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Getting Animated About Williams' Masterclass

This month anime reviewer James Brusuelas checks out Bleach the Movie, Darker Than Black, Coyote Ragtime Show, Ah! My Goddess, When They Cry, My Santa and Hunter x Hunter.

Richard Williams. Photo by Don Fairservice.

Richard Williams. Photo by Don Fairservice.

When you look at all the books, tutorials and magazines about the art and craft of animation, you begin to wonder how to pick the right one, how to choose something you won't regret almost immediately after you watched it or read it or swallowed it for the first time. Of course, there are the indispensible books by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. You don't need encouragement to buy those. But why should you buy a 16-DVD box set called The Animator's Survival Kit -- Animated?

I think it's all about the artist's credibility. You wonder: can I really trust the guy, who is telling me how to do it? Should I spend a big sum of money to buy something I might already know? Does it focus on my special field of animation, design, computer animation, games, stop-motion or something else? Is there something better? Is there something cheaper? Straight answer: You should. It works. And maybe there is something cheaper, but Jiminy Cricket, no, there is nothing better than the Richard Williams' Animation Masterclass.

Let me tell you how and what I found out and why I will never regret the time and money spent.

My entrance to animation was born right out of the sense of wonder I experienced when at the age of five, I was taken to an art house cinema by my older brother to see the 1933 version of King Kong. Shortly after, I watched Walt Disney's "The Old Mill" short from the Silly Symphonies on television. Done! I was hooked on animation and visual effects. I began to read about it and to watch everything in my reach. The limitations of the time -- I am from the early VHS generation -- only heightened my interest and longing for more and better understanding of that fantastic art form. I also lived in a big family, where Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were regarded as demigods, while Walt and his fellows weren't seen as artists at all. Craftsmen, yes, but sophisticated art? I didn't let it go. I couldn't convince my parents, but neither could they. Luckily for me, I lived near the town of Essen in Germany, where Art Designer Hans Bacher taught at the local Folkwang Academy of Arts. He gave an open two-day seminar about animation at the very same theater where I saw King Kong. Very few people went there, me among them, and there for the first time I heard of an animator named Richard Williams and his marvelous work.

I heard rumors about an unknown and unfinished masterpiece called The Thief and the Cobbler. I was told about Williams' brilliant work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and his many legendary commercials and title-designs. Bacher told us that everyone who wanted to know more about the art of animation should go and visit Williams' masterclass. So I took all my money and my courage and boldly went to experience the Richard Williams Animation Masterclass at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts at 195 Piccadilly in London in May 1999. Keep in mind that I wasn't an animator, but was studying history and literature at that time. I read lots of books and watched many films and was learning purely secondhand. Little did I know that the next three days would change my life forever.

In I went, and immediately met Imogen Sutton, Williams' wife, who organized the masterclass. She introduced me to another German, who had also traveled to London to learn more about animation. Character Designer and Illustrator Harald Sieperman had already worked for Williams on Roger Rabbit and for the next three days, together with 80 other people, we would sit there, writing and drawing as fast and as much as we could because there on the stage Williams was telling us about the nuts and bolts of how to do animation and how not to do it. It was unbelievable. It was everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask.

Maybe you know a lot about Williams. I didn't know much at that time. There was no YouTube, no Wikipedia, no Google in 1999. I only knew the guy had won several Academy Awards and did Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But after his opening speech, I instinctively knew that I found a gold mine of knowledge. The man loved the same animated films I did, he knew all the people I would never have the chance to speak to. He not only spoke to those animation legends, he brought them to his studio in London, hired them to work for him and let them teach him and his animators. So he not only liked the films I did, but he also had done everything to understand why he liked them so much. And there he was, telling us how they were done, what it takes and how it was achieved. Who was this guy?

The chance to work with Richard Williams, above with a Roger Rabbit storyboard, was an important reason why so many animators wanted to work on the film. Courtesy of Tom Sito.

The chance to work with Richard Williams, above with a Roger Rabbit storyboard, was an important reason why so many animators wanted to work on the film. Courtesy of Tom Sito.

When I met Jeffrey Katzenberg during his presentation of Monsters vs. Aliens last December in Berlin, I asked him about his experience working with Williams. (They both worked on Roger Rabbit while Katzenberg was head of Disney Feature Animation.) He told me, "Richard is one of the most original and genuinely brilliant artists I have worked with over the years -- he has one of the most vivid imaginations of anybody I know. He has a beautiful, creative sensibility value. He is a very unique, very visionary artist and storyteller."

Don Hahn, who also worked as associate producer on Roger Rabbit, described Williams in the same way: one of the most creative people he ever met. In his wonderful book about creativity, Dancing Corndogs in the Night: Reawakening Your Creative Spirit, Hahn pointed out another characteristic of Williams: "The other thing Dick did, was teach. In the prime of his career, he went to the cinema and saw Disney's Jungle Book, and upon leaving the theater proclaimed three words that every middle-aged man dreads: 'I know nothing.' Dick didn't collapse with this realization. He set about with relentless drive to learn. He found all of the surviving animators who worked with Walt Disney or at Warner Bros. or MGM during the golden age of animation. He'd fly them to London for classes, or when they wouldn't come he'd send them sequences of The Thief to work on. Then, when they'd turn in their artwork, he'd study it and play it for himself and his close-knit team of animators."

If you can't see the master in person, the 16-DVD box set is a good substitute. Photo by Don Fairservice.

If you can't see the master in person, the 16-DVD box set is a good substitute. Photo by Don Fairservice.

So Williams, the innovator of animation, king of the commercials with tons of prizes and wards, winner of an Academy Award, had discovered that he knew almost nothing about animation. So he did the research, found all those old timers, hired them and held them in "captivity," as he used to say, as long as possible.

"My animation teachers were Ken Harris, who taught by the seat of his pants," Williams told us during the masterclass. "Art Babbitt, who taught by systematized and organized, catalogued analysis, Milt Kahl, who taught by the sheer example of his work and letting the occasional verbal pearl drop. And also Emery Hawkins and Grim Natwick. They're all gone now, but these three days are full of their accumulated knowledge and craft. Bless them for giving it to me. I now give it to you."

Timing and spacing, walks, weight "change," counteraction, overlapping action, successive "breaking of joints" to give flexibility, accents, vibration formulas, dialogue phrasing, progressive dialogue, anticipation, "takes," invented actions, techniques and working methods and principles: these are the knowledge and tools to make drawings breathe, think and give a commanding performance. Even I began to understand how and why it worked. The old school of animation, born in the 1930s and fully grown in the 1940s. Williams had written all of it down in big volumes and boiled the knowledge down to this masterclass. And because he was (and still is) obsessed with animation, he had tracked everything down he wanted to know.

And those old legendary animators did not turn down his offer to teach him and his animators, because their legacy was about to be lost. A craft was going to die, if not something would be done. In the late '60s and early '70s, besides the few Disney features, there wasn't much left from the golden age of animation. The heroes were growing old. So Williams did the right thing and began to learn from them.

As Williams told John Culhane, "When I was 20, I saw all the possibilities in the medium. All the possibilities, Jesus Christ! There are so many things animation can go into. It can be funny, crazy, sad, terrifying, psychological, metaphysical. And I realized that I was uniquely qualified to do it. I had a technical art background, a fine arts training; I played a musical instrument, I could organize and plan, I was a young man and energetic. What I did not know, I could learn. No one else was doing it. On the one hand, you had Disney doing big theatrical things with full animation and on the other side you had people like Norman McLaren, George Dunning and John Hubley doing personal things. Now, I didn't and still don't want to put the two together, but I want to use the whole palette of all the discoveries -- go forward from there. As Art Babbit says, 'We have to advance backwards to 1940 (when Disney developed the craft) and start forward from there.' The Jungle Book -- leaving aside anything you may feel about its aesthetics or narrative methods -- was a revelation. We realized how much Disney's techniques and discoveries still had to teach us, and we wanted to go back to school, to grade one, to learn how to make a character live and walk and talk convincingly. The graphic tricks that had done service for our commercials -- the little figures that scuttle about on mechanical legs and move in restricted, stylized ways -- won't get you through an hour."

When Williams was starting out, Chuck Jones said, "Richard Williams is a potential genius, but he will never be so in his own eyes. He will live and die in uncertainty. I think that Dick suspects that he is better than any director around, but he knows too that he is not and never will be as great an animator as Grim Natwick or Art Babbitt or Milt Kahl or Frank Thomas. What he does not know -- or will not admit -- is that he could be if he were willing to spend the time -- but he does not want to be a great animator; he wants to be a great animation director, perhaps the greatest and he has an uncertain suspicion that there is no such thing. Now this suspicion is in itself a mark of greatness, not of weakness. This agony of uncertainty is more a part of the creative hunger of Dick Williams than of any other director I have ever known."

Or as Williams said of himself: "I had a master plan, I decided to become the very best at the commercial side, then master the techniques of the art of personality animation. I wanted it all."

But just knowing the tricks of the animation trade doesn't mean you become one of the next Nine Old Men.

At the masterclass, Williams handed out a quote from Kahl: "It's a very difficult medium. Animation necessarily requires a pretty good draftsman, because you've got to turn things, to be able to draw well enough to turn things at every angle. You have to understand movement, which in itself is quite a study. You have to be an actor. You have to put on a performance, to be a showman, to be able to evaluate how good the entertainment is. You have to know what's the best way of doing it and have an appreciation of where it belongs in the picture. You have to be a pretty good story man. To be a really good animator, then, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades. I don't mean to say that I'm all these things, but I try hard. I got accused over the years of being a fine draftsman. Actually, I don't really draw that well. It's just that I don't stop trying as quickly. I keep at it. I happen to have a high standards and I try to meet them. I have to struggle like hell to make a drawing look good."

Even a god of animation has to struggle on a daily basis to learn. What a revelation, I thought.

But with all the knowledge of the basics, the fundamental principles and methods going into your bloodstream, you can become a real animator. Like Babbitt told Williams at an early point of their collaboration, "You know, you could become an animator!" Williams, already winner of numerous awards for his animated commercials, slightly embarrassed, had to admit, that he was right. Years of learning later, Babbitt knighted Williams, telling him, "Now you have become an animator!"

Williams explains: "My conclusion was: you can only get so far on your own; you need the help of a master. You can't reinvent the whole wheel. You can invent part of the wheel. You can come in sideways, in a new way, but eventually you have to have the whole thing. At least I wanted to have the whole thing. That means one has to absorb the materials developed by those old guys. Even if you don't use the cliché for 'takes,' it is wonderful to know them, because then you have the security of knowing. You can fall back on a known clichés. And when they get in your bloodstream, because they are principles, oh boy! You can extend on that, you can push that further. That's the advantage of knowing all the stuff. I will show you lots of formulas and devices that you can absorb and use and extend on them. But use your ideas your style, your expression and your culture. There is not one way to this, but what I am giving you are the tools so you can do whatever you want."

Richard Williams. Photo credit: Jacob Sutton.

Richard Williams. Photo credit: Jacob Sutton.

You have to keep in mind, that Williams learned all of this to create his masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler. Unfortunately, this didn't happen. That film became The Princess and the Cobbler, and eventually was released in 1993. Instead, he became, as the animation director of Roger Rabbit and especially with his masterclasses, became responsible a great deal for the second golden age of animation. The success of Roger Rabbit marked the beginning of a whole new era and the masterclasses inspired countless animators, producers and instructors afterward. "We came back with our brains on fire to apply the techniques and timings you presented in our work." wrote the Pixar Animation Studios animators.

Rob Coleman, animation supervisor on Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace, remarked, "The information I learned from your class will help me bring some amazingly believable creatures and characters to the screen."

Meanwhile, Williams has passed on his knowledge over the years in masterclasses in London, New York, San Francisco, Wales, Denmark, Australia, Vancouver, New York and Hollywood.

His bestselling book, The Animator's Survival Kit, which is now used by thousands of animators as reference, is a fantastic substitute for everyone who hasn't had the chance to go and see the man himself.

But now with the new DVD box set, Williams and Sutton have achieved another extraordinary contribution for everyone working in the field of animation. The Masterclass DVDs, produced and directed by Sutton, were shot during the masterclass given at Chris Wedge's Blue Sky Studios in New York. The new breathtaking animation segments were done by Neil Boyle and Williams. The whole thing was edited at Aardman Animations by Peter Lord. The music was written by Maud Nelissen and played by the Sprockets.

In these sessions, you study more than 400 animated examples. There is basic stuff like a bouncing ball, examples of timing and spacing, some truly wonderfully sophisticated stuff. You are going to see how not to animate. You have the ability to watch animated segments separately frame-by-frame. The opening titles show 12 different characters and their different walks.

"Walks are just about the hardest things to animate. That logo took us nine month to animate," Williams said. He designed the logo for the cover of his book to show the different styles of animation, "But I never would have done it that way if I thought that I have to animate it. But we did!"

Character Designer Harald Siepermann explained his experience in the masterclass to me, "I got what I had hoped for. I was amazed, how high the level was, how Richard Williams looked at things, analyzed them and then did his research. He had a close look into real life, he understood the psychological aspects of it and then he was also able to put it all into a drawing or into animation."

Siepermann worked for Disney as character designer on Tarzan, Brother Bear and most recently on Enchanted. He also had the opportunity to speak to Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Marc Davis and Joe Grant. Siepermann observed that those legends also had searched and researched every rule, every principle, every aspect of the craft.

"Nowadays at schools like CalArts, the students are told the path through the woods," Siepermann told me. "The great masters knew everything about the woods. The students don't learn the process of getting there, only the condensed rule, how to get there. You don't look into real life close enough, you are been taught to use the shortcuts. Dick shows you the whole method. This whole thing is a 'must have' for everyone. Everybody who doesn't want to see that, who believes that he or she doesn't need to see and learn this, has chosen the wrong business."

Williams put it this way, "It was great minds that took animation from a crude novelty to a major form of entertainment in less than 12 years. This is history. But what they worked out is just as valid today, using all our advanced technology. If you take the time, these sessions will save you years of study that it took me to learn all those principles from the basics to the interesting, complex, sophisticated stuff. These DVDs are about learning the animation systems and principles to enable you to animate walks or anything else you want to from the very basic to the most sophisticated. The methods will apply to any kind of animation, whether CG, 2D, stop-motion or games. You will be learning and you will be relearning the basics and we will build upon them layer by layer by layer until we master them."

Needless to say, I left London as a true believer, and went home to have a long talk with my parents.

Johannes Wolters studied German history and literature at the University of Cologne. He is now working as a freelance journalist for daily newspapers, film magazines and radio concentrating on animation and visual effects. In 1995, he created the International Nights and Days of Animation Cologne (INDAC), a small animation festival. He is currently transforming the festival into a network for German animation and visual effects artists and rebuilding the German ASIFA.

Johannes Wolters's picture
Johannes Wolters is a Cologne, Germany based freelance journalist who specializes in Animation and VFX. He has established a platform called for all people in German animation, VFX and games.