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.
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 (…)
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.
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. (…)
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]
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.
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]
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.
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]
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.
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!
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.
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!
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]
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]
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.
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?
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!
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.