Richard Williams obituary

Innovative award-winning film animator best known for Who Framed Roger Rabbit

The two Oscars awarded to the film animator Richard Williams, who has died aged 86, for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) marked a fitting recognition of his mastery of his craft. The fantasy-comedy mixed live action, led by the cartoon-hating detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), and animation, with a cartoon rabbit in need of Hoskins’ help when he is accused of committing a murder.

It was set in 1947, in the age of the Hollywood film noir and classic cartoons, and the interaction between its two worlds – calling for an unprecedented use of perspective in the animation – made it a box office and critical success.

Richard Williams animated short version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, 1971

An earlier Oscar had gone to Dick – Canadian-born but based in Britain for much of his life – as director of the animated short A Christmas Carol (1971), at a time when his studio was in demand for animated titles for feature films, among them The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and two films in the Pink Panther series (1975-76).

His recent Prologue (2015), nominated for an Oscar, depicts a ferocious hand-to-hand battle between ancient Spartans and Athenians, and serves as a prelude to his intended realisation of Aristophanes’ antiwar sex-strike play Lysistrata. For this project Dick continued to the end of his life to use traditional hand-drawn animation to achieve effects that had never been attempted before for human bodies.

Richard Williams’ Prologue, 2015

He liked to share his knowledge of animating animal and human movement with new generations. From his masterclasses there resulted The Animator’s Survival Kit, in both print and digital versions.

A native of Toronto, Dick was the son of the British painter Leslie Lane and Kay (Kathleen) Bell, a commercial artist, but took the name of his stepfather, Kenneth Williams, after Lane left. Dick considered that he inherited his graphic talent from Kay, who in her leisure time did fairytale illustrations that he felt compared with those of Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac.

When he was five she turned down a job as an animator at Disney, and around the same time took Dick to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which changed his life. While the other children laughed at the dwarfs and cowered at the witch, he was more thrilled to recognise that he was watching drawings that were somehow made to move.

At 15 he saved up for the five-day bus trip from Toronto to Hollywood, and took the Disney studio tour three days in succession, each time being thrown out because he broke away from the guide and tried to talk to the animators. Subsequently the public relations people thought better of it and asked him back to meet Walt Disney in person, which did not interest him much, but he met the animators, showed them his drawings and spent time seeing how things worked.

Richard Williams at the International Fantastic film festival in Spain in 2015.
Richard Williams at the International Fantastic film festival in Spain in 2015. Photograph: Agencia Efe/Rex/Shutterstock

When he was 20 he saw a Rembrandt exhibition and was moved to tears. He settled in Ibiza to dedicate himself to painting and found an exciting subject in the performers and audience of a local circus. He soon felt that his drawings were “wanting to move” and planned to turn them into a film – though he did not get round to completing Circus Drawings until 2010. At the same time he found himself scribbling storyboards for a cartoon film about the relations between three misguided idealists.

This was to be his debut film, The Little Island, which he financed by working for London companies making television commercials. He might sign on with them as a humble paint mixer, but within days would invariably be promoted to animator.

The Little Island won the 1958 Bafta award for best animation and it was then when, working as a critic, I had the good fortune to become a friend of this ebullient, funny and brilliant 25-year-old. In the early 1960s he set up Richard Williams Animation, which achieved huge success with its production of some of the best TV commercials of the period, as well as Dick’s own films.

Richard Williams’ The Little Island, 1958

By the late 60s, some of the great Hollywood animators from the 30s were taking retirement. Williams hired them to work for his studio: they included Art Babbitt, who had shaped Goofy, Grim Natwick, who had drawn Betty Boop, and Ken Harris, who had spent 26 years with Warners. Though Babbit gave formal masterclasses, most of these tough veterans instructed only by terse but devastating criticism.

When he first met Milt Kahl, who had animated Shere Khan, the tiger, in The Jungle Book, Dick symbolically knelt to clean his shoes. Kahl told him: “You can stop cleaning my shoes because you draw better than I do; but then you can clean them some more because you can’t animate for shit.” Kahl became a friend, but never worked for Dick.

In 1984 he met the film-maker Mo (Imogen) Sutton, the daughter of the painter Philip Sutton, and six years later she became his fourth wife. She also became his regular producer and took care of the aspects of the business that did not excite him. Meanwhile, still working with the great old men, Dick had embarked on a personal project that he unabashedly intended to be “the best animation feature ever”.

The original inspiration was the tales of the legendary Mulla Nasrudin, and the first title of the project was Nasrudin. Dick made and discarded a series of painstaking trials, but in 1973 settled on a new story and title, The Thief and the Cobbler. In 1990 Warner Brothers agreed to finance and distribute the film, but when it went over time and over budget Dick and Mo left and their material was handed over to other companies to make two disastrous versions, abandoning Dick’s voice tracks and introducing irrelevant musical numbers.

The work print version of Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler

Dick and Mo salvaged a work print that served as the basis of their own recreation, subtitled A Moment in Time, which was supported by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and premiered in 2013. The film’s 31 years in production set a new world record.

The Thief catastrophe drove Dick and Mo to close their company and retreat to Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada, where they remained for five years. It was there they had the idea for Dick’s masterclasses, in which he consciously performed like a nightclub comedian, with lots of jokes and funny walks – an essential practical demonstration of the way to study live movement. After around 30 such performances around the world, he distilled the masterclass material into what has become the animator’s bible, translated into many languages and formats including DVD and iPad app.

In 1997 the couple moved back to Britain, and from 2008 Dick had space at Aardman Studios in Bristol, where he installed one of his 1938 Disney animation desks. There he worked to the very end on the film of which he wryly joked: “The working title is Will I Live to Finish It?” He did not, but the 12 minutes he produced of Lysistrata – a subject that had interested him since he was a boy – stand as his most innovative work.

Had he not been an animator, Dick might have been a musician, and played the cornet and flugelhorn regularly with his own group, Dix Six. He described himself musically as “New York-Dixielander ... whatever you call it.”

His marriages to Stephanie Ashforth, Lois Steuart and Margaret French ended in divorce. He is survived by Mo and their children, Natasha and Leif; by Alex and Claire, from his marriage to Lois; and by Timothy and Holly, from his marriage to Margaret.

• Richard Edmund Williams, animator, born 19 March 1933; died 16 August 2019

• This article was amended on 21 August 2019. Milt Kahl animated Shere Khan, the tiger, in The Jungle Book – not a lion as originally stated.


David Robinson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Bob Baker obituary
Television and film writer best known for Doctor Who and Wallace and Gromit

Toby Hadoke

07, Nov, 2021 @5:00 PM

Article image
Letters: Richard Williams obituary
Quentin Falk writes: In the late 1980s I interviewed Richard Williams in his rabbit warren of an office on Soho Square, where he was still working on his endlessly elusive magnum opus, The Thief and the Cobbler

Ned Chaillet and Quentin Falk

26, Aug, 2019 @3:22 PM

Article image
Stephen Hillenburg obituary
Animator and producer who created the children’s TV series SpongeBob SquarePants

Anthony Hayward

29, Nov, 2018 @12:45 PM

Article image
Christopher Plummer obituary
Star of stage and screen from the success of The Sound of Music to the powerful performances and Oscar recognition of his later years

Michael Coveney

06, Feb, 2021 @3:11 PM

Article image
Michael K Williams obituary
American actor best known for playing Omar Little in the TV crime series The Wire

Ryan Gilbey

07, Sep, 2021 @3:19 PM

Article image
Richard Taylor obituary
Scientist who shared the 1990 Nobel prize in physics for establishing that protons and neutrons are made up of quarks

Frank Close

08, Mar, 2018 @5:21 PM

Article image
Joe Ruby obituary | Anthony Hayward
Animator who in partnership with Ken Spears created the snack-loving cartoon sleuth Scooby-Doo

Anthony Hayward

01, Sep, 2020 @5:17 PM

Article image
Mick Rhodes obituary
Director, producer and head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit best known for Life on Earth, Badger Watch and Wildlife on One

Peter Goodchild

05, Nov, 2018 @5:28 PM

Article image
Bob Bura obituary
Pioneering animator of children’s programmes such as Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley

Peter Phillipson

08, May, 2018 @5:42 PM

Article image
Jean-Marc Vallée obituary
Award-winning Canadian film-maker who directed Dallas Buyers Club and Big Little Lies

Ryan Gilbey

30, Dec, 2021 @4:21 PM