He was the encapsulation of the idea that life is a marathon, not a sprint. The documentary posted below from 1967 shows Williams as a successful 34-year-old commmercial filmmaker. By this point in his career, he’d won a BAFTA and he was running a successful commercial studio in London. For many, this would be a sign of having made it. But as Williams often reflected about this era in his journey, he really felt that he knew nothing about animation; he was just getting started.
For Williams, learning was not something that you did in your teens and twenties, and then started a career — it was a lifelong mission. It’s a journey that most don’t have the physical or mental wherewithal to pursue for as long as he did, and it’s both inspiring and intimidating to see someone who has accomplished so much before the age of 35, but whose work still doesn’t even approach what he would accomplish in the second half of his life.
I asked him a few years ago how he retained his skill level into his ninth decade. He attributed it to his continued study of life drawing. “It’s the hardest thing you can do,” he told me. “When you get out of it for six months and you go back in, you realize you’re a bum. That’s why people don’t go back to it. They say, ‘Oh, I did that in art school. We don’t do that anymore.’ And then you get stuck with cartoons.”
There are so many seminal accomplishments to write about from Williams’s career, but for my money, the most important one in terms of industry impact was his work as animation director of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In today’s world, where almost every major film is a vfx spectacle or fully-animated film, it’s difficult to communicate how different the film landscape was in 1988 or what the phenomenal success of Roger Rabbit meant for animation. It was the film that put the wind into animation’s sails and swept us into this modern animation/vfx-driven era — its massive-for-the-time $350 million-plus worldwide gross awakened Hollywood to the idea that general audiences would accept animation in film if the storytelling was intelligent.
But Roger Rabbit very easily could have been a disaster in the hands of another animation director. The integration between animation and live action was more complex than anything that had ever been attempted up to that time, and pulling it off would require a caliber of skill that was uncommon in the late 1980s. Williams was one of, if not the only, animation director of the era who was capable of pulling off something as crazy and ambitious as what the film demanded, and his accomplishment did not go unnoticed. He not only shared the Academy Award for visual effects with other vfx artists, but won an additional special achievement Oscar for his animation direction.
Last year, when I moderated a talk with Williams at Annecy, I said something to the audience that I’ll repeat here: Williams is the only contemporary animator who, in my opinion, has built on the legacy of the classical Disney approach to character animation and added to what animators like Grim Natwick, Art Babbitt, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Bill Tytla, Milt Kahl, and Marc Davis did a generation before him. He knew all of them, and worked with some of them closely. But he did not merely copy their principles. He expanded on their pioneering work, and evolved the art form to ever greater heights. His last short film, Prologue, released in 2015, is a graphic masterpiece that pushes his technical mastery further than he’d ever done before. As he told me back in 2015, “I’ve only just gotten to the point where I could marry my draftsmanship to the animation knowledge. It’s always been a battle for me.”
In fact, this may be Williams’ greatest legacy: setting a technical standard for the craft of hand-drawn animation. We know what’s possible and how we can build upon it in large part due to Williams’s single-handed dedication to pushing the craft’s limits and extending its boundaries.
What is equally remarkable about his career is that he set new standards regardless of what he was making. Artists tend to compartmentalize their work: This is a commercial job and I will only do what’s necessary to deliver on time and on budget; this is a personal project and I will make it beautiful. Not so with Williams. His standard always was excellence, regardless of whether he was producing a commercial, a tv special, a movie title, or an animated feature. There is never the feeling with his work that something was just a job or that it didn’t matter. It’s a remarkable ideal to uphold – to treat every piece of animation with the same dedication and commitment to craft. How do you do that for 60 years without burning out? I simply can’t imagine.
But here’s the trait that set apart Williams from other greats: his generosity. He was not selfish about what he had learned, nor did he believe that he was the chosen one or that only he could create this type of work. He wanted everyone around him to aspire to an exemplary level of craft. During his company’s heyday in London, his outfit was as much school as it was production studio. He invited countless animation greats to conduct workshops at his studio, and to work alongside and inspire the new generation of artists. After he closed his studio, he doubled down on his educational efforts, teaching masterclasses all over the world. Later, he compiled that knowledge into The Animator’s Survival Kit (2001), which in less than twenty years, has become an iconic reference book for anyone who aspires to create this standard of animation.
One of the great honors of my life was having the opportunity to moderate a talk with Williams last year at the Annecy animation festival. Here’s someone who had been at the very earliest editions of the festival, and yet he seemed as genuinely excited and energized to be at Annecy in 2018 as he probably was some fifty-some-odd years earlier. The night before our public talk, we had a three-hour dinner, and with a twinkle in his eye, he told stories that I’d never heard before. He knew that I was writing a book on Ward Kimball, and it was a surprise to me that he was just as enthused about hearing new tales about Kimball as he was talking about his own experiences. With Williams, one has the sense that animation was never really a career or job, it was a way of life, a religion, and until the end, he could never get enough of it.
There is so much more to say about his work and life. For now, let’s share some of the thoughts of the animation and film community who have been flooding social media with their tributes to Williams: