An Interview With Richard Williams

Dean Kalman Lennert interviews Richard Williams on his new book, music, 3D vs. 2D and more.

Richard Williams. All photographs by Jacob Sutton.

Richard Williams. All photographs by Jacob Sutton.

Master animator. Teacher. Three time Academy-Award winner. These are just a few titles and honors associated with director Richard Williams. Now, with the publication of his new book, The Animator's Survival Kit, he can add the title of author to that list. I recently had the chance to speak with Richard Williams about the book, his most recent animation masterclass and his opinions on the latest animation technology.

Before I begin, however, I would like to thank the members of ASIFA-East and the folks at Blue Sky Studios for contributing some wonderful questions to this interview.

Dean Lennert: I understand that you had a masterclass in Hong Kong last year?

Richard Williams: Yeah, and it went really well. I was very apprehensive because, I thought, with the cultural differences, will my so-called humor work? And the answer is yes.

DL: Was the class predominantly traditional animators or computer?

RW: There were 150 students and only two were 2D animators. One fellow used to work for me over here in England.

DL: I'm surprised that there weren't more traditional animators from the studios that do series work for the U.S.

RW: No. It wasn't that kind of thing. It was the government backing the development of animation in Hong Kong. And, of course, it's all on computer. So, they've got the equipment and they've got marvelous ideas but, they're missing pieces of information. So, I was the missing link between the classical knowledge and the modern technology. They were very happy, saying that it was exactly what they wanted to get. It was very informal. A very enjoyable experience.

DL: At that point how many masterclasses have you taught?

RW: Hong Kong was number twenty. Well, we're trying to give them up you see. That's one of the reasons for doing the book.

DL: Oh, really?

RW: I don't want to make a career of this thing. We started the masterclass because I didn't want to go back into the animation industry as such and wanted to do my own work. As this is the information age and I've got all this information, Mo [Richard's wife, documentary filmmaker Imogen Sutton] said, "Well, why don't you teach for awhile?"

DL: How has it been making the transition from being a student of animation masters like Milt Kahl, Ken Harris and Art Babbitt to teaching the next generation of animators?

RW: Well, none of my teachers, except for Art Babbitt, were actually teachers. Ken Harris would sometimes have a burst of eloquence but he'd usually have to show you on the drawing board. And with Milt, he just kept saying, "Well. You know. You know." I'd say, "No. I don't know." And then, finally, out would come the answer and I'd remember it. I have total recall of anything I'm interested in and no recall of anything I'm not interested in. (laughs) I can recall practically every conversation I ever had with Milt Kahl about animation so, it was easy. What was hard was to boil it all down so it's simple. I mean, it is simple really. All the information from the different guys nearly always comes out to the same thing. But, to get it down into a really simple phrase or drawing that covers it, is the hard part.

DL: Do you ever find yourself saying, "Oh, I wish I could ask Milt this," or "I wish I could run this by Ken or Art?"

RW: No, truthfully. I never even think, "Now, how would Milt approach this?" I just think, "How would I approach this?" When I do my own work I don't think about it that way. The whole idea is to already have the knowledge absorbed into your bloodstream, and then it's automatic. A concert violinist doesn't think of the scales when he's playing. If he did, he'd crash.

DL: Has the content or format of the masterclass evolved over time?

RW: Yes. I think that it's much less spontaneous but I can get more information in now. As I keep doing it I get to be like a nightclub comic or an actor and I can tell when I'm not being clear enough and when they are getting it right away. The whole thing is to be clear, isn't it? There's a lot of show business in it. I think that the answer is that I'm much better at it now and I don't have to sweat as much before I do it because I've done it so many times. And because of that, I'm able to get more in.

DL: I've heard that you have some 35 volumes of notes you made from your mentors and teachers?

RW: Yeah.

DL: And that you boiled these down into ten volumes of what you considered to be the most important information?

RW: That's right. Ten volumes of a hundred pages each, which I did for Alex [Richard's son] years ago when he got a job in Germany as an animator. And then that's boiled down into three hundred pages which I used for the classes. Then when I did the book I've sort of expanded it out. Not more information but, more examples of the same information. I didn't just use the three volumes. I went back through everything (laughs), which took forever.

DL: Did you find it a little more liberating working in book format than to have to cram everything into a three day masterclass?

RW: No. I actually found it much harder. Because I had to get everything absolutely right. In the class you might gloss over something without noticing, because of the shortage of time. Well, in the book it's got to be absolutely bombproof. So, I worked very hard to make sure everything is absolutely clear. It just took forever, three and a half years. I thought that it would take a year. I'm like a terrier, ya know. I just won't let go of the bone until it's done. And I think it's done. I'm happy with it. I'm very pleased that Faber [the book's publisher] allowed me to do it my way. I said to Mo at the end of it, "Well this time I can't blame anybody. This is 352 pages of stuff and if there is anything wrong with it it's my fault." (laughs) That's it. Nobody screwed with it.

DL: Did you run across any stumbling blocks when putting the book together?

RW: No. I just found that I had an awful lot of material and yet it all had to get in. What was it Shakespeare says? "More matter with less words." So, that was the hard part just to keep making it clear and getting it all in. I think I managed to keep it full of air and light. It's easy to look at, easy to read.

DL: Does the information in the book follow the structure of the masterclass?

RW: Yes. You could say that the masterclasses were rehearsals for the book. Although we didn't know it at the time.

DL: It has been observed that you bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to your teaching style. How does this translate to the printed page?

RW: When we were checking the proofs, Mo picked up a whole bunch of them and was reading them on the train, she said that my voice was so strong that, to her surprise, it was a page-turner. And I said, "What? During all that technical stuff? That can't be." I looked at it a couple of days ago, I have enough distance from it now, and I think, in ways, it's funnier than the class. Whatever it is I have to offer is definitely in there.

DL: Are there any recommended exercises in the book?

RW: No. Ya' know I hated school. I just hated school. Anything to do with the professorial, I've tried to get that out of there. I've put in my experience; here's the principle, this is how it works and this is how to use it. Use it your way. It's everything I've absorbed over the years. My experience and what I found to be true and what I found wasn't.

DL: Do you include many of your anecdotes?

RW: There's enough in there to give a feel for the background to all this knowledge.

DL: Are there any plans to have this book translated into other languages?

RW: I guess so but my hand written text is really part of the drawings. It's a mountain of art work and most of the text is embedded into the drawings like an artists' notebook. Also it's conversational not didactic.

DL: What are some of your non-animation related inspirations?

RW: Bix Beiderbecke [jazz cornetist, pianist and composer 1903-1931]. I'm crazy about a lot of music but Bix is my favorite artist in any medium. Ever! Two notes of Beiderbecke and I'm off. He just kills me. And in movies Kurosawa is by far my most favorite. He's the master as far as I'm concerned. When I first saw Rashomon I was 16, and I thought, "Oh! I see, movies are art! Or at least this man's movies are art." (laughs)

DL: You play the cornet, correct?

RW: The cornet and flugelhorn.

DL: What type of music do you like to play?

RW: I'm a kind of New York-Dixielander ... whatever you call it. 1940's Dixieland, swing and mainstream. I used to play with Max Kaminsky, the great trumpeter in New York. He was my teacher and friend and he gave me on the job training.

DL: How often do you get out to play?

RW: At the moment I play three times a week. And I practice all the time. I had to cut the playing down a bit while doing the book.

DL: Do you find that there is a difference in expressing yourself through music vs. animation?

RW: Only in that it's immediate. You play and there's the sound. It flies into the air and it's gone. You can't play it back and you can't fix it. I think of animation as drawn music. It's very similar; the timing is similar -- the passion, the contrast, how you join things together interestingly.

DL: Do you have a preference of one over the other?

RW: Oh, I think I'd rather draw. Music takes me a lot of time and I feel it can sabotage my other work if I'm not careful. So, I think that it is drawing and playing, in that order.

DL: When you started in the industry what was your vision for the future of animation?

RW: Why I never had any, Dean. Never. And I still don't. I just think that it's such an amazing medium that, cripes, I wonder what I could do with it? Like the thing I'm on now. I've been thinking about it since I was 15. I was at that time giving up my earlier ambition to animate in favour of painting but I wondered if I became an animator would I ever be good enough to animate this idea here? So, now I am seeing if I am good enough. (laughs) We don't know yet.

DL: Would you have any interest in utilizing a computer or directing computer animators?

RW: I think if I was younger, yes definitely. I am doing it indirectly, I guess, since nearly every time we have a masterclass it's a higher percentage of computer guys. There's usually about 20% average of 2D now. In the beginning it was 80% 2D animators.

DL: What effect do you see these new tools having on the quality of the work?

RW: Oh, I think it's great! The computer guys are getting better and better at aping reality. That's marvelous that they can do it but, how much better it would be if you invent what can't be. I mean when was the last time you saw a really funny walk in animation like they did in the 1930s? Where the action itself was funny or fascinating? I think that's the place to go; step backwards and invent with modern technology.

DL: Do you feel that with having the unlimited un-do option a computer offers a benefit or detriment to the mastery of the art form?

RW: Oh, benefit, benefit! But, everything in life is a double-edged sword isn't it? It seems to me that every time they invent a new thing they gain this terrific new thing and they also lose a little bit of something else. I certainly don't think that every new innovation is a step forward particularly. It's just a step different.

DL: Could you place the following aspects of animated film production in the order of most important to least important: voice talent, animation, story, production design.

RW:

Production design is the least important. I would put animation first but, only just ahead of story. I think that stories are pretty easy to come by and most stories these days are just formulas. I think what you remember, or at least I remember in a movie, is the characters. If I think of Seven Samurai I don't think of the story I think of the seven different samurai. As Disney said to Frank Thomas, "Get the entertainment right." Then getting good voices is absolutely vital. Take The Lion King as a good example. The voices are marvelous and all utterly separate from each other in tone. With voices it's very important that they contrast each other. Laurel and Hardy; utterly, utterly different voices. Abbott and Costello. We have to separate the personalities into big and little, fat and thin, upper-class, lower-class. You've got to have contrast. Yeah, production design is way down the line. I think that's just giving it an interesting look. Although the whole thing should be organic, shouldn't it? Whenever I have an idea it's all of a piece. I couldn't separate it out.

DL: With the success of Shrek this summer over some traditionally animated films, what are your thoughts about the future of 2D animation?

RW: I think it should go graphic. I think it's a shame when the 2D tries to look like 3D because it can't. It shouldn't try to follow the fashion for this burgeoning, expanding computer thing, which is wonderful of itself. The 2D should go do what it does best. The Sistine ceiling is pretty impressive but, you can take a drawing of Michelangelo's and it is, in a way, more impressive than the painting in that you see his direct thinking. There's something good about an old master's preparatory drawing, before he does the painting. And the great stuff, say, Degas' last paintings. You know, those big chalk things of the women in the tub? He couldn't see very well at that point and they were rough as hell. They're the best things he ever did! And I think we should go that way. I think, because the computer thing can take over all the polished areas so beautifully, we 2D artists should just go back to a hand-crafted approach. Obvious drawings that walk and talk.

Dean Kalman Lennert is an animator/lecturer working in New York. His latest work can be seen in Twentieth Century Fox's Ice Age coming to theaters March 15, 2002.

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