From ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ to ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’: The Genius of Animator Richard Williams
Over the weekend, the legendary animator Richard Williams died at the age of 86. The three-time Oscar winner had a career that spanned 80 years and is widely credited as one of the great pioneers of the medium of animation. You’ve probably seen some of his work and not even known it was his, from the opening titles of The Pink Panther Strikes Again and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to the childhood favorite Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure. His book, The Animator’s Survival Kit, is considered a must-read for anyone looking to get into the industry. Of course, there are two projects he remains best known for, in both the best and worst ways possible. He’s the man who revolutionized the blending of live-action and animation and helped to pioneer a new age of cinematic technology, but he’s also the artist whose magnum opus was ripped away from him by ruthless Hollywood executives who wanted commerce over creativity.
First, let’s start with the positives. Thirty-one years ago saw the release of Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The director would become borderline infamous for his obsession with boundary-pushing technology on film, but this is the best example of innovation meeting substance for Zemeckis. The noir pastiche tale of a hard-boiled detective investigating a murder in Toon Town is a pitch-perfect genre blend that, to this day, is aesthetically seamless. After over three decades, this film should not still look as amazing as it does. The characters manage to move through a live-action world with such grace, simultaneously flat yet developed enough to move in a three-dimensional manner (Zemeckis’s insistence of using a moving camera rather than a locked-in one necessitated this approach and also sent the budget skyrocketing). Williams’s animation often moves life live-action, as if there is always an extremely agile cameraman moving through the non-existent frame for the best angle. It proved to be the perfect match for what Zemeckis was trying to achieve. The combined effect ensures that it never feels like Bob Hoskins is yelling at a mere drawing. He’s interacting with a fully fleshed-out character, one of an extensive ensemble in a wholly believable world.
Williams made no secret of the fact that he was ‘openly disdainful to the Disney bureaucracy’ during production and refused to work in Los Angeles. Disney was remarkably accommodating and let him work from England, and the studio, along with Spielberg made a promise: Do this job and they would help to distribute the movie he’d been working on for decades. And so Williams agreed, all in the name of The Thief and the Cobbler. If you’re an animation geek, the story of this film is one of the most tragic elements in the history of the medium. It was supposed to be the movie that elevated the art form to new and previously unreachable heights. This was a fiercely independent piece of work that took its inspiration from Charlie Chaplin, Middle Eastern art, fairy-tales, and psychedelia. And today, the handful of casual viewers who saw it probably think of it only as ‘that rip-off of Disney’s Aladdin.’ Ouch.
Williams started production of the first iteration of The Thief and the Cobbler all the way back in 1964. The story went through numerous rewrites, character designs changed regularly, as did the title. He would begin describing the movie as a ‘100 minute Panavision animated epic feature film with a hand-drawn cast of thousands.’ That was no mean feat given that the typical Disney movie was around 90 minutes and the studio was prone to recycling animation. He even managed to get Vincent Price to record dialogue for the part of the villain. Williams wanted to do nothing less ambitious than ‘make the best-animated film that has ever been made — there really is no reason why not.’
That ambition shows in his approach to the animation. The fluidity of Williams’s work, especially character movement, is the result of a painstaking level of attention to detail and refusal to cut costs. Typically, animation works by the process known as ‘shooting on twos’, which means one drawing is shown for every two frames of film. So, for 24 frames of film to equal one second of footage, there are 12 drawings used. It’s a typical cost-cutting measure and one that can be divided up or multiplied to fit one’s needs and budget. If you’ve ever seen a cheap cartoon where the characters barely move, they’re probably shooting on threes or fours. Williams preferred to shoot on ones, meaning one drawing per frame for near seamless movement. That’s ambitious enough when applied solely to characters, but Williams’s settings and backgrounds were equally lavish in their style and direction.
Williams wanted to push the boundaries of what hand-drawn animation could do, including creating characters that moved in three dimensions without the assistance of CGI. It’s one of the reasons Roger Rabbit has aged so remarkably well, thanks to the 2 1/2 dimensional approach to the way the animated ensemble move. The flatness and rich detail of the setting, complete with the occasional optical illusion, is truly stunning to behold.
After the success of Roger Rabbit, Williams won two Oscars for his work and was ready to return to The Thief and the Cobbler. Disney and Spielberg reneged on their offer to help with distribution, but Warner Bros. stepped in and negotiated a deal. They also signed a deal with The Completion Bond Company to ensure the studio would be guaranteed a finished film, whether Williams was at the helm or not. This put Williams under the pressure of a schedule that he’d never dealt with before for The Thief and the Cobbler. Animators often worked 60 hour weeks and Williams would quickly fire anyone who didn’t meet his lofty standards. The 1991 deadline came and went, and then suddenly there was this movie called Aladdin that bore often striking resemblances to Williams’s movie.
The Completion Bond Company assessed the situation and found that Williams was over budget, behind schedule, and not sticking to the script. Eventually, in May 1922, Williams showed a rough version of the film to Warner Bros., and they were not pleased. They backed out and The Completion Bond Company took over, kicking out Williams in the process. They took 18 months to complete their own version that turned the story into a full-blown Disney-esque musical, with noticeably cheaper animation filling in the gaps. This version was South Africa and in Australia as The Princess and the Cobbler on 23 September 1993.
Of course, with all stories of Hollywood crookery and ineptitude this dense, Harvey Weinstein has to show up somewhere. In December 1994, Miramax, which at the time was a subsidiary of Disney, bought the distribution rights to the movie. They had originally planning to release the Princess and the Cobbler version, but not before recutting the film, even more, adding new dialogue and songs, as well as a starry voice-cast to seriously dumb down the narrative. This cut of the film, which was renamed to Arabian Knight, made just under $320,000 domestically and received mostly bad reviews. It was criticized for being a blatant copy of Aladdin, mostly because it was, even though the animation had been in production for decades prior to that film even existing.
For many years, The Thief and the Cobbler was mostly known as a curiosity that influenced a lot of animators. Various restoration attempts were made over the years. Filmmaker and Williams fan Garrett Gilchrist eventually helped to create ‘the recobbled cut’ of the film, combining storyboards, unfinished animation, and footage from several sources in an attempt to create as close to Williams’s original vision as he could. You can watch it on YouTube now!
At a time when Disney, still the leaders of animation in America, seem to be leaning further into realism, it’s worth preserving what Richard Williams did and how he strove for something beyond those limitations. When even the Toy Story movies are leaning harder into looking like the real world — oh my god that cat! — the work of Richard Williams, finished and unfinished, reminds us that it’s worth taking advantage of the things animation can do where live-action can’t. Why make photo-realistic lions when you can do so much more?
And now, to end things, please enjoy Prologue, the final short Williams made. Yes, he drew every frame himself. Wow.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.