Richard Williams: The Artistic Animator’s Vision 

by Dr Carolyn Rickards, Research Associate.

A review in Kinematograph Weekly from early 1959 heralded the release of a new British animated film: ‘three little men go to an island – their names are Truth, Good and Beauty.  They argue, the film enters the realm of the fantastic as they try to impress each other. There is a solution to their problems but the film reaches no conclusions. The animation is brilliant. Most unusual filler’.[i]  This ‘unusual’ short film was called The Little Island (Rank) and was created and produced by Canadian animator Richard Williams.  With a running time of around 30 minutes, it was considered a ‘technical triumph’ with a ‘compulsion which is quite new in the cartoon field’.[ii]  The film evokes early Disney with silent narration and musical score (conducted by the Sinfonia of London Orchestra).  However, it is much more surreal with philosophical undertones and striking colours captured on camera using the Eastmancolor process.  The film descends into frequent psychedelic swirls of colour and abstract images moving at a pace across the screen.  And this was before the Sixties even began to swing…

The Little Island would go on to win a BAFTA for Best Animated Film 1958. Williams’s career was beginning to take off and he remained in the UK and set up his own animation studio.  He continued to work on TV commercials and the occasional personal project ‘living off milk and fish and chips’[iii] until a fortuitous encounter with directors Tony Richardson and Clive Donner at a film festival in Copenhagen.  This connection propelled his career into the British film industry.  He subsequently worked on credit sequences for sixties films such as What’s New Pussycat? (1965), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) and Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968).  The latter involved more sustained work through the inclusion of surreal and colourful indents, used to project the daydreams of a teenage boy (played by Barry Evans) as he pursues a bevy of glamorous women around the not so glamorous milieu of Stevenage town centre.   Fantasy sequences merge with the live action footage and provide a kaleidoscopic effect on screen washed in vibrant colours.

Perhaps one of Williams’s best-known works from this period was the animated credit and ‘link’ sequences featured in Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1967).  The animation was designed to provide a synopsis of the historical context surrounding the events leading up to the calamitous event which took place between British and Russian forces at the Battle of Balaclava in October 1854.  Short animated segments were interspersed throughout the film to give a satirical view of the politics behind the Crimean campaign.  Williams and his team worked on the design for two years and were adding images right up to the last day before the premiere, finishing the project ‘just in the nick of time’.[iv]  The final result – a sublime cross between a Punch cartoon and a Monty Python sketch – remains a visually arresting addition to The Charge of the Light Brigade; a film which also showcases the wider, creative transformations taking place in British cinema during this period.

Thanks to the powers of the internet, we can now watch the entire animated reel online which runs for around ten minutes and provides a wonderful tribute to his work on the film:

Williams’s achievement with The Charge of the Light Brigade brought critical accolade and industry interest.  He went on to direct the Academy Award-winning A Christmas Carol (1971), a subdued and evocative animated TV adaptation of the classic novel by Charles Dickens with Alastair Sim reprising his role (this time in voiceover) as Ebenezer Scrooge.  Williams’s career spans the timeline of our project and covers the transition from film to digital.  Initially sceptical of computer graphics, insisting that they could not capture the complete range of human movement and emotion, he later claimed:

what’s the difference between rushing a test in to the cameraman at the end of the day when he’s trying to get home, and hanging around the next day till the lab delivers the print, and mid-morning interrupting the editor who’s busy cutting in the main shots, and then finally see your test – when we can use today’s video and get a test in ten minutes? […] I actually think the video and computer have saved animation!.[v]

By this time, Williams had secured a lasting legacy by creating the animated graphics for Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).  However, his magnum opus was an animated fantasy film titled The Thief and the Cobbler which never quite materialised despite working on the project for over thirty years and employing exceptional talent including Ken Harris, one of the original animators for Warner Bros., and Joe Ranft who would later become a creative juggernaut at Pixar.  The film went through various stages of production and sequences were later cut and released in films such as The Princess and the Cobbler (1993) and Arabian Knight (1995) but it became a tortuous holy grail for Williams.  The completed fragments give us an intriguing insight into the ultimate perfectionism of the director’s vision.

Thief 1

For our project, his output proves testament to the broader changes taking place in British film production from the late 1950s to mid-1980s.  The impact of transitions in colour stock on the capture of animation both before and after the rise of digital processes presents a fascinating subject, and Williams’s extensive work in this field traverses the decades of our research across the intermedial spaces of advertising, television and film.  It remains to be seen what other animated jewels emerge.

Works Cited 

[ii] Anon., Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol 26, Issue 300, 1959, p.22

David Robinson, ‘Acting with Brushes and Paint’, Sight and Sound, 42: 3, Summer 1973, p.151

[i] Josh Billings, Kinematograph Weekly, Vol 501, Issue 2682, 08/01/1959

Mark Connelly, The Charge of the Light Brigade (London: I.B Tauris, 2002)

Richard Williams, ‘The Creative Person’ (1967)

[iii] [iv] Richard Williams, ‘The Thief Who Never Gave Up’ (1980)

[v] Richard Williams, The Animator’s Survival Kit (London: Faber and Faber, 2001)

Tony Richardson, Long Distance Runner: A Memoir (London: Faber and Faber, 1993)


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