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Richard Williams, ‘Roger Rabbit’ Animator, Dead at 86

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BY April 27, 2020
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Richard Williams, an animator with an award-winning career, has died at the age of 86. Throughout his extensive career, Williams worked on many films, including his own The Thief and the Cobbler.

Richard Williams, Early Award Winner

Born in Toronto, Canada, Williams emigrated to Europe in his 20s. Moving first to Ibiza, he settled in London at the age of 22. Once there, Williams quickly made a name for himself as an animator. This was due in part to veteran animator Bob Godfrey, whom Williams credits for giving him help. For example, Godfrey would trade camera time for Williams’s work. With that camera access, Williams directed, produced, and animated The Little Island, a film short. The film, a wordless philosophical argument, won the 1958 BAFTA for Animated Film.

Williams continued his own work into the 1960s, making films like Love Me, Love Me, Love Me, and A Lecture on Man. However, during most of the 60s and 70s, he also worked on films by other people. Sometimes they were straight animation, like the animated adaptation he did of Oscar winner A Christmas Carol in 1971, and other times, he made animated credits for otherwise live-action films. Some of the latter movies include Woody Allen’s first produced screenplay What’s New, Pussycat? and two Pink Panther movies in the 70s, The Return of the Pink Panther and The Pink Panther Strikes Again.

The Thief and the Cobbler

Richard Williams work, Princess and Cobbler Image via Miramax

Williams’s most personal work was The Thief and the Cobbler, an animated version of stories by the 13th century satirist Nasreddin. In the early 60s, Williams began working on the film, hand-animating it himself. He was also largely funding it himself. Later, he would get some help with both, but the project remained uncompleted. However, footage from the film impressed Steven Spielberg so much that he and Robert Zemeckis hired Williams as the animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

After the success of that film, Williams was able to use his newly-gained clout to make a deal with Warner Brothers. Unfortunately, production went on for so long that Warner’s insurer was afraid the film would get crushed by Disney’s upcoming Aladdin. They seized control of the project, then hired a new animator to finish it, adding musical and dialogue sequences. Their version,  The Princess and The Cobbler, hit international theaters in 1993. The production company Miramax then bought the rights and recut it themselves, releasing their version, Arabian Knight, in 1995. Guinness World Records now lists the film for the “longest production time for an animated movie.”

A reconstructed version, as close to the original version as we can get, was screened in 2013. Williams, who reportedly disliked discussing the film after the debacle of production, was in attendance.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Of course, Williams is best known for his work on the 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Post-production for the film lasted for a little over a year. This was in the days before widespread use of computer animation, so the animators drew the images on transparent cels. For this film, that meant drawing images into shots of live actors. Industrial Light and Magic then did the actual animation.

Upon its release, the film was a critical and commercial success. However, there were some prominent naysayers, including legendary animator Chuck Jones, who criticized the studio both for hampering Williams’s creativity and for destroying a scene Jones and Williams had storyboarded. Nevertheless, the film won 3 Oscars, including an award for Best Visual Effects, making it the first animated/live-action movie to win awards since 1964’s Mary Poppins. Williams himself won the Special Achievement Academy Award, an award that is not annual and is only given for extraordinary contributions to film. The film also won 2 Bafta Awards, including one for Visual Effects.

After the success of the film, Williams continued working on his own movies and other works, including the book The Animator’s Survival Kit, until his death. His family announced his passing, with daughter Natasha Sutton Williams calling him “…an inspiration to everyone that met him.”

MoviesmoviesRichard WilliamsWho Framed Roger Rabbit

Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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