Interview with Richard Williams
During the latest Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival, we've had the incredible privilege of interviewing Richard Williams, living legend of animation, about his entire career. Enjoy!
Animac Magazine: We'd like to begin by discussing your first Academy Award-winning work, the "A Christmas Carol" adaptation you directed and co-produced alongside Chuck Jones. How did you approach adapting such an iconic Charles Dickens tale as successfully as you did?
Richard Williams: Chuck got me the job. He was wonderful. We were kind of friends, and he was head of ABC TV children's programming - or advisor or consultant or something- and he got them to give me the assignment. He had seen The Charge of the Light Brigade, this 1850-set feature film by Tony Richardson we animated on. We did it strictly in period, and Chuck showed this to the business people and they said "we'll hire this guy to do Dickens, that's from the same era." And I said, "but Chuck, we'll never do this on time". We had 7 to 9 months, so we'd have to do it in pencil. And I said, "why don't you just let me design it, my way" and he said "no, it must look like 1850's book illustrations". So I said, "ok, but in pencil." He completely left me alone. It was marvelous. He helped at the end - we were running out of time, and I told him we were really worried we couldn't deliver it in time, so he lent me his three top animators. They came in the last six weeks and helped us finish.
Animac Magazine: Before focusing on your magnum opus, I wanted to ask about your work as animation director on Roger Rabbit. How did you manage such an enormously insane combination of styles and characters from all eras and until what point did you get creative freedom from Zemeckis, Spielberg and their team regarding that task?
Richard Williams: My job was, first, to figure out how to mix the characters with the live-action. I said to Zemeckis, "I don't wanna do this film, because it doesn't work." He said, "I know, that's why we're hiring you.". I said, "yes, but these characters always look pasted-on, like a cereal commercial." Zemeckis told me that if you watched Return of the Jedi, Industrial Light & Magic had an optical printer that convincingly printed characters into the film, so I thought maybe that way we could do it, since I knew how to make the characters look round. So, I designed all the characters, and we did a test, an obstacle course, that showed that we could do everything. They wanted the new characters -Roger, Jessica and such- to look like Warner Brothers characters, move like Disney ones, and have Tex Avery-style visual humor, only less brutal. Which is a shame. [laughs]
Animac Magazine: So, The Thief and the Cobbler. This is your masterwork, and you've probably been asked about it a million times, but we'd personally like to know how it came together, which to us is way more important than whatever later fate it had. How did you get all those legendary animators on board, and what was the process animating some of the most amazing sequences we've ever witnessed?
Richard Williams: I paid for it myself for 18 years from doing commercials, and I had enough money to hire Art Babbitt and Ken Harris. Ken Harris was working with me, and we were very good friends. I was learning from him, also - I was his director, he was very happy with me as his director, and then I was also his assistant! Because I would take all his work and work on it at night. So I worked with him for 14 years, and he was wonderful. Art Babbitt, we had him in the studio as well, teaching us, because he was a terrific professor. And then we had Grim Natwick, who animated Snow White - he lived with us for a year. We just built it very gradually. These big things, like the War Machine sequence, I worked with a guy called Roy Naisbitt, who worked with me always, and he and I would work these things out, so that we could afford them. If you had someone putting money in, they would never let you do these crazy things, because they took forever.
Animac Magazine: You wrote The Animator's Survival Kit, which is perhaps the most important how-to book for animators everywhere. What led you towards wanting to teach future generations about the art of animation?
Richard Williams: I kept saying to Art Babbitt: "you should write a book!". He was teaching us, and I told him - "you have secretaries here, who can work on your book, and I can find a publisher". Two publishers wanted to release it. I said "write it! We'll pay for it!". And he didn't. And then gradually, I said "you know, I'm gonna have to write this book." Then Art died, and many years later, after we lost the Thief film, Mo -my producer, my wife- said "this is the age of information, you have all this information, you should teach". It was the perfect time to teach, because the very first class we did we did it in Vancouver, and 12 animators came from Pixar. They had just finished doing Toy Story, but it hadn't been released, so they didn't know if they had a hit. I said to them "why are you guys here? I don't know anything about computer animation!". They said "we'll see! Don't worry". At the end of it, they said "95% of what you taught us, we can use". Then we did these classes all around the world, and it was the right time to do them, because people didn't have this knowledge. Very good people didn't have them. At the end of it, we were exhausted from doing all these classes in Australia, Hong Kong... and Mo said "now you should write the book!". It took four years to boil down all the knowledge into it. I'm pleased with the book. I can't do any more! [laughs]
Animac Magazine: You recently finished "Prologue", which we're lucky enough to have seen - what was the inspiration for it, and is it -like we've read- just the first part of a bigger project?
Richard Williams: It's a complete film, but it's a film that sits on the front of a bigger film. And I've been thinking about the bigger film, and the prologue, since I was 15 years old. This is my best work, because I'm completely alone. It's just me, and I've thought about it for so long. I'm well into the bigger film now, but I can only do it myself.
Animac Magazine: To conclude, we're gonna go with a more typical question just because we have the incredible chance of personally asking you: what advice would you give to young upcoming animators?
Richard Williams: If you're doing 2D like me? It feels like it's going to come back someday, but all it needs to come back is a successful film. When we did Roger Rabbit, animation was down the toilet. Nobody was making them much, and when Roger came out, animation was back in. The advice to a 2D person is - if you really wanna be good, and have the whole picture, you have to do a lot of life drawing. Even better if it's with movement. With life drawing you learn weight, you get understanding... it's the hardest thing to do. After we lost the Thief, I went back to life drawing, three or four times a week, and I still study my anatomy. The more you know, the more you can compress it down. It's simple. And I'm happy to say that, because I was so greedy for knowledge, I wanted to put it all together - when you finally do, you're free. You can do anything. So now that I'm at this crazy age, I can actually do anything I think of, and get it right. Not always the first time... but nearly always the first time.
Interview by Adrian Carande
Photos by Imogen Sutton