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Remembering The Master Animator: Richard Williams (1933-2019)

The difficulty in eulogizing legendary animator Richard Williams (1933-2019) is knowing where to start.

Do we talk about his animation direction on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? His unfinished masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler? His innovative, Oscar-winning adaptation of A Christmas Carol?  His short film Prologue, a showcase of stunningly realistic human anatomy that Williams made when he was 82 years old?

His indispensable book The Animator’s Survival Kit, considered to be perhaps the definitive textbook on animation techniques and an inspiration for animation students everywhere, past and present?

Picking out high points in the career of Richard Williams is such a challenge because Williams never went halfway on anything. Where most animators work 12 frames per second, Williams always insisted on animating at 24 frames per second, doubling his workload but giving his films a flow that set them apart.

Where most designers keep their characters simple for the sake of consistency over the course of thousands of drawings, Williams invited the challenge of realistically-proportioned figures with lots of extraneous illustrative detail. And where most directors stage their action so it can be shot on a flat background layer, Williams would have the imaginary “camera” swooping through his environments, which required redrawing the entire background every frame and an inconceivable grasp of perspective.

Williams achieved all of this through the noble art of pencil to paper; he never used a computer. And he brought this level of artistry and integrity to every piece he worked on, even TV commercials and credits sequences on live-action films. In Williams’ hands, an ad for Tic Tacs was made to look like a thesis project that a great artist poured his heart and soul into.

Williams’ best known work remains Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the groundbreaking 1988 mega-hit that pays tribute to film noir and golden age cartoons. Although animation and live-action had been integrated before (going all the way back to Max Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell series of the 1920s) most of these combinations had been shot with a stable camera so the animators could easily draw overtop of the footage. But Williams instructed live-action director Robert Zemeckis to shoot the film like Back to the Future, and Williams and his talented crew drew around Zemeckis’ sweeping camera work and oblique angles.

It’s a testament to their remarkable skills that a screwball cartoon rabbit and his bombshell wife are as fully present and engaging as their live-action counterparts. Mainstream animation of the ‘80s had devolved into cheaply-animated toy commercials masquerading as entertainment, but by hearkening back to the wildly hilarious and beautifully drawn slapstick of 1940s Looney Tunes cartoons, Roger Rabbit reminded audiences of a time when animation was funny, edgy, and exciting.

This ushered in the animation renaissance of the ‘90s, giving us retro Disney features like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and zany TV cartoons like Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life.

None of this would’ve happened if Williams hadn’t so effectively captured the energy of classic animation, most purely expressed in Roger Rabbit’s fully-animated opening cartoon “Something’s Cookin’”, a demented tribute to cartoon genius Tex Avery. As the rubbery Roger furiously rushes around a kitchen trying to save Baby Herman from certain death, the short takes the audience on a thrill ride of wild takes, gleefully violent gags, and jaw-dropping warped perspectives that throw us right into the action. This is some enormous technical skill put to the service of good old-fashioned cartoon mayhem, and it results in one of the most deliriously exhilarating opening scenes in movie history.

A milestone like Roger Rabbit ought to be a sufficient career high-point for anybody, but Williams was still determined to produce his masterpiece. And he meant “masterpiece” in the traditional sense of a great artist who had mastered his craft creating a work to secure his legacy, a la Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. He spent a mind-blowing thirty years toiling on his Arabian Nights fantasy, The Thief and the Cobbler, enlisting the help of veteran animators like WB’s Ken Harris, Disney’s Art Babbitt, and Fleischer’s Grim Natwick; Williams himself animated the nefarious Grand Vizier Zigzag, voiced with great relish by horror icon Vincent Price.

In one of the film industry’s greatest tragedies, The Thief and the Cobbler was taken away from Williams when he didn’t meet the deadline and it was released in bowdlerized form by Miramax in 1995 under the new title Arabian Knight. The studio chopped up the footage, added insultingly juvenile songs, and tacked on terrible celebrity voice overdubs. This was an enormous blow for Williams, who wouldn’t talk about the film for years.

Thankfully, Williams’ work print was reassembled by Garrett Gilchrist, under the title The Recobbled Cut, and it gained a new life on the internet. The film is a rousing magical adventure full of humor and excitement, as well as a tour de force of truly awe-inspiring animated set pieces. Anyone with an interest in the art of animation owes it to themselves to watch this extraordinary film. Even unfinished, The Thief and the Cobbler is the masterpiece Williams envisioned.

And that’s Richard Williams’ legacy: he never compromised, he never turned in shoddy work, he never stopped working, and he did things no one else would ever try because they would be too hard. Some in the industry have criticized Williams for being obsessed with technique over story, or for being too much of a perfectionist.

After all, had he only cut a few corners, maybe The Thief and the Cobbler wouldn’t have been taken out of his hands. And to that I say… yeah, so what? He left us a whole lot of great films and inspiring pieces of animation, and he was always enthusiastic about passing down his knowledge to young artists. In a world full of CGI kids’ films that look alike and badly-drawn adult cartoons full of flapping mouths and blinking eyes, the animation world could use a few more mad geniuses like Richard Williams.

 

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