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The artistry of the late Richard Williams, from Roger Rabbit to the Pink Panther

The animator broke new ground in terms of fluid character movement and simulating camerawork.

The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences And The Museum Of Modern Art Co-Present Richard Williams’s The Thief And The Cobbler: A Moment In Time
Animator Richard Williams attends the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screening of The Thief and the Cobbler: A Moment in Time in 2016.
Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Legendary animator Richard Williams died Friday, August 16, 2019, at the age of 86.

He’s probably best known for being the animation director on 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit; that film won him two Oscars, one for Visual Effects and another a Special Achievement Award for the film’s technical innovations. Prior to that, he’d also won the Oscar for animated short film in 1972 for his TV special version of A Christmas Carol, which distills Charles Dickens’s classic to a lushly animated 25 minutes rendered in the style of Victorian engravings, like the ones that illustrated the original novella.

But within animation circles, Williams is famous for his uncompromising vision, his massively influential experiments with faking camera movement within the animated space, and one of the most storied “lost films” ever made.

Fortunately for us, much of his best work is on YouTube, which makes it possible to dissect what made him so special. Here are three videos that will show you what’s so remarkable about Richard Williams. (For another overview of his career, also check out the excellent compendium from the Royal Ocean Film Society.)

1) The Return of the Pink Panther

Williams was well-known to animation connoisseurs before he created the animated titles for 1975’s The Return of the Pink Panther, the fourth film in director Blake Edwards’ long-running series of films about the bumbling Inspector Clouseau.

Chances are, however, that if you hear the words “Pink Panther,” you think first of the neon-hued jungle cat who slunk his way through the opening credits sequences of several Pink Panther movies, to the tune of Henry Mancini’s iconic theme music. (Within the world of the movies, the “Pink Panther” is a giant diamond, but that wouldn’t make for a very fun cartoon.)

The first Pink Panther cartoon arrived in the original 1963 film, but it was directed by classic Looney Toons director Friz Freleng and has the loose and slightly halting rhythm of much of the animation of the period. (A comparable effort from Williams: the opening credits to 1965’s What’s New Pussycat.)

From there, the cartoon cat got his own TV show and slowly but surely came to dominate the public perception of the words “Pink Panther.” But he didn’t appear in the opening credits of future Clouseau films. So when Edwards went back to a story centered on the giant diamond for the 1975 film, it was only natural to bring back the cartoon opening credits as well.

Edwards hired Williams, who, working with his longtime animation collaborator Ken Harris, turned out a stunning tribute to old Hollywood glamour. The panther imitated famous movie stars, rode in a massive pink stretch limo, and attended the premiere of the very film being introduced in an ornate movie theater.

The sequence is fun to watch all on its own, but pay particular attention to how lush the movement is for the panther, especially if you compare it to the 1963 version of the character or — heaven forbid! — the late ’60s TV show version of the character. That’s because Williams, as often as possible, animated every single frame within these sequences, at the time an uncommon and labor-intensive approach.

The standard language of film is built around the idea of 24 frames of footage appearing onscreen per second. Your brain eliminates the gaps between the frames to create the illusion of continuous movement, and in the digital era, some filmmakers are experimenting by adding more and more frames per second. (The little-seen 2014 film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was shot at 120 frames per second.)

Animation follows the same principles of showing you still images so quickly that your brain reads movement into them. But if you’ve ever used a flipbook, you know that you can get away with showing a lot fewer images than 24 per second. So, many animators animate “on twos,” which means they display 12 drawings per second, with each drawing shown twice. Other projects are animated “on threes” (eight drawings per second), “on fours” (six drawings), or even “on sixes” (four). If you’ve ever wondered why so much early TV animation (think anything Hanna-Barbera) feels herky jerky, well ... it was probably animated on fours or on sixes.

Animating “on the ones” using traditional techniques is really expensive, because you’ve increased the number of drawings the animation team has to turn out. That increases their workload, which increases the amount of time the job will take. But it results in stunningly gorgeous animation, which also made Williams the perfect fit for...

2) Who Framed Roger Rabbit

By the time director Robert Zemeckis was assembling the team that would make 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, animating on the ones was increasingly uncommon. It wasn’t unprecedented, but it cost so much money that it was reserved for truly epic productions, like a few of the Disney films of the time.

But it was necessary for a live-action/animated hybrid like Roger Rabbit. Put simply, it would be impossible to create a live-action film where the frames fell “on the twos,” because our brains interpret the movement of real people differently than they interpret movement from drawings. The choppy quality of minimalistic animation starts to kick in really quickly when you’re looking at a live-action film shot at 12 frames per second. (Footage from security cameras often plays at far fewer than 24 frames per second, for instance.)

So to blend animation with live-action essentially required doing animation on the ones. In 2019, any rough spots would be smoothed out via computer, and that was true in 1988, too, but the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit still had to be mostly hand-drawn. The process required painstaking, frame-by-frame creation of the characters who would cross over into the “real” world of the film.

But Who Framed Roger Rabbit presented further challenges for Williams and his team. In particular, moving a physical camera when blending live-action and animation was considered all but impossible at the time. For instance, in this sequence from 1964’s Mary Poppins, where Dick Van Dyke dances with some penguins, the camera moves horizontally, but the perspective remains the same. The penguins stay the same distance from the camera, and the filmmakers don’t have to account for how a moving camera would cause them to grow or recede within the frame.

But Williams had already started playing around with how to fake camera movement within animated spaces in his earlier work. That Christmas Carol short I mentioned earlier is full of perspective shifts and other camera movements. And this 1980 anti-smoking ad he created features drawings that mimic the feeling of a camera pivoting and turning to follow the action as Superman defeats the evil Nick O’Teen (ah, the ’80s).

Williams’s ability to mimic camera movement within an animated space made him the perfect person to work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where he would have to account for a moving camera as well as different levels of light and shadow, the combination of two-dimensional drawings with three-dimensional people, and so much more. It was legitimately groundbreaking work that still leaves me in awe of his talent.

And the finished project finally secured him the funding to make ...

3) The Thief and the Cobbler

If you are an animation fan, The Thief and the Cobbler is the Holy Grail, the long-lost object that should have been and could have been and might have been but never was. Flush off the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Williams convinced Warner Bros. to give him the cash to finish his dream project. He’d been working on it independently since the 1960s, scraping together money here and there to keep pushing forward with the Middle Eastern-influenced fairy tale.

The tragic story of The Thief and the Cobbler has been well covered by others, but the very short summary is that Williams was booted from the film in 1992, after investors lost confidence in his ability to complete the film on time and on budget. A version of the film without Williams’s input, Arabian Night, was released in US theaters in 1995. That version had already been heavily butchered from the version released internationally in 1993, The Princess and the Cobbler. But neither was comparable to Williams’s original vision of the movie. (For one thing, gratuitous musical numbers were added to make the film more Disney-like.)

The internet stepped in to save the day. In the 2000s, filmmaker and Williams fan Garrett Gilchrist began, ahem, cobbling together a version of The Thief and the Cobbler that came closest to Williams’s initial intentions. The so-called Recobbled Cut was first released online in 2006, then again in 2008 and 2013, and it now lives on a dedicated YouTube channel that also collects much of Williams’s work. For his part, Williams participated in pulling together a near-final but not quite complete version of the film called A Moment in Time for preservation by the Motion Picture Academy.

Gilchrist’s assemblage hints at how monumental a finished Thief and the Cobbler might have been. It combines Williams’s jaw-dropping use of simulated camera movement, his love of smooth character animation, and so many other wonderful talents to create one of the great might-have-beens of film history and a tribute to an exacting and demanding animator who kept creating stunning work — all drawn by hand — right up until his twilight years.