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Interview with animator Richard Williams

Saturday 29 August 2015, by Ryan Ormonde

Ahead of Bristol’s Encounters Festival, Ryan Ormonde talks with Richard Williams, the award-winning animator, most famous as director of animation on the technically ground-breaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Encounters will be screening his new short film Prologue, entirely drawn by Williams himself, as part of their Rise and Fall programme.

An intriguing part of the Disney myth occurs in the chronology at some point between Bambi and Cinderella. A 15 year-old boy has travelled from Toronto to Anaheim, California with a clutch of drawings, mostly copied from the Golden Age cartoons he grew up watching. He circles the walls of the industrial fortress until somehow, with a bit of Disney magic, he is welcomed in, introduced to the artists and Uncle Walt himself, and allowed to stay there for two days to observe everyone at work. His picture is taken for their publicity: young Richard Williams, a shining and prodigious example of the Disney dream.

67 years later, I ask Williams, now renowned for his innovative work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, what Disney meant then to that wide-eyed 15 year-old. ‘Well it was the most tremendous thing for me as you can imagine,’ he replies over the phone, from his home in Bristol, ‘Walt saw my drawings and was very impressed.’ But the advice that changed his life was given to Williams by a freelance illustrator who happened to be working at Disney at the time: ‘He finally said “listen, Kid, I know you can do these cartoon drawings and everything, I mean it’s kind of impressive.” But he said, “learn to draw, and I mean really learn to draw – not cartoons, not animation. And if you want to do animation, pick it up later, you can always pick it up, but go and learn to draw.” [...] So I went home full of the Disney thing, you see, and about two weeks later, I stumbled into the art gallery in Toronto and there was a room full of Rembrandt and I saw this stuff and I just burst into tears and I realised, “Oh! That’s what they mean by art!” And I’ve never been the same since. So I always wrestled with this – I mean I’m a draughtsman really and it’s always been a battle between doing bug-eyed men and real ones.’

Williams made his name as the head of an award-winning animation studio based in London’s Soho, specialising in commercials. In 1980, he was filmed for a television programme, while he and his team were working on The Thief and The Cobbler, a project that had already been years in the making and was to be subject to another decade of torturous production, before being taken over by a studio and released in a bowdlerised version that Williams has never seen. In the television programme he says to camera, ‘animation hasn’t got as good as Rembrandt’s the Man in the Golden Helmet, but it could do.’ In 1964, in conversation with Philip Crick for the journal Film Williams is quoted as saying, ‘I’m in the same business as Goya and Rembrandt: I may be rotten at it with nothing of the same quality or talent, but that’s my business.’

Now aged 82, Williams sees his new short Prologue as the true beginning of his career as an artist: ‘the first thing in my life that I’ve felt I’m content with. I couldn’t do it any better [...] Everything I’m doing [in Prologue] has never been done. It definitely hasn’t been done, even by the guys I admired, [they] couldn’t do this. Maybe [they] wouldn’t want to! I think they would. I’m into new territory and the only reason I can do it is because of 60 years of immersion.’

When I ask Williams what the impetus was for the new film, he refers me back to that teenager moved to tears in a Toronto art gallery: ‘I’ve been thinking about this thing since I was 15 [...] It describes an incident in the Spartan-Athenian wars 2,400 years ago. A little girl is a witness [as] warriors battle to the death. There’s no dialogue [...] it has nothing of “cartoon” about it, so it’s just drawings. [...] I have this rule: If I can’t get it on one sheet of paper it doesn’t go in. There’s no cels, there’s no other stuff, there’s no other people’s work, it’s just what I can draw on one piece of paper [...] You’re very conscious that they’re drawings; they move realistically, they’re drawn realistically, but you can see the pencil.’ Which is so different from where mainstream animation is headed, right? ‘Absolutely, but it’s not to get away from what other people are doing, it’s just that I’m doing what I would have done in my early twenties.’

I ask Williams if there are any younger animators he’s noticed. ‘I just noticed a Brazilian girl who’s won a lot of prizes; her work was at Annecy [International Animated Film Festival] when we were there. [...] Her name is Rosana Urbes - but she’s very much an amateur, there’s everything wrong with her stuff. But she has natural acting ability and natural charm and a very individual approach and I wish I had her here and I could tell her what to do to make [her work] much better.’ Oh yes, I say, you have to meet her. ‘Well I have met her; she was completely drunk,’ Williams laughs. ‘She won the award, she was very pleasant, she was a slight little thing and two of her friends had to carry her on the stage because she was so drunk, and she thanked everybody saying “I’m so drunk, I’m sorry but I’m very pleased”. Anyway I met her and she’s learned everything from my book – but she hasn’t learned enough! If she was sober I’d say let’s have a coffee and I’d tell you to read the book a bit better.’ He laughs again. ‘But she’s somebody who’ll be very good, she’s a natural. It’s marvellous to see somebody with their own individual take on it and all they have to learn is the craft.’

Since publication in 2002, Williams’ handbook has become a bible for people starting in animation, later repackaged as a DVD box set featuring in-depth lectures on his process. The title – The Animator’s Survival Kit – prompts me to ask Williams if he is himself a survivor. ‘Oh, absolutely! I’m 82! You’re talking to an old man!’ Is that how you see yourself though? I ask. I know you’ve been through some ups and downs in the industry... ‘I never expected to have an easy ride. I never had an easy ride at school or when I was growing up, I just figured that was part of the thing.’ Is it this ability to roll with the punches that has got Williams to the esteemed position he now occupies? ‘Resilience is the main thing isn’t it? What is that old song “into every life a little rain must fall”? The other thing they always say is “this too shall pass” ...so I think it’s just how you handle it. ‘I’m so interested in medium and what I feel I can do [...] I’ve achieved the facility now to fully express myself on my own terms [...] I own this medium now, it’s mine, quite apart from what anybody else does, it’s mine now and I can do what I want.’ That sounds like the best feeling. ‘They can’t stop me now!’

Williams really does seem at peace with himself and energised by his new work. He has his own Twitter account and, in a recent tweet, he says that attending a screening of a working version of his former bête noir The Thief and the Cobbler was a ‘very special moment’ for him and his wife. I ask what he is working on now, and if it’s connected to Prologue. ‘It’s related to it but it’s separate again. I’m into [animating] funny stuff with women, which I’m enjoying. I’m really, really pleased with [that]. It’s almost exactly what I wanted to do.’ Speaking of funny stuff with women, I say, do people often ask you about Jessica Rabbit? ‘Oh yeah, yeah...’ says Williams, before quickly bringing me back to the present: ‘I’ve got some stuff coming up that’s better than Jessica – sexier! Sexier!’ Wow, I say. That’s quite a statement, you know.
‘No, no - definitely, definitely’ Williams insists, ‘It’s close to shocking!’

Encounters Festival runs from 15-20 September 2015 in Bristol
For more info and the full programme, click here.

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