Immersed Movies: Richard Williams The Academy

It took the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences 14 years to wrangle Richard Williams, but it was well worth the wait. Last Friday night, Williams enthralled the appreciative audience with a lively and informative masterclass as part of the annual Marc Davis Celebration of Animation series. 

The evening (titled “This Amazing Medium”) served as an autobiographical appraisal of animation — a performance, really — beginning with some of Williams’ biggest influences and highlighted by illustrative clips. Not surprisingly, he was first blown away by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when he was five and he used the dance number to show off the movie’s charm. This was topped by the “fantastic physics” of the whale sequence in Pinocchio, the “hyper-realism” of Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain” segment, the “pure imagination” of Dumbo’s “Pink Elephants on Parade,” and the epiphany of Jungle Book’s encounter between Shere Khan, the menacing tiger, and Kaa, the hypnotic snake.

In fact, Williams recalled groveling at the feet of his hero, Milt Kahl, who shared the secret of animating Khan (his first full sequence) by describing the distribution of weight as though it were an effortless dance. Indeed, dance has played a vital part of Williams’  work under the tutelage of his mentor, Art Babbitt. However, Kahl advised, “You can draw better than me but you can’t animate worth shit!”

As a counter revolution to Disney, Williams explored such “crude and funny” influences as Tex Avery’s King-Size Canary, Chuck Jones’ One Froggy Evening, and John Hubley’s Rooty Toot Toot. For another epiphany, he cited the scene when Buzz Lightyear learns he’s just a toy in Toy Story, which proved that CG could evoke empathy.

But Williams realized that he needed to learn his craft so he drew and painted in the Mediterranean before diving further into animation. He dabbled imaginatively with credit sequences for Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (imitating Turner) and later on for Blake Edwards’ The Return of the Pink Panther (paying homage to Hollywood). But in between Jones gave him a break with the Oscar-winning A Christmas Carol for ABC. Williams’ illustrative grave served him well.

Then came his masterpiece, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which allowed him to rework the Disney icons but from a safe distance in London, and his personal favorite, The Thief and the Cobbler, which notoriously got butchered. Still, the incomplete work print survives, which the Academy will screen in December along with A Christmas Carol.

Speaking of drawings, Williams’ screened the short, Circus Drawings (with music composed by the late Richard Rodney Bennett), which touted his exquisite clowns (capturing the joy behind the melancholy grease paint).

Williams left us with 25 seconds from his latest project, Will I Live to Finish This?, which offered extraordinary graphic realism and a comic book sensibility that’s unlike anything he’s ever done. Here’s hoping the 80-year-old will finish it.

In the meantime, you must check out the “Richard Williams: Master of Animation” exhibition in the Academy’s new Grand Lobby through Dec. 22, which includes clips, drawings, video interviews as a dynamic snapshot of his famous master class.

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