Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Richard Williams Tribute at the Motion Picture Academy - Tom Sito reports

Richard Williams, Eric Goldberg and a Rabbit
Last night the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences paid tribute to animator, artist and director Richard Williams. For the benefit of everyone who couldn't be in LA or weren't lucky enough to get tickets, Tom Sito brings us the story and the pictures.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) had been called in his time “ The Holy Old Man Crazy about Drawing.” You could also describe Richard Williams as “ The Holy Old Man Crazy About Animation”. His passion for the medium was evident last night at the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences Marc Davis lecture he gave, which he entitled This Amazing Medium.

Tom Sito and Leonard Maltin
All of Hollywood animation came out to celebrate the Wizard of Soho Square, including animators like Eric Goldberg and Andreas Deja, Directors John Musker (Little Mermaid), and Roger Allers (The Lion King), Chris Landreth, Chris Cassidy, historians like Leonard Maltin, Charles Solomon and Jerry Beck, and legendary voice actors June Foray, Stan Freeberg and Charlie Fleischer. Many of us, his former animators and employees, were on hand to celebrate our old leader.

Dick Williams was one of the central figures responsible for saving animation when it was in danger of dying out. In the 1970s, when Disney Animation was down to 120 old artists who played golf half the day, and most animation was relegated to the Saturday morning ghetto. Art Babbitt then lamented “Animation is fifty years behind where it should be.” Dick Williams created an oasis of quality on Soho Square in London.

From right: Richard Williams, Dick Purdum, Art Babbitt, Grim Natwick, Ken Harris and another at 13 Soho Square
Like the monastery in The Name of the Rose, Dick Williams was determined to preserve the lessons of the past for future generations. He often operated his studio at a loss, because he kept striving for a higher quality than his clients expected. In so doing, he generated the London Animation Renaissance of the 1970s and 80s, which in part spawned the Hollywood Animation Renaissance of the 1990s.

It’s kind of inaccurate to describe Dick Williams as “old”, because despite his 80 calendar years, on stage his enthusiasm brings out the wide-eyed boy that took a Greyhound Bus to LA in the 1950s to meet his idols, the great Disney animators. Dick held the audience enthralled for almost three hours as he spun tales of his encounters with famous animators like Ken Harris and Milt Kahl, and filmmakers like Sidney Lumet and Blake Edwards.
Charlotte Mildenberger and Miriam McDonnell
He described his passion not so much for filmmaking or storytelling as for the perfection of the Art of Animation. What Milt Kahl described as performance. How he strove for animation perfection under the tutelage of past masters like Chuck Jones, Art Babbitt, Grim Natwick and Ken Harris.

Witty, self effacing and concise, Dick ran clips of past animation that inspired him, like Tytla’s Night on Bald Mountain and Kahl’s Shere Kahn, as well as clips from his own career like Christmas Carol (1972) and Who Framed Roger Rabbitt (1988). A highlight was the first LA screenings of his newest work like Circus Sketches (2010). I didn’t get too much time to speak with Dick, as he was mobbed from the moment he arrived. Last I saw him after the show, he was engulfed by enthusiastic fans.
The Academy on Friday night. In the centre is Claire Williams
I have always credited Richard Williams as a catalyst in my own career. If it wasn’t for my time with Dick, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It gave me great satisfaction bringing a number of my students to witness Dick and be touched by his fire. Their excitement of what they experienced took me back to being a young skinny trainee at Dick’s Studio in 1976.

Love of animation begins with a fire in the belly. It’s hard to describe. It’s just something you want to do. To bring characters to life. What historian Barbara Tuchman once described as “ a moment on Olympus”. No one exemplifies more what the passion to animate is like than Richard Williams. The exhibit of Richard Williams artwork will be up for a month at the Academy Gallery, and there is talk of a restored print of Christmas Carol to be screened this December.

Bravo Dick. This was a tribute long overdue.

Tom Sito is an animator, Professor of Animation at USC and historian. His books include
Drawing the Line, and Moving Innovation, a History of Computer Animation, which you can also read about at FLIP.

You can also see some highlights from the lecture at the Academy official website.


  1. I wish I could have been there. Mazzles to Dick Williams!
    Jeanne Markel

  2. wasn't this the Marc Davis Lecture? Surprised you didn't mention the.

  3. Wasn't this the Marc Davis Lecture. Interesting that it wasn't mentioned.

    1. It was only mentioned in the first paragraph. Otherwise, yes, it was a conspiracy against Marc Davis.

  4. Echoing Tom's sentiments,if Dick would leave nothing else, looking around the room, he has mentored,employed and inspired generations of animation professionals.And he is still full of the energy and the excitement that made us work long,loooong hours-happily.I mostly felt a sense of gratitude for my life could have turned out very differently were it not for dick who gave someone with little experience a chance!