Art History – Richard Williams Essay

Richard Williams

Richard Williams was born on March 19th, 1933 in Toronto, Canada. As an artist, his mother constantly encouraged Richard to draw. He immediately wanted to pursue a career in animation, a passion that early in his life led to a trip to the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California. There, he met Mr. Disney himself, as well as another leading animator who took the time to explain what the boy would need to do in order to work for the studio one day. (Williams 45) However, speaking with the pair only led Richard to develop a distaste for animation, and soon after he decided that the fine-art scene was what he should work towards instead. (Matthew 1) 

Other factors that contributed to his early falling out with animation was his love of the works of Rembrandt and a disdain for the nature of Hollywood film culture. (Williams 46) However, Richard had been a professional artist for only four years before rediscovering animation. While living in London during the late 50’s, he financed and produced his first major animated film, ‘The Little Island.’ As with most of the work Richard would create in his life, ‘The Little Island’ is a thoughtful and stylized piece of art. It depicts three men with the individual ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness. However, when radicalized, these pure concepts become much more sinister. Visually, the film makes use of sharp, clean edged lines with very few gradients or shadows, and it is filled with surrealistic patterns that help to convey the strange and exotic perils that face the protagonists. The story is told through a silent narrative which opens it’s meaning to interpretation, and there is a recurring theme of symmetry in the piece, in which circumstances that effect one character move on to affect another in sequence. The film’s quality was enough to earn Richard a BAFTA in 1958, but commercial success eluded him. (Matthew 1)

At this point, Richard decided to open an animation studio of his own, appropriately titled, ‘The Richard Williams Animation Studio,’ where he produced a variety of highly successful commercials as well as sequences for multiple films, including the opening credits of Casino Royale. Many notable animators found themselves working here, including Art Babbitt (the creator of Goofy), Ken Harris (a legendary ‘Looney Tunes’ animator), Emery Hawkins (the co-creator of Woody Woodpecker), Milt Kahl (a lead animator on ‘The Jungle Book’), and Grim Natwick (the creator of Betty Boop). (Williams 134) On many occasions, Richard has stated that even though these were his employees, he treated them as teachers first. Oftentimes, he would stop production on animation for months at a time for the sole purpose of allowing Ken Harris or Art Babbitt to explain their techniques. Due to the legendary nature of his employees, Richard would feel as though he was walking on the shoulders of giants, but by being able to constantly work with some of the greatest animators in the world, he rapidly developed his skills, and soon set his sights on creating full-length feature films. (Nicholas 1)

The best-known film of which Richard William worked on was the 1988 feature, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ Here, Richard was assigned as the lead animation director, while at the same time he provided his hand to animating the opening sequence himself. His contemporaries, including industry giants such as Stephen Spielberg, noted Richard’s ability to work like an animation ‘chameleon’ of sorts, being able to handle multiple roles with a high level of proficiency. The film serves as homage to the American animation industry of the 1930’s, but much of the challenge came from mixing together traditional hand-drawn animation with live action. Considering the style of animation, it has a genuine ‘cartoony’ feel, in which characters can be stretched and distorted to no limit, which gave him the ability to draw without restraints. As a whole, the film raised the bar for perceptions of just what animation could do, and it is believed to have single-handedly jumpstarted an ‘Animation Renaissance’, which would last throughout the 90’s. Commercially, it was a massive success, and Richard received a pair of Academy Awards for his efforts as well. (Matthew 1)

At this point, Richard Williams was thrust into the forefront of Hollywood animation, which to him seemed like the perfect opportunity to get his passion project, ‘The Thief and the Cobbler,’ into development. Since the mid 1960’s, he has dreamt of creating this with the intention being a magnum-opus level of quality. However, he was never able to secure funding until this point, through Warner Brothers Pictures. It was intended to be a film inspired by Sufi folktales and styled on a series of Nasrudin stories, translated by Idries Shah and illustrated by Richard himself. (Nicholas 1) The level of detail in the film is for the most part without equal, hosting some of the most beautiful animation ever created at an incredible 24 frames per second, twice the industry standard. As was the case with ‘The Little Island’, ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’ is highly stylized, and carries very little dialogue. Unfortunately, high quality film takes a long time to produce, and Warner Brothers began to worry that the film would rapidly become incredibly expensive. To make matters worse, Disney had just announced production on the similarly themed ‘Aladdin’, which some have speculated stole designs from ‘The Thief.’

Very low on both cash and time, Warner Brothers withdrew from the project, and Richard was removed from his own film to be replaced by Fred Calvert. Calvert’s version of the film, titled ‘The Princess and the Cobbler,’ was released in only Africa and Australia, and generally butchered Richard’s vision. (Nicholas 1) However, this was not nearly as bad as the version created by Miramax for the United States and Canada a few years later. In order to ride the success of Aladdin, Miramax added multiple musical numbers, much more dialogue, and worst of all, pop culture references. This version, titled ‘Arabian Knight,’ was a massive flop on all accounts. (Matthew 1) To this day, Richard has yet to see either rendition of his vision.

Although he still had plenty of connections in the international film industry, Richard Williams decided to take up residence on an island off the coast of Vancouver from which he wrote the aptly named, ‘Animator’s Survival Kit.’ (Cavalier 92) Published in 2001, this book quickly became an animation bible of sorts, and is widely viewed as the quintessential reference for students learning the art. When writing the book, Williams drew from his many experiences learning from past legends of animation. The ‘survival kit’ was an instant bestseller, and has since been released as a DVD set, as well as an iPad application. (Nicholas 1)

Today, Richard is working on his true Magnum Opus. Having remembered the disaster that became of ‘The Thief and the Cobbler,’ (which has recently had another release that was very true to the original vision), he has decided to split the film into multiple shorts, the first of which is called ‘Prologue’. According to Williams, this is because in the event that he should pass away soon, he would like to be sure that there is a finished product. The first part is about a conflict between Spartan and Athenian soldiers, however, only a trailer for ‘Prologue’ yet exists. Despite this, it is already clear that Richard is dedicated to creating a magnificent work of art. Every frame is incredibly detailed and shaded as no other animated film has been before. The film is slightly surrealistic as well, due to the ghostlike impression given by the character’s motions. With luck, Richard Williams will be able to work on this film for years to come, and in doing so continue to inspire multiple generations of animators.


Wroe, Nicholas. Richard Williams: The Master Animator. 19 Apr. 2013. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, Web. 5 Oct. 2015.

Dessem, Matthew. Animation’s Lost Masterpiece. n.d. The Dissolve. Pitchfork Media Inc., Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Williams, Richard. The Animator’s Survival Kit. London: Faber, 2001. Print.

Cavalier, Stephen. The World History of Animation. Berkeley, CA: U of California, 2011. Print.


“Richard Williams.” Onehugeeye. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

“The Little Island.” (Western Animation). N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

“Who Framed Roger Rabbit Blu-ray.” N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

“The (Possibly) Great Unfinished Films.” Febriblog. N.p., 01 Sept. 2010. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

“Animation Blog: Tom Sito Reviews Richard Williams’ Prologue.” Animation Blog: Tom Sito Reviews Richard Williams’ Prologue. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Richard Williams

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