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Richard Williams Interview: Part Two

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A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to speak to a man who has directly or indirectly effected the lives and career paths of many animators over the past 5 decades. That man is Richard Williams the man behind the pencil that not only revitalised big money interest in animation with Who Framed Roger Rabbit in the 1980’s but has also created many fabulous short films, dazzling title sequences and iconic commercials scooping up multiple Oscar wins and other accolades as his career progressed through the decades.

In part one of our interview Williams delved into his relationship with Disney animator Milt Kahl and took us through the start of his career and some of the films and people who inspired him to become a master of animation himself.

As he turned his own fortuitous tuition from some of the greatest animation minds the 20th century had to offer into lessons for the next generation he is now most likely best known to younger animators for his books, DVDs and iPad teachings and it is on this subject we pick up on our interview with Richard Williams.

The Animator Survival Kit is an essential tool for students of animation, the best thing about the kit and I suppose your career in general is the fact that you have shared all this knowledge with younger animators.

Everybody was so generous with me so I thought, now I’m going to disseminate it. Generally speaking the older animators were very secretive and they were the only ones in the world who could do this stuff but when they started to realise that they were getting old and they were going to die they switched and became very open about it so I started to compile it all for everyone else.

When Art Babbit came to London and did his first seminar, he would teach for three hours every day, I invited my competitors (laughs) which could have been a commercial mistake because they all got better, but so did we! I was so lucky to meet these guys. Ken Harris came to work with me because I was having dinner with Chuck Jones and telling him how much I admired Ken Harris’ work and Chuck said, “You can’t tell which is his work it is all smushed in with everybody elses” I told him that I could tell because his is slightly squarer and very distinctive so Chuck said “Okay tell me which shots are his.” When I was a little kid I noticed all this and I used to come home from seeing these films and write up a page on each one so I knew all the stuff and rattled off Kens work to Chuck and he was amazed. He said told me he had retired and that he and his wife were teavelling around Europe and also that he was interested in cars.  So I wrote him a fan letter and told him I knew nothing about cars! (laughs) Anyway we got on so well that I sat him down to work and his wife went off to Italy or somewhere and three months later he was still there at the desk! He went away home for 6 months and then come back and then ended up staying for the next 12 years so I worked with him everyday.


Richard Williams and Chuck Jones

After about 8 years he said to me “Hey Dick you’re starting to put those things in the right place” because he would always take my drawings and move them around slightly and I said “Yeah I’m getting it, 8 years with you I’m really getting it” and he said “Yeah, you could be an animator” (laughs) so I went and sat on the stairs and I was swearing saying “God damn, I’m an artist and these guys are just movement mechanics!” and after about 10 minutes of this I said to myself “Yeah Dick and you’re a fraud, so you better get back in there and learn to be a movement mechanic” and that’s what I did, I went really hard at it. The next year I showed him a big scene I had been working on, it s the one with the Zigzag from The Thief, with the playing cards, I ran that for him and he said “Oh alright then you’re an animator” (laughs). He used to take a nap whilst working and one day he didn’t get up for about three hours, he came up and said “Oh god, you’ve done the scene, wait a minute… That’s wrong!” he nailed everything I had done wrong. I said “Oh Ken I’ve had 13 years with you, and I’ve been drinking your blood regularly and I just can’t get it, its going to die with you” and he sniggered put his hand on my shoulder and said “Oh you’ll be alright now.” That’s how Ken was. A terrific animator.

Richard Williams and Ken Harris

Richard Williams and Ken Harris

Art Babbit said to me once when I was doing pretty good work “Don’t think you know everything!” but I was after everything and finally a few years ago, even after all this teaching and iPad apps and DVDs I think rubbing your nose in the basics does something for you and I rang up my brother and said “Here I am at 75 and I’m really better than I ever was I can do what I want now” and he said back “Oh as long as you think so it does not matter” (laughs)

The film you’re most likely to be associated with is Roger Rabbit which boasts a tremendous opening sequence. Was it heavily scripted or did you have free reign over the gags? It appears to be a cause and effect masterclass, how was it created?

Bob Zemekis said to me, “It doesn’t need to be anything special, just your standard solid Tom and Jerry opening, don’t make it too good Dick” he knew I was going to be left alone to do it, I said to Bob that we’ve got to get him (Roger) talking at the beginning of the film so we can at least focus on the character so we were told to improvise an opening. Charlie Fleisher did the voice and I told him he should have a speech impediment as all the Warner Bros characters had one so he invented Rogers “p-p-p-p-please” bit on the spot, we were in the recording booth and Bob Zemekis came in, took one look at what we were doing and said, “Oh, you guys know what you’re doing” and left us to it! I had drawn the first half of the bit, every 16 frames I had done a full colour drawing and ran that for Speilberg and Zemekis to calm everyone down. The running around stuff was down to three of us, Bob, myself and Simon Wells and we drew up all the gags in one day and we were just left alone. I decided to go for it because this would be the part of the film I get the credit. I actually hired Roy Naisbitt who wasn’t working on Roger Rabbit so I hired him with my wages to work on a couple of the crazy shots in the kitchen, he’s an expert at pans and stuff like that. Bob eventually came back in one day and said “You keep spending all this time on this opening and its worrying everybody” (laughs) so I did a lot of it at home, I’m quite pleased with it I thought I had a real shot at it.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Working with the other characters and styles in the film must have been great fun, were you and your animators likes kids in a sweetshop?

All the animators were fans of the stuff anyway which was good. Bob Zemekis had a very clear idea as to what he wanted, Warner characters, that move as smooth as Disney and they should have Tex Avery humour but not as brutal, so that was the recipe I just sat back and followed it, and as a kid I had already drawn all these characters so it wasn’t hard at all, in fact the whole job was fun. High pressure but fun.

I understand that you animated all the Baby Herman scenes, was this because you liked the character or was it scheduling?

I did about 95% of the baby. He was the villain instead of Christopher Lloyd because in the book and the original script the baby was the villain who ran toon town. Bob changed it which I think was right, it made it stronger. So at the beginning I thought I was animating the villain. It changed all the time, they kept rewriting and improving.


Baby Herman

I recently talked to Eric Goldberg about the Soho animation scene in the 1980’s, looking back at all the work at the time it seems like a kind of golden age for commercial work.

Yes it was, a lot of it happened because we brought in Ken Harris, Art Babbit and Chuck Jones who gave a lecture at my place, Milt Kahl also gave a lecture at my place, I think people just got better and it just took off.

Did you have a particular favourite of all the animated advertisements your studio produced?

My favourite was one I didn’t animate but I laid out, it was the “Super Softies” the one with the two babies, they wanted renaissance babies so I did Michelangelo muscled babies but they changed it and made it better by making them cuter and much more charming, anyway that was my favourite but I also enjoyed the Cresta bears. I also enjoyed doing the Frazetta thing (Sex Appeal), it was the first commercial, as far as I can tell was the first commercial to sell male perfume. It was done in 6 weeks, a rushed job. So those are the best ones. The marvellous thing about doing commercials is that you just have to crank them out as fast as you can and as best as you can and with them being in all different styles you are never stuck in a formula like a Hollywood formula. Milt said to me after he saw the titles to Return of Pink Panther “Yeah that’s fine Dick but I’d like to see what you can do without such a dumb Hollywood character” we were doing a whole range of stuff and that helps because you use the principles of animation but use more muscles to do it.

Can you tell us anything about the film or project you’re working on at the moment?

One big film! I’ve been off and on this think inbetween doing the DVD’s and the book and iPad app but I am constantly animating, I’ll be back at my desk this afternoon on this picture. Everyone asks “what is it called” I’ll tell you the working title. Its called Will I live to finish this! This is my best stuff now, I really have got better I don’t think its an illusion. The one thing I am really pleased with in my life is that I have finally got there, where I wanted to get to, of course the Chinese say once you come to fruition you’re already in decline so lets just say I’m enjoying the fruition.

Its impossible to describe, its very new, stuff that has never been done before I don’t know how to describe it, you’ll have to see it.

I’m looking forward to seeing it

Okay, well lets hope I finish it!

With special thanks to Kieran Argo and the team at Encounters Short Film Festival

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