Richard Williams And His Life’s Work: While a name that won’t be familiar to many, Toronto-born animator Richard Williams, who passed away on August 16th at his home in Bristol, made up for a lack of name recognition with plenty of grit, determination and talent throughout his career, leaving a lasting mark on his medium on the way.
A resident of the UK since moving to London in the fifties, it didn’t take long for Williams to receive recognition in the animation industry. His 1958 film, The Little Island, won the BAFTA for best animated short. It was only to be the first of many industry accolades. After time spent making adverts and children’s specials, 1971 saw the release of his thirty-minute animated adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Executive produced by Warner animation legend Chuck Jones and featuring the voice of Alastair Sim, reprising the role of Scrooge he famously played in the fifties, it would net Williams an Academy Award. Striking and inventive both with its animation and storytelling, it’s a version of the oft-told tale that can stand among the very best.
Williams began work on a project that would define and span his career in 1964 – inspired by middle-eastern art and highly ambitious in scope and scale, the film went through many titles but finally set on The Thief and the Cobbler.
After conceiving the idea, Williams’ Oscar win gave him the leverage to start up production, which would be plagued constantly by financial setbacks and studio changes, but Williams would not give up. He took a number of jobs in between to help secure more funds and seek out potential partners to help him complete the film.
Williams worked on the The Thief and the Cobbler for the next two decades, at his insistence overseeing every frame as it was drawn by hand. Unfortunately, the long story would not have a happy ending. He lost control of the project in the early nineties, and its new stewards hurried to complete it.
Finally released in 1995 under the name “Arabian Knight”, this hastily finished and heavily cut version was poorly received, with many believing it to be an Aladdin knock-off. (What little they know) It has the distinction of being Vincent Price’s last film, as dialogue he recorded in the seventies was used in the final product.
In 2006 a restored version of the film was released on DVD. Though a lot of the animation was not completed, this version was assembled as close to Williams’ original concept, making it the most definitive version possible of The Thief and the Cobbler.
There was more to Williams’ career than a long job that ended in disappointment. In the eighties he designed the title sequences for two of Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther films and in the nineties he helped create what would be a milestone in the medium.
Seeing finished pieces of The Thief and The Cobbler impressed the heads of Warner Bros. enough to hire Williams to oversee animation on an adaptation of Gary K Wolf’s 1981 novel, entitled Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Working with a cast of some of the greatest cartoon characters of all time, Williams led the effort of seamlessly integrating them all into the live-action scenes. Only someone with Williams’ painstaking attention to detail could have made the animation of Roger Rabbit work so well.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit remains a timeless classic and earned Williams numerous accolades for his animation work. As a side note, he also voiced Droopy in the film.
While he may not have the same visibility of someone like Walt Disney, Richard Williams unquestionably made a big impact on the medium. He was also a true filmmaker, striving to always be faithful to himself and see his work through as he intended, whatever the cost. It’s only fitting, then, that we salute the passing of one of animation’s unsung heroes.