"The weird thing is I’m better than I ever was at animating. I have much more command over the medium. I’ve got it by the cojones now."
Triple Oscar winner, triple Bafta winner and with 250 other international awards on the shelf, Richard Williams has been busy over his sixty year career in animation. He is most famous for ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ and ‘The Pink Panther’. Now ‘The Thief and The Cobbler’, his notorious unfinished film which he spent over 25 years working on, will be presented at the BFI in June.
London Calling: How does it feel to be 81 and still animating full time?
Richard Williams: It feels very strange to be 81. I’ve never been here before. It’s true what they say about old age, you can’t believe you’re as old as you are. I feel about 40. The weird thing is I’m better than I ever was at animating. I have much more command over the medium. I’ve got it by the cojones now.
LC: When did you first start animating and what was your first job?
RW: I started animating in school on the edge of math books, flipping them at the corners. But my first professional job was, if you can believe this, when I animated the first animated commercial in Canada. I got it through my stepfather who was an advertising man; I was always doing bits and pieces of commercial artwork. I was doing posters at age 14 and the clients never knew it was a kid doing it! It was for ‘Dr Ballard’s Dog Food’. My stepfather showed them my work and I got the job. It was marvellous because I was paid professional wages until I was 19 and they never met me and never knew I was a little kid! Through this I did a 30 second storyboard when I was 16 for a huge oil company called British American Oil. They liked it and I animated it. They had to fly to New York to develop the negative because they didn’t have film labs in Canada to do such stuff at the time.
LC: Who was the most interesting person you worked with?
RW: Ken Harris, the best animator at Warner Bros. He was the top Bugs Bunny man. I first met Ken when some elevator doors opened and I inadvertently started laughing. He said, ‘Yeah yeah, I know. I look like Wile E Coyote.’ And he did. We got on like a house on fire from that moment. He was my master, my first terrific teacher. After about 8 years working together he said to me, ‘Hey Dick, you’re starting to put those things in the right place.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m finally getting it, aren’t I?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you could be an animator.’ I had well over 100 international awards and I had to go out and sit on the stairs and sulk, but I realised he was right. There are levels to this thing.
LC: Animation is famously work intensive. What was the longest time you spent awake chained to your desk?
RW: It was on ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. It was a live action film and we had to animate ten minutes of England at the end of the Crimean War, which we did in the style of 1850’s London news illustrations which are cross-hatched steel engravings. So we had to do all this tremendous cross-hatching, a horrendous amount of work. We were working crazy hours and one of the guys went three nights and three days, then collapsed and slept under his desk. I thought ‘nobody can do that’. As the pressure mounted, I ended up doing four days and four nights nonstop without any sleep.
LC: What was your first big success as an animator?
RW: I came to London and worked for three and a half years to make my first film ‘The Little Island’. I won my first Bafta for it and a bunch of international awards. It was so much work I thought, ‘I’m going to quit and go back to painting in the Mediterranean’. But then I made a short film called ‘Love Me, Love Me, Love Me’ which Kenneth Williams narrated. All these cheques came in, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll stick with it a little longer’. My whole thing has been about learning. I realised I didn’t know enough about this damn medium and I kept running into people who did. As you start getting better you discover, ‘My God, there’s so much I don’t know!’ Learning is an inverted pyramid. You start out and you keep on finding that there’s only more you need to know.
LC: How did this reassembled cut of ‘The Thief and The Cobbler’ come about?
RW: The Academy wanted to screen my cut of the not quite finished ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’. With their help we reconstructed the work-print as it was on the day we had to abandon the film in 1992. Which is why we’ve called this version ‘The Thief and the Cobbler: A Moment in Time’. The whole film is there in good working order with all the amazing voices including Kenneth Williams and Joan Sims from the ‘Carry On’ films, and the legendary Vincent Price.
‘The Thief and the Cobbler: A Moment in Time’ and Richard Williams in discussion with veteran film critic David Robinson is on at the BFI Southbank on 1st June. Tickets go on sale to the public May 13thand are available here.
‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ and a Q and A with Richard Williams is on at the BFI Southbank also on 1st June.Tickets go on sale to the public May 13thand are available here.
"I had a cup of tea with Howard Brenton who I think is possibly the best living playwright that’s written for the Globe. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Keep the story going. This place eats story’."