the screen and they always looked ner­vous… When some­body good and an actor or musi­cian, they come out and play just one note and you relax and say some­thing like Milt’s tiger in the Jun­gle Book, when it comes out and you just “Holly Moses!” you just sit there and… It’s just Char­lie Chap­lin!
I worked for years, I mean I found it easy to get graphic stuff and make stuff funny but it was not well ani­mated, but it was funny! It was inter­est­ing but to make stuff live at that level, I would have to get lost in it for years try­ing to get it and I did!

Ken Har­ris, Grim Natwick, Art Bab­bit, Dick Pur­dom and Richard Williams in 1975. Cour­tesy of Michael Sporn.

And I’m hav­ing a har­vest now, I’m fear­less, I mean I’ve never been very, sounds very immod­est, but I can do exactly what I think. Most of the time I did it right the first time, but still, my num­bers, my arith­metics are crappy [laugh­ter] but I can divide space, I can divide time… Ken used to do it, he would get me to do a lit­tle dance for The Thief and he’d do it again and he could then do it and write it, so I got it and I can now do that… Finally! [laughter]

Memo sent by direc­tor of ani­ma­tion Richard Williams to his ani­ma­tion department.

Talk­ing about get­ting into char­ac­ter, Alec Guin­ness once said that the first thing he did was to get the walk right, you said some­thing sim­i­lar about ani­ma­tion, didn’t you?

Yes! well Ken said it “A walk is the hard­est thing to do… to do right” so any young ani­ma­tor should just do walks of all kinds and test them, all kinds: fat people’s walk, skinny people’s walk, furry walks… in those days. Just keep doing walks. Young guys when they ani­mate they have some story, they have some­body come in and they throw a bowl of soup at some­body and some­body hit some­body and some­body runs out and slips, they get all tan­gled up in all this stuff. They don’t know what they’re doing. Do walks! So, I did walks. Lots of them and I think that is the hard­est thing, then the next hard­est thing is to get the com­mand of the screen like Milt Kahl had or Frank Thomas or… They [makes suck­ing noise] grabbed the audi­ence by the cojones and hold them and I think any guy with any expe­ri­ence can do it with an idea or a strong graphic state­ment and bang, but to hold them for an hour? you know, like that? And that’s what I’m try­ing to do.

I bet­ter do it [laughs] or this is all bull­shit [laughs out loud]

Dick Williams’ notes from Art Babbitt’s lec­tures. Cour­tesy of Michael Sporn.

You used to organ­ise talks at your stu­dio with Bab­bit and Chuck Jones… and there a great legacy behind that, and on behalf of the ani­ma­tion com­mu­nity we’d like to thank you for keep­ing those skills alive and we know that you’ve con­tin­ued to do it with the Sur­vival Kit, the DVDs and so on…

Well that’s what I tried, I think that, well a book is good but I think the 16 DVDs, we really worked on that and so did Mo [Richard’s wife] she pro­duced it all. And a lot of that, because Bab­bit had sys­tem­a­tises every­thing, what I would do drink­ing the blood of these old guys, they all had dif­fer­ent words for dif­fer­ent things, you know I can’t think what, but… Bab­bit tried to sys­tem­a­tise it his way and then Milt would say some­thing else and Frank would say some­thing else and Ken would mut­ter some­thing… The way you would learn from Ken was… Mario had worked on Ken’s stuff and that’s a won­der­ful way to learn, isn’t? because I was his assis­tant doing in-between at night. DIrec­tor by day and in-betweener by night! [laughs]

So we sys­tem­a­tised every­thing and rammed it into this.

Page from The Animator’s Sur­vival Kit.

Ani­mated CG films are get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter, char­ac­ter ani­ma­tion wise and it seems as if some of the 2D legacy seems to be com­ing through in CGi movies. How do you feel about dig­i­tal animation?

Well, the Hor­ton Hears a Who? I was impressed by that, because they… That was Blue Sky, and they had obvi­ously built in the rig­ging that they could do more of the break­ing joints and stuff.
It wasn’t ter­ri­bly suc­cess­ful to my sur­prise, but the ani­ma­tion… You must see it, it had a lot of the stuff in it, and I thought “ooh! That’s a sur­prise!” much more than Pixar, it was much more… But it was a looser wilder idea, you know? Less of a Disney…

Yeah, I think is great, I mean ani­ma­tion has never been like this and of course some of the stuff must have gone in because we did 23 mas­ter classes and 90% of the peo­ple were CGI.

The first class we did was in Van­cou­ver, because we lived in Canada on an island, and it was right near Van­cou­ver and we thought Cana­di­ans would come but they didn’t there were 7 Cana­di­ans and the rest all they came from Dis­ney and 12 guys came from Pixar and they’ve just done Toy Story […] and I said “Lis­ten, I don’t know beans about CG, I mean I think you’re wast­ing your time” it was a three day course and they said half way through “95% of what you’re say­ing is per­fect for us, and it’s valu­able” and I said “I can’t believe that!” and they said “Well come on, we’ll show you” and we went down there and they showed me how it all worked and every­thing, which I didn’t under­stand, and then we got more of them, moun­tains of them includ­ing the good ones.

It’s from Bab­bit, Ken, Frank and Milt, my big teach­ers. Is their stuff, really.

I think 2D could very eas­ily make a come back, just make a really good movie, and it makes money [laughs] and then it’ll be back in fash­ion, it has to make money and the tal­ent goes where the money is, it has to.

Eric [Gold­berg] did a great job on the Alli­ga­tor, the trum­pet play­ing alli­ga­tor [The Princess and the Frog]… Have you seen it?

Eric Goldberg’s danc­ing alli­ga­tor for “The Princess and the Frog” © Dis­ney Co.

We haven’t yet, no.

Well, he did very well.

His work on the genie in Aladdin was fabulous!

You know? I’ve never seen it. Every­body says it’s at the top of his game.

The other guy who, nobody really knows about, who really taught me a lot is Emery Hawkins. He moved around every stu­dio, he got bored very eas­ily. He kept the same wife but every­thing else… The jobs all bored him and they all loved it. He worked with Dis­ney. Dis­ney had him in a room, very early on, fix­ing other people’s work, in a lit­tle room oppo­site Walt and they’d say “Take this work and make it bet­ter” and it was the good guy’s stuff andE­mery finally said “I can’t stand it… work­ing on other people’s work, I have to go”. He was Amer­i­can Indian and he had a non white, non wasp men­tal­ity, it was Indian, I don’t know what it was… and he was so imag­i­na­tive and Ken Har­ris said “Boy, you could be the best ani­ma­tor, not for the best draw­ing but for the best imag­i­na­tion”. He was a won­der­ful guy. We went to New Mex­ico with him, he was falling apart. Mo fell in love with him. Ter­rific guy and ter­rific mind, what a mind he had! And he was off, he said “I can’t stand the rules! I have to break the rules!” But he’d mas­ter them all, but he was con­stantly break­ing them, even as an old guy… But he was off the wall!

He said “Don’t go from A to B, go to A to X to B, go to some­where else in the mid­dle” which always works, he was anti-pedantic, where as Bab­bit was com­pletely pedan­tic… but great!

Richard plays the trum­pet, while Hans Bacher works on an in-between test at his desk for Roger Rab­bit, 1986. Cour­tesy of Hans Bacher.

How much of the ani­ma­tion craft can only be learnt and how much can only be dis­cov­ered through instinct and exploration?

I think it depends on the per­son, because each per­son goes into it in their own nat­ural way, like my way in would be draw­ing; Ken’s way in was to know where to put every­thing; Frank Thomas’ way in was with his mighty genius brain, um… I don’t know about Milt, he said he had no idea what he would have become, he said there wasn’t any sign that he would become ter­rific but he seemed to be nat­u­rally cre­ated for the medium, the medium was per­fect for him and I noticed that all the ani­ma­tors, the good ones, they’re all musi­cal, they all play instru­ments or they’re very musi­cal, or with a high appre­ci­a­tion of it. They’re all in one way or another ath­letic, they’re coor­di­nated at some sport or some phys­i­cal thing and they’re all intel­li­gent and as my son said, as a 15 year old I was tak­ing down through all the stu­dios and he says “Why are all the good guys nor­mal?” [laughter]

Would you tell us a bit of what you’ve been work­ing on recently?

Well, I just fin­ished a… I’ve been car­ry­ing around a film, on the cir­cus, that I did from years ago when I was draw­ing and paint­ing cir­cus peo­ple and I never fin­ished the lit­tle film and I just fin­ished, because we moved I’ve been car­ry­ing the tins around for 45 years, and when we moved, my wife Mo said “Why don’t you just fin­ish that?” and we’re just fin­ish­ing, that’s just a lit­tle 9 minute short but I’ve been on a big one. And peo­ple say “what’s it called?” and I say it’s called “Will I live to fin­ish this?” [laughs]

I don’t like to talk too much about unborn stuff but it’s using all the things I can do, so it’s in dif­fer­ent styles, it changes in dif­fer­ent styles. It’s all on paper, there’s hardly any cels and it’s, I can’t describe it, It’s unlike any­thing anybody’s done, it might be a bit like stu­dent films, because they try all sorts of things, but they can’t do it [laughs] it’s like a stu­dent film but with 60 years of seri­ous work and experience.

I thought of this thing when I was 15 years old and I thought “God, I won­der if I could ever do that, get good enough and 10 years ago I said “Well, I bet­ter start!” [laughs] no, seri­ously, I may die before it’s fin­ished and…

How far along are you?
I’m not quite sure, I have an awful lot of story boards and ref­er­ence mate­r­ial and all sort of tests and I’ve got about 8 min­utes, but it’s quite elab­o­rate, so I work like a stu­dent. I’ve gone full cir­cle, you know?

Thanks very much for your time!
It’s been a lovely expe­ri­ence.

Is that ok? I can’t stop talk­ing! If you can put all that in 5 sen­tences! [laughs]
See you around I hope.

  1. The Animator’s Sur­vival Kit Dick’s offi­cial website.
  2. The Animator’s Sur­vival Kit Buy the kit!
  3. Mas­ter Ani­ma­tor Ken Har­ris’ trib­ute website.
  4. Michael Sporn A tal­ented NY animator.
  5. Ani­ma­tion Trea­sures Hans Bacher’s blog.

I make images that move and images that don’t, for ads, pro­mos, film and TV, for kids and grownups and some­times just to amuse myself.

Cre­ator of one­huge­eye. Founder and direc­tor at Lon­don based Stu­dio Tinto. Dad. Cof­fee addict.