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Richard Williams on The Thief and the Cobbler

Master animator Richard Williams, creator of The Animator's Survival Kit and animation director for Disney's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, reveals the story behind his magnum opus The Thief and the Cobbler. Still driven to create hand-drawn animation at the age of 81, Williams reflects on the art of the animator.

Transcript

David Robinson

In two dimensions, you have space that nobody's achieved in with all their 3D whatever tricks and trades and massive screens they have, there's space there in a way we've never seen it.

Richard Williams

Oh well. We worked hard. We really... It really was.

David Robinson

I'm told you left Nick Park speechless, though you've left most of us speechless.

Richard Williams

Yeah. Nick couldn't, he saw it two days ago at Aardman and I said, "What do you think Nick?" And he said...

David Robinson

But it is quite true. How long, of the 55 years that we've known each other, has this been in the works? As long as I can remember.

Richard Williams

Well it was twenty years we did it on our own and paid for it with commercials. Hundreds and hundreds of commercials for twenty years. And then two years when the money came in and to that point.

David Robinson

So it's most of forty years really. No, more.

Richard Williams

It was forty years ago because Ken Harris turned up forty years ago I think. Halfway through my life. Then we put him... the thing grew kind of around Ken. I had another character as well and that didn't work. We sort of lost it and started building around the thief. Bits and pieces. It was all made out of bits. Organic bits.

David Robinson

Looking back, I'm thinking about our relationship over forty years and thinking that I always knew what was going on. I think it's very probable that you would have sometimes shown me the latest ten seconds. Things like that. I know that you would arrive and say "Oh I've taken that character out. It's gone. So we're re-shooting all that." And I know I even have, and treasure some drawings of rejected, items. Not many, but you know it's treasure.

Richard Williams

Oh. Oh. Some very good stuff had to go. We had a great animator, Emery Hawkins, did a whole... we had a beast that the princess had a twin and this beast was in love with her and she was in love with him for some funny reason, and Grim Natwick did a lot of crazy work on it and Emery Hawkins did some wonderful transitional, morphing work. And we had to lose it for the story. It was just too huge. Damn it.

David Robinson

Are there any things that we can attribute still to Grim Natwick?

Richard Williams

One walk on the witch. He was ninety and he did this funny walk on the witch and it sort of set me going on the witch. One regret I've got about the witch, that's all my stuff on the witch. The main thing with animation that you can really do stuff is morph it. So she was going to turn into spaghetti and come and go. There was a bit of that but I had some really funny... Anyway, this was as far as we got.

David Robinson

I think a lot of people won't know the background of the story so can we tell the bad story first. The sad story first.

Richard Williams

What happened to it?

David Robinson

Yes. I mean why only now do we see the film and we see it in a working print?

Richard Williams

It was a lot of things like an accident. One of the financiers ran it at Warner Brothers and left the second last reel out so they wonder why it didn't make any sense. Actually the same guy kept turning up with famous rock stars trying to put rock music into it. Trying to get well known composers. We had three composers that did like the One-Eye music and the stuff at the front. Through the awnings and stuff on the high wire that was all original. And because they weren't known these people are getting very nervous. And they said, "But your two main characters don't speak, we have to have voices," So you're up against conventionality.

I think the best way to say is it you know the golden rule? Whoever has the gold makes the rules. It's funny but it's not funny and I will never go near one of those... again. And so I work now and I'm doing extremely well. I'm doing the best work I've ever done. Definitely.

I told my brother "Gee I've really suddenly gotten a lot better." And he said, "Well as long as you think so it doesn't really matter". But I prefer, it's true, I can handle stuff much better now because that was a long time ago so that's it. In my case, you have to have, to get something down the mainline, I think if we had financed it in Europe we would have gotten it through. And my wife Mo, who produced the film, said "Why don't you do it in Europe? What you love is European films. You don't particularly care, except for the old Disneys. You like European foreign films and you could do it here and it would take a lot longer but you'd get it done your way." And I said "No. I can get this through the mainline." Wrong.

So it's just one of those things and I couldn't believe what happened. So that's the bad part.

David Robinson

I mean the company was Warners?

Richard Williams

Yeah.

David Robinson

Yeah. Did you go to Warners or did Warners come to you?

Richard Williams

I went to Warners. I had been to Warners several times and they were very keen and I let the financier go to them which is why the reel wasn't shown because I was busy working. It's a terrible thing. Well, the best man at Disney is a fellow called Milt Kahl and I think I drew him in my book. He was a tremendous genius and I'm so privileged to have known him and he helped me and taught me in many ways. Just to know the guy. He was so much better than everybody and I used to do drawings of him with... he's sitting there drawing and his back is just covered in spikes or darts that everybody's... as they come back from lunch in their suits. They throw a few more darts at him and say "This guy is kind of irresponsible isn't he? Just sitting there drawing this..."

That really unfortunately, marketing people... well anyway, it's very difficult. It's difficult. Good luck to everybody. And I'm very lucky because I've got enough to just keep working and I'm doing very nicely thank you. Would you like to know the working title of my film that I've been on for the last fifteen years?

Audience

Yes.

Richard Williams

It's called, Will I Live to Finish This? at the moment. We're defying gravity here but I wouldn't let, there was a financier who wanted to get into it and I would never have anything to do with him. His wife came up to me after and said, "You're right. Keep away from him." So it's tough. In my case I started on my own with my first film, The Little Island, which David gave me a really good review for.

David Robinson

That must have been how we met I think.

Richard Williams

Yeah. It's now gone full circle from Hollywood, through the commercials, the Hollywood trip and then back and now sitting in a chair happily alone. I have a lot of friendly help from Aardman where we work. They're marvellous and I'm shooting a big chunk of it right now, last week for the first time. Anyway, it's just the best you can do. I remember Kurosawa, who is my hero. He spent ten years, he was unable to make a film. He even slit his wrists at one point and recovered. It's a tough game. If you want to do this stuff. What's going and what's in fashion and you're willing to serve, they'll treat you, gold and red carpets. You just have to serve the machine and I never could really.

David Robinson

Actually I think Kurosawa had it worse than you because in order to get out of a contract the studio privately had him certified insane. This is true.

Richard Williams

I didn't know that.

David Robinson

And so after that he couldn't understand why he could never get insurance because it was so difficult. And I can't remember which studio it was who organised that.

Richard Williams

Well we could, you know, there's horror stories about Orson Welles and everything. I had it worse than Orson. Tough Orson. It was nothing. I think we could go on with real horror stories. The first time I met Nick Park at Aardman we started telling each other horror stories. But the thing is... Can we switch to the good stuff?

David Robinson

Yes. Let's.

Richard Williams

Because there's no point. Oh, there's a wonderful old drunken animator that used to work at Disney. He was very good but the drink impaired his work. And he said to me when I was working on this thing in Hollywood in between other work and he said "Richard, if you persist in riding the white horse, don't complain when you're covered with shit." And I think that's about it you know. It's tough for everybody if you have the ego or the desire to stand on your own, they can get a good shot at you if you slip.

We got the money because of the success of Roger Rabbit that set me up and in hindsight we should have just gone to Europe slowly. Taken another five years, made it on our own. Then go to a distributor and get it, you know. People would find it as a novelty.

David Robinson

But it is a happy ending, because it's not finished.

Richard Williams

This is a happy ending.

David Robinson

Yeah. It's not the finished film but it's something much more exciting, because, for us, it's incredibly exciting to see the stage the overlap.

Richard Williams

Yeah. It seems to be a thing of its own now and the academy have got it. It's in a golden box now and it's safe. Unless the digits lose their magnetism.

David Robinson

How much of the sound is as it would have been?

Richard Williams

Oh. We needed a lot of work, we would have done. There was just no time. We were just slamming stuff in. Oh gosh no.

David Robinson

But the voices are as you wanted them?

Richard Williams

Yes. Absolutely.

David Robinson

You got them.

Richard Williams

The voices were all great.

David Robinson

Now since we don't have credits can you tell us who the voices were that we heard? Because there's been bit of discussion and disagreement.

Richard Williams

Yes. Windsor Davies was the head of the Brigands. Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter for the courtiers. And they each did two voices. They were very good friends but they were very competitive. They never worked together. I managed to get them to work together and they were terrific.

David Robinson

Which was Stanley Baxter then?

Richard Williams

One of the four. There was these four guys laughing with Zigzag's assistants.

David Robinson

Oh I see yes. Zigzag himself is.

Richard Williams

Is Vincent Price.

David Robinson

Is Vincent Price. Yes.

Richard Williams

And Anthony Quayle is the king. He was marvelous. He did it over the years and so did Vincent and it went on for about twenty years. He was always willing. Joan Sims was the witch. And the One-Eye voice which sounds like it's a computerised voice and it's not. I saw the tallest man in England on television and he had this very deep voice. Because, you can imagine the voice box. So we got in touch with him and said, "Would you do voices?" He spoke normally, more or less and I said "Well you've got this gigantic throat, you ought to be able to get deep," and he hadn't tried. Anyway, we worked with him and he discovered this tremendous deep voice.

David Robinson

And who is the marvellous voice right at the start who...?

Richard Williams

Oh. That's Sir Felix Aylmer.

David Robinson

Ah.

Richard Williams

I remember him from one of the Hollywood medieval films where he says, "This is the first time I take the hand of a Saxon in friendship." He was so old. He could barely get into the studio or read. He was terrific.

David Robinson

Yeah because he had been very, very old for about seventy years.

Richard Williams

Yeah. Terrific. He was always the king in those terrible movies.

David Robinson

But it's a wonderful opening. As Mo knows, but I cried when I saw it the first time.

Richard Williams

Yeah. And the music was done, what's his name Mo, the opening. Where's Mo? Ah. He does Lloyd Webber's orchestrations. We got him and a couple of the other musicians were friends of mine who were jazz musicians that I played with for years. They were completely new to it, they did a fantastic job. There are so many good people out there that don't get a chance, you know. Anyway.

David Robinson

Anyway. I think that maybe we could add some credits to it.

Richard Williams

Well the credits were meant to go on the front. The hand, or the crystal ball or whatever it was, was meant to come up slowly. I was going to animate the hands. These ancient hundred year old hands and going through it stuff would appear inside and then we'd just put all the credits in the sides so we could credit everybody on the film. Oh, one of the guys... you know, the brigands was the only character-work that I didn't design or I did a bit of animation on it, but Courtney Cole, does anybody know of his work? He was terrific and these were his surfing friends.

So he did that whole, he designed all those guys. I had to draw them to fit into the story but it was his work. He was terrific. And the guy that animated it was Paul Bolger an Italian guy. And he vanished towards the end of the production unfortunately. I don't know why. We had a fantastic crew.

We had four people in the administration only. It was my wife Mo, the producer, her secretary who's here tonight I think. Yeah, there she is. And two accountants who were two Chinese accountants who aren't here. And that was it. We ended up with a couple hundred people and it just ran like a top. It was great. It was really wonderful.

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