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Richard Williams on the art of animation

Canadian-British animator Richard Williams talks about how Roger Rabbit was created and broke all the rules of animation, winning him two Oscars. Williams is celebrated for his work on the Pink Panther movies, the animated sequences of The Charge of the Light Brigade, and his animated feature The Thief and the Cobbler.

Transcript

Interviewer

Can you just tell us a little bit about the kind of genesis of the project and at what point you got brought in.

Richard Williams

Well, Disney had developed it for seven years and Zemeckis, when he was younger, worked there on it. He said, "I'll see you guys later," and left.

[Laughter]

Interviewer

They had a gray rabbit when Bugs Bunny was the top animation character in the world. Why would you try to do a grey rabbit for a start? Anyway, so the thing languished. Then, Spielberg, Zemeckis had done Back to the Future and was very big. He was the protégé of Steven Speilberg and he wanted to... he then got the rights from Disney. They, Spielberg and Disney, made a temporary marriage and they were looking for an animation director. One of the things is... I didn't want to do it because... [laughs]

Interviewer

Be honest now.

Richard Williams

No. I really didn't.

Interviewer

What was the reservation?

Richard Williams

I said to Zemeckis, "Look, I love, especially the early Disney movies, Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi, Pinocchio, Fantasia, wonderful, but Mary Poppins I thought was awful.

The trouble is... These things are... like Tony Tiger ads... Terrible ads in the old days. The cartoons looked pasted on. They looked like they are on a piece of glass in front of the... I said to Zemeckis, "You're mixing the two realms and they don't fit. So it demeans the animation and it also wrecks the live action." And I said, "This pasted on business is just no good." He said, "Ah. But have you seen Star Wars Number 3 where the motorbikes, flying motorbikes through the jungle... through the...

Interviewer

Forest of Endor, I think it was.

Richard Williams

... Forest, right. He said, "ILM, Industrial Light and Magic, have figured out a way, they've done it with that, of printing the cartoon thing or the drawn thing so that it fits into the... you know, they expose it differently and you can get it so you've got the different levels working. I said, "Oh well, then we can do it." Zemeckis said, "All these animators say..." like in Mary Poppins when the penguins, who were actually animated beautifully more than we did. In fact the guy who did the penguins in Mary Poppins, Frank Thomas, gave me hell for the penguins. Really. I said, "Yeah, but we got the eye lines right."

Richard Williams

Julie Andrews is looking at a penguin who's... And what's his name is even worse.

Interviewer

Dick van Dyke.

Richard Williams

Dick van Dyke.

Interviewer

But, Bob Hoskins really is looking at them. You believe he is interacting.

Richard Williams

He had this wonderful ability to stop his eyes right at the belt line... the rabbit was this high, so he could just top at belt buckle. I said, "How do you get that concentration?" He said, "Don't make me think about it or I won't be able to do it." Zemeckis said that all these animation directors always insisted on having a locked off camera. The camera is still and that means that the animators don't have to turn things much. You see?  If you had a moving camera... He said, "I'm trying to shoot a modern movie where the cameras are moving all the time..." I said "Well that's no problem." He said "But all the animation directors we've talked to are doing it, they say 'You have to have it locked off.'" I said "Because they're lazy..."

Interviewer

Welcome to our family screening of Roger Rabbit.

Richard Williams

He said "Isn't it more work?" I said, "What do you think animation is? It's nothing but work." We have to be able to turn... That's our job. Turning things in space.

Interviewer

It's a very expensive technique, this kind of moving camera technique though, isn't it? Or wasn't it?

Richard Williams

Well, it just meant we had to print every frame of film that we were going to animate. They'd print it at ILM in San Francisco, mail it over to us and we'd... I'd have these big drawings, big pictures for each frame and you'd just put a piece of paper on it and draw a rabbit on it.

Interviewer

So physically drawing every frame?

Richard Williams

Yeah.

Interviewer

I know that animation is time-consuming. That is really time-consuming isn't it?

Richard Williams

That's why there's so many people on it. It was created... They have... After every film like Dumbo or something they'd store all the drawings. With the rabbit, they had about three times as much.

Interviewer

I was kind of described this as being-, because obviously 3D is now the big thing in animation, but this was kind of two and a half D I think you described it as, didn't you?

Richard Williams

Yeah. And that, I think, that's why it's working. Because, they're not quite round. We sort of backlit... with this sort of rim light. I'd have to draw it. It's quite a simple thing. I figured it out.

It's very simple really. This moving camera thing... A lot of live action things are blurred. The images are blurred naturally. Because 24 frames a second, that's going to be a blur. You can see the blur there. They said you can't put a hard edged piece of animation into that. I said, "Well, I already have." Strangely enough on a terrible commercial I animated for Disney with all the Disney characters, and they're playing football and things. I had broken all the rules. So I said, "I can prove it." When I realized that it was going to work, then I said, "Sure let's give it a try."

We did a test. We did sort of an obstacle course. We filmed an actor in a back alley with beer, cans and lights, splashing neon lights and things. I animated... I drew a rabbit coming down the stairs and he bashed into a bunch of garbage cans at the bottom. All we did was just put a string on the can and pull them away. It looked like the rabbit had knocked over the garbage can.

Then, Industrial Light and Magic. A marvelous guy called Ken Ralston was the main guy there. He's got about nine Oscars. He's terrific, and he did the effects. We did this shot and it all worked. The rabbit lit up when the car went past and he fell into things.

Michael Eisner, the head of Disney then, was very dodgy about the thing. He took the test... It was about a minute and a half test... He took it home to his private screening room. He invited the neighborhood kids in and ran it, and said, "Do you think I should invest in this?" And all the kids said, "Yeah. Yeah. Yeah." That's how they made the rabbit.

It's random.

Interviewer

Obviously, there are a number of characters that make special guest appearances in the film.

Richard Williams

Yeah.

Interviewer

First of all, being able to get all those characters together was a huge achievement. In terms of whoever had to clear all of that. But in terms of when you were actually animating them, you're responsible. Did it come with a rule book of what you could and could not do with them?

Richard Williams

Not much. What happened was that Warner Brothers... We had Bugs Bunny and I think one other. But then Warner Brothers for some reason became, temporarily again, the distributor for Disney movies in Europe. Suddenly, we got... "Change everything Dick. Here comes the Roadrunner, Coyote. Here comes the Roadrunner." Popeye never got in but they were changing all the time as they got more and more characters.

Interviewer

You must have been disappointed in a way... if the character wasn't there, you kind of wanted them. It was almost a kudos by having your character in there.

Richard Williams

Yes. The word got out on the film. Because of the test, which worked on all fronts, the lights... It looked two and a half dimensional. I think if they do a sequel in 3D, I'd be doubtful if it would work as well, because they won't have that cartoony thing. Who knows.

Interviewer

Presumably, there's been talk of sequels over the years. They make those short animated films don't they.

Richard Williams

The temporary marriage of Spielberg and Disney dissolved at the end. Everybody was fighting over who gets to do the sequel.

Interviewer

Now there's Dreamworks Animation of course.

Richard Williams

Also.

Interviewer

So that kind of gets even more difficult, really doesn't it? I guess.

Richard Williams

Anyway. I thought, "Leave it alone. Certainly not for me. Thank you very much."

Question

What's your favourite part of the film?

Richard Williams

My opening. They left me alone on the opening.

Interviewer

That was the only bit they left you alone on, was it?

Richard Williams

Pretty much. Bob Zemeckis used to come in and say to me, he said, "You're not still working on that opening are you?" And I'd say, "Well..." He'd say, "Just do a good solid, Tom and Jerry, that's what... Just do it like that. Don't make a big deal of it."

I realised, of course, this is the part of the film that was being left to me. I started working at night on it and things like that. He came in at one point and saying, "Oh God, Dick, you're not still working on that opening." He said, "You know, if they catch you doing that they'll fire you." The translation is, "I'll fire you."

But the thing was, I'd done so much of it that it went through and I was very pleased with that. I knew it was going to work. I did the transition to the live action with the rabbit in the fridge and the baby throwing his fit and he gooses the girl and... I ended my own animation with that. But I'd done the first minute and a half completely by myself, all the drawings. And then, I was working all over the picture. So that would be my favorite bit, because there wasn't any live action.

Question

How did you animate the car?

Richard Williams

That was the same way. There was a guy sitting on a... Bob Hoskins, sitting on a makeshift car. Not many sides or anything. We would just draw a car on top of it, every frame. See what I mean?

Interviewer

There's so much interaction, isn't there? From all the different bits that you had to kind of draw... You know?

Richard Williams

Yes. When he's drinking whiskey or something, I remember, the other guy, a very good guy, did all the props. George...? Mo? Gibbs! George Gibbs. We shared the Oscar for that. George and Ken Ralston.

Anyway, George would make this thing where the thing had a little lever where... and it drank whiskey, a glass of whiskey. So, you'd have this crazy looking thing and the actor would be there. And I'd draw a rabbit over the top of the thing. You see what I mean? It was very simple, just a lot of work. Then the rabbit, we'd do it in pencil. They'd xerox that onto celluloid and then they'd paint the thing. Then we'd give extra little mattes to make it look round. I could show you on a drawing easily. It was very simple. They went around after saying how difficult it was. It was just back-breaking work.

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