Richard Williams Presents ‘This Amazing Medium’ at The Academy
I thought, why isn’t anybody doing this? Why don’t people realize they don’t know anything? Everybody in the business had their egos working. When I started in London very early on I found I knew more than all these “professionals” and I was virtually a kid. I just decided to get busy. I had a small studio and I started tracing off films to figure the damn stuff out. Through Chuck Jones, I got in touch with Ken Harris. Both Ken and Art [Babbitt] were just about to retire. The Disney folks were quite secretive about their knowledge. But when they got old and realized they were going to croak, they became extremely generous. I just happened to hit them at the right time and roll on the floor in front of them and beg for scraps. And they gave me complete meals!
DS: I’ve always said more than most industries, animation venerates its elders.
RW: Well, they didn’t then. I will take credit for that. I realized, “Gosh, nobody’s paying any attention to these guys!” Everyone thought, “Oh, they just do that smooth stuff.” I knew just how great they were. I did everything possible to work with them. I was able to employ Ken Harris. He even got better, which was unbelievable. I gave him a lot of freedom. He flourished. And Babbitt revived himself and did some marvelous work. Grim [Natwick] was in the studio for a year as a tutor, walking around to everybody’s desk. I got him animating and he was well into his 90s.
Milt Kahl had a good 10 years left when they drove him out at Disney. These guys, I saw them get better. Titian got better. Degas got better. Rembrandt got better. Why not some animators? I definitely got better from years drinking blood from all these guys. I’m in terrific shape even though I’m old. I’m doing better work than I ever have.
DS: I’ve known you to be very modest and I’m sure it makes you a bit uncomfortable when people just talk about your legacy, how you’re a legend, when you’re still actively working. Did you ever imagine your book, DVD and now iPad app would have the impact they’ve had?
RW: My wife Mo [Imogen Sutton] said to me that this material will have a great impact. I said, “Well…maybe…” But she said, “No no, these will do well. This will help everybody.”
But also, you get attention when you’re really old. Babbitt always said, “They give you prizes before you go gaga!” You’re prized for longevity. I always sought out these really old guys. I got involved with Ken when he was 69. I thought that was old as hell. I’m just in shock at being 80. It’s ridiculous.
DS: Looking back at some of the highlights of your career, when you were making Who Framed Roger Rabbit, did you ever expect the film to be so successful, to have the impact it did then and still has today?
RW: Everybody on it could tell it was going to be a hit. We didn’t know how big, but you could tell. There’s a scene in the first cartoon when Roger is coming out of the fridge. I did that scene. When I saw it finished for the first time, I thought, “Oh, this is going to be a hit.” I am surprised that it holds up. At least everybody tells me it does. At the time I thought, “This is rehash. But it’s hit rehash.”
DS: Well it holds up not just because of sentimentality or nostalgia. It holds up because it’s a great film and the animation is tremendous. Even today, you couldn’t make it look any better, no matter what technique or technology you used. That’s why classic Disney animated films hold up so well. The style is always relevant. The beauty of the art…you could possibly recreate it but it’s not like you could surpass it.
RW: Exactly. Absolutely. Amen.
DS: Last question. Is there anything you can point to in your career that gives you the most sense of personal satisfaction?
RW: Yes. There were six months on The Thief. We’d done 20 years of work, working on certain shots that whole time. If you can believe it, during the entire time we worked on the film, with all those people, there were six months when we had four people in administration, and we had the most efficient and smooth production I’ve ever experienced. Every day, I’d see these wonderful shots coming to fruition. It went on for six months. And I thought, “This is heaven.” But then of course, tragedy struck.
Now, I can say, the high point of my career, truthfully, is right now. The work I’m doing now I could never have done even when I was 70. Something happened to me around age 75 and it all “took.” Now I’m able to do anything I can think of. So, we’ll see if I can stretch this thing out because I’m now doing my masterpiece. And the fuckers can’t stop me now! The only thing that can get me is Mother Nature.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.