Animation is one of cinema’s greatest gifts that has evolved over the last century with grace and style. And once in a lifetime there are those who will come along and leave their mark on the medium for both their generation and the future. Some examples include Winsor McCay, Dave and Max Fleisher, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Ralph Bakshi, Don Bluth, and of course Walt Disney. They’ve all left their stamp on animation, and today another name joins the ranks. For out of all the legends who passed on from this world in 2019, none were as somber than that of a master animator who always sought to push the medium of believability to the next level. I’m of course talking about the one and only, Richard Williams.
Often known as the animation director of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Richard Williams’ career expands beyond one of cinema’s greatest technical achievements. Starting off as an independent animator when most graduates would join well known studios like Disney, he made many award winning shorts starting with 1958’s The Little Island, which delves into the minds of three individuals representing good, truth and beauty clashing with one another. At first glance it looks very simplistic, but Williams used simple shapes to create a grand story of finding compromises among extremes. For his efforts he earned his first BAFTA award, but his second short Love Me Love Me Love Me was his big break that earned him enough money to open his own studio in London. After setting up shop, he put together some very memorable intros to the likes of What’s New Pussycat and 1967’s Casino Royale (Not to be confused with the 2006 James Bond film). But it was The Return of the Pink Panther and The Pink Panther Strikes Again that got him even more attention. Theatrical cartoons were being phased out from theaters after the invention of television, so animated programming tended to have low budgets as seen in many Hanna-Barbera productions after Tom and Jerry. But the intros to both Pink Panther movies opted for 24 frames per second as opposed to 12 frames, which made way for some very fluid and creative comedy in those few minutes of screen time.
In 1971, the legendary Chuck Jones selected Williams to direct a short adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which garnered him his first Oscar for best animated short and was able to stand out from the many other adaptations at the time as well as future takes on the story. As always the animation is the best element, walking the fine line of stylization and realism when depicting the streets of London and the interactions with the three spirits. Even his less praised work such as 1977’s Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure featured some well received animation and served as the starting point to future veterans such as Eric Goldberg and Tom Sito. In December 1982, Williams released Ziggy’s Gift based on Tom Wilson’s comic earning him an Emmy to go along with his other awards. Despite the acclaim, it surprisingly hasn’t been recognized as other holiday specials like the Grinch, Charlie Brown or the Rankin-Bass specials. His final short before his death was the 2015 Oscar nominated Prologue, which was a demo to his planned feature film about the Peloponnesian War. While we will never see the completed feature, it serves as an incredible swan song for Williams who had the brilliant idea of using the opening shot to show how many pencils it took to complete six minutes of smooth and graphicly shocking animation. As of today many of his shorts can be seen on the official YouTube channel TheThiefArchive.
Of course come 1985, Williams was approached by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis to direct the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And in doing so broke the unwritten rule when it came to combining cartoons with live action: never moving the camera. It may not seem like much at first glance, but when thinking back to the likes of The Three Caballeros and Pete’s Dragon, having the animation move with the camera was what sold the illusion of a combined reality. Roger Rabbit also introduced the infamous phrase bumping the lamp. During a bar scene, Bob Hoskins bumped his head on a lamp that constantly changed the lighting in the entire room. For live action it meant nothing, but for animation it was a complete nightmare to draw 24 frames per second while accommodating the changing shadows. It was that kind of dedication that earned Williams both an Oscar for visual effects and a special achievement award in 1988. Even as technology advanced over the years, the likes of other hybrids such as Cool World, Space Jam and Looney Tunes: Back in Action have often been cited as Roger Rabbit clones. In fact, Roger Rabbit has been cited as the movie that reignited interest in animated features across all of Hollywood. Add that to another of Williams’ accomplishments.
But for all the awards, shorts and Roger Rabbit fame, animation fans know him best for one of the most ambitious independent projects of all time: The Thief and the Cobbler.
Self-funded since 1964, The Thief and the Cobbler spent over 20 years in production, attracting many new and veteran animators to bring an ambitious vision to life. Animation is a very expensive endeavor when looking over the many stages of production, so to have someone self fund their project without studio backup was quite the risk. Especially when Williams opted to direct the film in widescreen cinemascope and cap the framerate at 24 frames per second. To keep the production afloat, Williams took on many side jobs making commercials and movie intros, which are also present on TheThiefArchive YouTube page. And after receiving even more attention following the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he received backing from Warner Brothers to help distribute the film. Unfortunately a certain movie with a very similar concept by another animation studio was brought to the public’s attention:
Because of the similarities between the two movies, Williams was pressured by the executives to finish the film, which unfortunately had 15 minutes of footage that still needed to be animated by the tail end of production. On May 15th 1992, Richard Williams was kicked off the project after spending half his life and money to create his vision. Control of the film was handed over to the completion bond company. After outsourcing the remaining animation and adding additional songs to mimic the success of Aladdin, The Thief and the Cobbler hit theaters. Not surprisingly it was dismissed as an animated knock-off of the Disney film and lost millions of dollars at the box office. What hurt even more was that some people who worked on Williams’ film also ended up working on Aladdin, like Jafar’s supervising animator, Andreas Deja, and the Genie’s supervising animator, Eric Goldberg.
Years later when Williams refused to talk about his feature in any situation, a dedicated fan, Garret Gilchrist, decided to make a fan-made cut when several animators began sharing their new work with his version of The Thief and the Cobbler. But things didn’t stop there, because in 2012 Williams became the subject of Persistence of Vision: a documentary that covered the production of The Thief and the Cobbler featuring interviews from Williams’ co-workers. His film would also be digitally preserved in 2013 thanks to the academy of motion picture arts and sciences, ASIFA Hollywood and the Disney Animation Research Library. Unfortunately due to Williams’ untimely death on April 16th 2019, it’s uncertain if there will be a mark five edition of The Thief and the Cobbler with all the animation finished like he intended.
Despite all the hardships he endured in trying to bring his vision to life, Williams would reach another milestone by publishing The Animators Survival Kit: A book that teaches everything he learned about the art form from legendary veterans like Emery Hawkins, Grim Natwick, Art Babbit, Ken Anderson, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnson, and his personal mentor, Ken Harris. It has been the go to book for many aspiring animators over the years and even animation fans who are curious about the process. In fact, it played a huge part in the development of one of the biggest indie game successes in the past decade, Cuphead. Developer MDHR used Williams’ book as a basis when designing their 1930’s inspired video game. It sold five million copies by its second anniversary, won many awards from both the gaming and animation industry, has been ported to the Nintendo Switch, and currently has an animated series in development for Netflix. All this would never have happened if Williams didn’t go the extra length to preserve and enrich his passion for himself and those who would live on long after he passed away. He truly was one of a kind.