Bright Particular Stars. Mosaic Press, 2016:151
Born 1933 in Toronto.
He came from a visual arts oriented family. His mother Kay was an illustrator and his uncle Ken Bell was a prominent photographer author of books like Not In Vain and The Way We Were. Martin Hunter author of Bright Particular Stars maintained that from an early age Richard was already drawing cartoons of Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny etc that were as good as those in the comic books. Richard and Martin met when they were five years old, became childhood friends and although their career paths diverged, remained in contact for the rest of their lives. In addition to cartooning they immersed themselves into all forms of popular entertainment of the day movies of every kind, and radio programs They began writing small plays, the first was one called Cat and Dog. These they performed at the groups they belonged to including Wolf Cubs at church.
Now in Northern Technical School later called Northern Secondary School Richard became interested in Dixieland Jazz, learned to play the coronet and soon was playing with other young musicians. He and Martin soon combined music and comedy skits to produce the Ivan Yurpee Show. Organizing bands to play jazz was to become a lifelong side activity of Richard.
At age fifteen, in the summer he went to California and looked up one of his parent’s acquaintances who was a draughtsman at the Disney Studios. Through this connection, the company allowed him to hang around the studio and learn what he could. When he returned home in the fall, he enrolled in the Ontario College of Art (OCA) in the commercial art courses. Then in the summer before his last year at OCA, he went to Mexico and was transformed when he saw pre-columbian art and the work of the great Mexican muralists. He returned to OCA and transferred from commercial to fine art, in which course he did some remarkable lithographs. He also studied the great figures of literature, classical music especially Beethoven and of fine art particularly Goya & Rembrandt. He continued playing the coronet and joined a small combo of college art students that included Michael Snow on piano and Graham Coughtry on trombone, both of whom would become prominent in the field of fine art. He finished OCA but did not graduate because he has switched courses.
While he was pursuing his studies at OCA, television production began opening up in Toronto and animated commercials were in demand. Drawing on his experiences at Disney, he began working at Graphic Associates, a studio founded by George Dunning and Jim McKay formerly of the National Film Board and located in Kleinburg. This pursuit proved quite lucrative for him.
When he finished OCA, and in 1953 went to Ibiza Spain it was to pursue the life of a fine artist, but even then he was still attached to animation, drawing story boards for what would become The Little Island. At the same time he made a series of paintings of circus performers which many years later would find life as a film. In 1955 he moved from Ibiza to London England apparently having lost an interest in pursuing a life in fine art.
By chance he met George Dunning who had just set up a studio in London for United Productions of America (UPA). Dunning hired him and he returned to creating animated television commercials for which he won innumerable prizes. He continued to work nights on Little Island with the support of Bob Godrey British animator who provided him with factilities and camera in return for work. In 1958, he completed Little Island which is a satirical story about three individuals on an island each obsessed with a single ideal, Good, Truth and Beauty but unable to see the other ideals. For the film he won the British Academy of Film & Television Arts (BAFTA) animated film award.
According to Martin, while working in Dunn’s studio he developed an animated short called The Apple based on the story of William Tell. It won second prize at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France. He followed this with Love Me, Love Me, Love Me (1962), about a man craving for attention. The success of this film allowed him to start his own company Richard Williams Animated Films. at Soho Square in London. He did this without telling George Dunning. The resulting split was acrimonious and the two never spoke to each other again. In his own studio, he continued to do television commercials and win numerous awards. Another film A Lecture On Man: Diary Of A Mad Man was issued in 1965.
Now he added animating movie title sequences for What’s New Pussy Cat? (1965) and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1966) and Return of the Pink Panther (1975) to his repertoire. About these sequences He later said: “The fact is we were willing to do anything they asked for. We were totally eclectic, and the ironic thing is this is now seen as my style.”
Another success was his animated sequences for Director Tony Richardson’s live action film The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1968). For this he adopted the style of George Cruikshank (1792 to 1878) a British social caricaturist and book illustrator, in order to give the film a Victorian look.
He exploited this approached again in a half hour animated version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1971). For this film he based the animation on the original novel’s engravings. This feature won him his first Academy Award in 1972. It was also a point at which he turned from caricature to a more realistic style. According to Karen Mazurkewich this change was precipitated by Chuck Jones executive producer on Christmas Carol. He introduced Richard to veteran animators like Ken Harris and Abe Levitow.
In the mid 1960’s he embarked on a project that would dominate his thoughts for the next three decades. It was to be an animated feature film based on the tales of character Mulla Nasruddin, based on an actual Mulla Nasruddin who was a 13th century Seljuq satirist. It was titled Nasruddin. The film evolved from a series of storybooks that Richard illustrated in 1964. John Culhane a former Newsweek columnist worked with Richard on the original script.
One might say he was obsessed with the project. As Martin Hunter described it:
“Dick would work around the clock making commercials for six months, and then turn the studio over to producing perhaps five or ten minutes of The Thief, until he had exhausted his resources and had to turn around and make more money.”
About 1973, after a dispute with his partners, he discarded most of the original drawings, eliminated the Mulla Nasruddin character and changed the feature into a romance/adventure about Princess Yum Yum, Tack the cobbler, the evil Grand Vizier ZigZag and a a mute thief obsessed with stealing three golden balls which protected the city from invasion. The title of the new work was The Thief And The Cobbler.An example of his meticulous attention with this project is revealed by the fact he spent years perfecting a scene where the villain ZigZag shuffles a deck of cards.
He had been operating two offices one in London and one in Los Angeles. In his efforts to fund The Thief and the Cobbler, he spent more and more time in Los Angeles.
In the 1977 he agreed to work on the full length feature Raggedy Ann & Andy. He moved to the U.S. and put The Thief on hold. The partnership with the producers did not last as his stress for quality clashed with their cost and scheduling objectives. He left before the project which achieved neither critical nor financial success was completed. He returned to London and resumed work on commercials and The Thief, and closed his studio in Los Angeles.
In 1986, he became involved in Who Framed Roger Rabbit project. He signed a two picture deal which first included Roger Rabbit and then The Thief. For Roger Rabbit He won an Academy Award for animation and one for life time achievement. It is also considered a turning point for animation which at the time was fading into obscurity.
He never completed The Thief and the Cobbler, after conflicts with the producers he was removed from the film in 1992. Miramax a Disney held company then acquired rights to it and reworked it completely, and finally released it in 1995 as Arabian Knight. It was completed and released far short of his vision for it. Karen Mazurkewich called this final version “… a brutal rape of William’s vision.” “Envisioned as a film told through moveme3nt and with an economy of language, The Thief and the Cobbler was suddenly a cacophony of noise – narrative jokes and babble.”
After the collapse of the The Thief and the Cobbler project, Richard closed his studio in London and moved to Salt Spring Island off the British Columbia coast. Here he began a new hand animated film based on Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata. His wife Mo, a British film maker, could not realize her ambitions in this remote location and so in 1997 they moved to a village on the west coast of Wales, where he continued with his work on Lysistrata. While there he wrote a book The Animator’s Survival Kit. Published by Faber & Faber in 2002, it was a how to book that became a key reference book for animators.
He and his wife next moved to Bristol where from 2008 he worked as artist in residence at Aardman Animations. In 2010, he completed a nine minute film called Circus Drawings based on the sketches he made of clowns and performers at the local circus while he was living in Ibiza in the 1950’s.
On 10 December 2013, a “director’s cut” of The Thief And The Cobbler, a work print of Richard’s original version including roughs was screened in Los Angeles, but a finished version of the film was never made. However, according to Martin this version has been shown on the internet in a cut that more or less follows Richard’s original vision. The sound track is now the sound track that he recorded. It roughly shows the narrative arc that he envisioned, and it shows the numerous elements of his style.
Finally in 2015, the first six minutes of Lysistrata, the animation he began on Salt Spring Island was shown under the title Prologue. Lysistrata like The Thief And The Cobbler it was never completed.
Richard died in Bristol of cancer 16 August 2019.
Bright Particular Stars. Mosaic Press, 2016: “High Flyer: Richard Williams.” Writ., Martin Hunter. 151-168.
Cartoon Capers. McArthur & Co., 1999: “Richard Williams – The Prophet.” Writ., Karen Mazurkewich: 223-242.
Take One’s Essential Guide To Canadian Film. Ed., Wyndham Wise. University of Toronto Press, 2001: “Williams Richard”: 223.
The World of Animation. Writ., Stephen Cavalier. University of California Press, 2011: 17.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Williams_(animator). Accessed 20 June 2020.