Richard Williams obituary: a half-hidden animation master

The Canadian-born animator brought us Roger Rabbit, the Cresta Bear and animation’s great lost film.

19 March 1933–16 August 2019.

Andrew Osmond
Updated:

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Richard Williams

Richard Williams
Credit: BFI National Archive

Among animation fans and professionals, Richard Williams – who died on August 16 aged 86 – was acclaimed and beloved, a great artist and generous teacher. Outside that community, much of Williams’s work is little ‘known’ in the conventional sense of the word, though it would be recognised by viewers of several generations. Williams created a plethora of animated title sequences for live-action films, mostly comedies including two Pink Panther films. His studio, Richard Williams Animation in London’s Soho Square, flooded small screens with outstanding animated TV commercials.

But such work, however meticulous, tends to be remembered subconsciously by audiences. By far Williams’s most visible work was for Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), on which he was the animation director. An extraordinary blend of live-action, classical animation and film noir, the film was a blockbuster, second only to Rain Man at the 1988 box office. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, the film shows a discombobulated Bob Hoskins trudging a 1940s world where cartoon characters are real citizens. Hoskins can be yanked up by his tie by the scarlet torch-singer sex-goddess Jessica Rabbit (“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way”); or he can be hurtled through Los Angeles in a taxi whose yellow bonnet is a yammering cartoon mouth.

Roger Rabbit with Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Roger Rabbit with Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Roger Rabbit, though, was never Williams’s crowning achievement. Rather, it was work he took on to promote his real opus, The Thief and the Cobbler, animation’s great lost film. Williams began working on a permutation of it in 1964; he was still endeavouring to make it in 1992, when it was taken away from him. The Miramax-released film called The Thief and the Cobbler (aka Arabian Knight) which can be found on British DVD is a near-total ruin of Williams’s vision, cretinously ‘completed’ by other hands. But Williams did live long enough to screen his mostly animated reconstruction of Thief to enthusiastic audiences, including at the BFI Southbank in 2014 and again in November 2018.

Although Williams spent most of his life in Britain, he was an expat from Canada. Born in Toronto in 1933, he saw Disney’s first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), aged five. Unlike most children, Williams understood the film was made out of drawings; his mother was a commercial illustrator. He made his first animation aged 12. But in his teens, Williams encountered the art of Rembrandt and turned instead to illustration and painting.

On Williams’s account, he was partly led back to animation because “I couldn’t stand the idea of doing paintings for rich industrialists’ wives and that whole art world was just repulsive as a way of life.” Ironically, Williams’s career would involve decades of work for hire to fund Thief. At the same time, he strove to bring fine art into animation. This could be through cultured jokes – one set-piece in Thief and Cobbler involves the title characters racing and tumbling through an abstract Escheresque landscape of fatally deceptive patterns. Williams also brought powerfully-constructed illustrations to life, their animated people possessing a hefty graphic solidity, as in his Oscar-winning 25-minute A Christmas Carol (1971), and his beautiful, brutal last film, the six-minute Prologue (2015).

Prologue (2015)

Prologue (2015)

Early on, Williams worked for an established Canadian animator, George Dunning – future director of The Yellow Submarine (1968) – whom he followed to England in 1955. Williams described living in London as a starving artist, “about a year of living on peanut butter and fish and chips and milk”, as he scrabbled for work. His first ‘personal’ film was The Little Island (1958). The half-hour fable depicts three blinkered characters (looking a bit like Doctor Seuss critters) who are each obsessed with Good, Truth or Beauty to the exclusion of the others. Destruction follows.

Williams’s other early shorts included two 1962 films, Love Me, Love Me, Love Me (narrated by Kenneth Williams, who often cropped up in Williams’s commercials and in Thief) and the satire A Lecture on Man. For his income, though, Williams depended on TV commercials. He initially despised the form, till he met director Clive Donner, a commercials veteran, who argued they deserved his best efforts. A turning point was Williams’s Guinness commercial, where a conductor frantically stacks up singers in the Albert Hall; it won multiple awards. The later Richard Williams Animation studio became a commercials powerhouse, animating such brand characters as Cresta Bear (a polar bear in shades) and the Tic-Tac breath mint detective, an excursion into parody noir before Roger Rabbit.

Cresta Bear Teddy Bear advert

Williams and his studio also handled animated sequences in live-action films. These included the curlicues and cherubs in the titles of the comedy Casino Royale (1967) and Clive Donner’s What’s New Pussycat? (1965), the fly-infested mosaics in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), and the exquisite Punch-style cartoons running through Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968). Character-driven cartooning was showcased in Williams’s titles for The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976).

Thief and the Cobbler first originated as a feature film project about Nasrudin, a wise fool sage from Middle Eastern tradition. Around 1973, however, Williams fell out with his partners on the film over copyright and reconfigured the story. A smelly thief became the central figure, obsessed with stealing three gold balls which protect an Arabian city from one-eyed barbarians. The Thief, who shares fall-guy DNA with the coyote from the Road Runner cartoons, never speaks. The hero Cobbler – who must foil the invasion and save the gold balls – hardly speaks, having just one line at the end. (A personal mea culpa: in my book 100 Animated Feature Films, I repeated a claim that Sean Connery spoke the line, but Williams himself told me later this wasn’t true.)

The Thief and the Cobbler Recobbled Cut Mark 4 Pt. 1

Thief involved generations of British animators, and contributions from Hollywood animation legends whom Williams had hired as mentors for himself and his staff: Grim Natwick, Art Babbitt, Ken Harris and Emery Hawkins. Williams, naturally, animated many of the Thief’s hardest parts himself. To quote my book, “Characters and perspectives zoom round the screen in a way with nothing to do with the precision mechanics of CGI. The Thief and Cobbler race through abstract mosaics and rollercoaster down mathematical figures. Extreme close-ups segue into vast panoramas; incidental business is imbued with Wellesian hubris. The Thief crawls head-first down a tree, and the shot becomes an exercise in travelling perspectives and non-Euclidean geometry. Williams spent years perfecting one movement, where the twelve-fingered, cantilevered Vizier shuffles and drops a deck of cards.”

After Roger Rabbit’s smash success, for which Williams received a Special Achievement Oscar, he won a deal from Warner Brothers to finish Thief. However, he missed the deadline he was given in 1992. The unfinished film was taken away from him, butchered, annotated with sappy songs, and otherwise defaced – even the Thief was given an inane snarky voiceover. (An alternative version, The Princess and the Cobbler, was released in some territories; it has more of Williams’s footage and, mercifully, no Thief voiceover.) Unofficial assemblies of Thief have circulated ever since, on videotape and online, though Williams made clear he approved none of them.

Richard Williams discusses The Thief and the Cobbler with David Robinson at BFI Southbank

Nearly 30 years after Williams lost Thief, it seems impossible to apportion responsibility with fairness. Fred Calvert, who was brought onto Thief by the film’s insurers, said baldly that Williams was “woefully behind schedule and way over budget.” Williams’s son Alex claimed Thief could have been finished in another four months. Williams himself was reluctant to discuss what happened, though at the BFI he suggested the moneymen couldn’t comprehend a cartoon film without rock music or loquacious lead characters.

Williams had shown Thief footage to countless animators over its decades-long gestation, and some fans insist Thief was plainly ripped off by Disney’s 1992 cartoon Aladdin. Indeed, the reason for Warners’ deadline to Williams is that the studio had hoped to get Thief into cinemas first. However, both films have at least one obvious shared ancestor, the 1940 live-action fantasy The Thief of Bagdad, which accounts for some of the similarities.

The Animator’s Survival Kit trailer

After Thief, Williams created The Animator’s Survival Kit, a course of animation principles published as a book in 2001. He also taught masterclasses around the world, finding that they applied equally to the new generation of CGI animators. His Survival Kit later became a 16-DVD box set and an iPad App.

Yet Williams, for all his new acclaim as a teacher, never forsook animating. His last film Prologue, as its name suggests, was meant to have been the overture to a new feature-length opus, inspired by the ancient Aristophanes play Lysistrata. There would have been six chapters to follow the Prologue, “grim but funny and salacious and sexy”. Now it’s one more Williams epic we’ll never see, at least as Williams dreamed it.

Richard Williams talks about Prologue

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