Brow Beat

Who Framed Roger Rabbit Animator Richard Williams Has Died. He Can Still Teach You a Lot About Animation.

Richard Williams onstage during a Q&A.
Animator Richard Williams attending an Academy screening of The Thief and The Cobbler: A Moment In Time. Robin Marchant/Getty Images

Legendary animator Richard Williams, who brought Toontown to life as the director of animation for Robert Zemeckis’ 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, has died at the age of 86, Variety reports. Williams won three Academy Awards and was nominated for a fourth over the span of a half-century-long career that produced not just Roger Rabbit, but a wonderful Christmas Carol adaptation, an Emmy-winning Ziggy TV special, and The Thief and the Cobbler, a thwarted masterpiece whose troubled, decades-long development process ended with DVDs of a butchered cut of the film being given away as a free prize in Canadian boxes of Froot Loops. As an artist, Williams’ work was distinguished by his preternatural sense of three-dimensional space, which allowed him to achieve swooping camera movements without the use of computers. A small sampling of his prodigious gifts can be seen in the trailer for filmmaker Garrett Gilchrist’s unofficial reconstruction and restoration of The Thief and the Cobbler:

But although Williams left behind an impressive body of work, his greatest achievements in his field may have been as a student and a teacher. More than most artists, he was obsessive about mastering his craft, transparent about his learning process, and unbelievably generous about passing everything he’d learned on to others. His love of animation—and his delight at mastering new tricks and techniques—is visible in every frame of this trailer for Prologue, an Academy-Award-nominated combination short film and prospectus for a feature that he joked had the working title Will I Live to Finish This:

Williams is the thread that connects Golden Age animation with the present day: He aggressively sought out early animators and learned everything he could from them, hiring them whenever possible, even if he had to coax them out of retirement, as he did with Ken Harris, a Chuck Jones disciple who contributed to The Thief and the Cobbler. In 1973, he shut down his animation studio for a full month, so that legendary Disney animator Art Babbitt could give his employees a crash course in technique; later hires included Emery Hawkins and Grim Natwick. At a 2013 Academy event, he remembered what he’d learned from Milt Kahl:

But you don’t have to have been one of Richard Williams’ employees to benefit from his knowledge. In 2001, he published The Animator’s Survival Kit, a comprehensive guide to animation based on a series of master classes he was giving at the time. Later released as a 16-DVD box set including animated examples and footage of Williams teaching, and then released again as an app, The Animator’s Survival Kit is both a critical reference for anyone working in the field and an engaging guide to technique that will deepen a layperson’s understanding and enjoyment of the art. Here, for instance, is a clip that succinctly explains why animators work backwards from the timing of an action, not the action itself:

And in this clip, you can see how Williams’ encyclopedic knowledge of animation’s history and craft lets him quickly sketch out a subtle difference in the house styles at Disney and Warner Bros. and demonstrate how those styles were practically achieved:

With Williams’ death, one of the last remaining links between animation’s past and its future has been lost. But in a very real sense, Williams is animation’s future, because the generation currently making animated films, TV shows, video games, and “live-action” remakes learned their craft from him. There’s no better legacy.