Richard Williams, an Oscar-winning animator who seemed to imbue his ink and pencil creations with real flesh and fur, no more so than in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, an eye-popping merger of live action and animation, died on August 16 at his home in Bristol, England. He was 86, and still working seven-hour days with a 2B or 3B pencil in hand.
The cause was cancer, said his daughter Natasha Sutton Williams.
An illustrator's son, Williams was raised in Canada and spent most of his career in London, where he specialised in the lavish hand-drawn animation style made famous by Walt Disney Studios, which he visited at age 15 after making a five-day bus trip from Toronto.
Williams purportedly slipped out of a tour group and made his way onto the lot, where he asked animators about their craft before getting booted by security. "Learn to draw," one animator told him — advice he took to heart, later decamping to the Spanish island of Ibiza to spend two years sketching circus performers and honing his skills as a painter.
"I'm in the same business as Goya and Rembrandt," he later said. "I may be rotten at it with nothing of the same quality and talent, but that's my business."
Williams went on to serve as a bridge between hand-drawn animation at Disney or Warner Bros. and the digital revolution wrought by studios such as Pixar — where animators reportedly attended his master-class workshops in the mid-1990s, seeking insight into his methods and technique.
On Twitter, Oscar-nominated animator Don Hertzfeldt called him "our Michelangelo". In an email, Hertzfeldt explained that Williams "was a master of space and movement whose technical abilities were simply unparalleled in modern hand-drawn animation".
At his production company in England, Williams hired Disney veterans such as Milt Kahl (Pinocchio), Art Babbitt (who developed the character Goofy) and Grim Natwick (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), as well as Warner Bros. animator Ken Harris, the model for Wile E. Coyote. He animated roughly 2500 commercials — "from cereal to babies' diapers to Shell oil," his daughter said — while also juggling film commissions and his own artistic work.
Early on, he was enlisted to design animated title sequences or special effects for movies including What's New Pussycat? (1965), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), Casino Royale (1967), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976).
For The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), director Tony Richardson's dramatisation of a Crimean War blunder by the British army, Williams designed interpolative animated sequences modelled after satirical Victorian cartoons. "It's too bad Richardson didn't leave the Charge itself to Williams," wrote New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.
Williams won his first Oscar for A Christmas Carol (1971), a Charles Dickens adaptation that aired on ABC before moving to theatres, and shared an Emmy with two producers for Ziggy's Gift (1982), a Christmas short featuring the bulbous comic strip character created by Tom Wilson.
But it was Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) that secured his reputation for artistic brilliance and technical innovation. Directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Bob Hoskins as a Los Angeles detective, the film featured live action and cartoon characters side by side, marrying hard-boiled detective fiction with Looney Tunes-style animation.
The film was a dramatic departure from animation milestones such as Mary Poppins (1964) and Anchors Aweigh (1945), in which Gene Kelly dances with Jerry the cartoon mouse, said animation historian Charles Solomon. "Roger Rabbit," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "displays the most inventive, effective integration of animation and live action ever attempted," with shadows cast by animated characters who prance across the set amid camera pans and zooms.
Williams, who served as director of animation, oversaw a team of at least 340 people, including two of his children, and created characters including Roger Rabbit and his voluptuous (and human) wife, Jessica, who Williams said was inspired by 1940s film stars Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall.
Created in collaboration between Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and Disney's Touchstone Pictures, the film was a critical and commercial hit. Williams shared the Oscar for best visual effects with Ken Ralston, Ed Jones and George Gibbs, and also received a special achievement Oscar for his animation direction.
He later recalled that while accepting the awards, he was thinking mainly of his next project — The Thief and the Cobbler, loosely inspired by Persian miniatures and One Thousand and One Nights, which he began in the mid-1960s and had long promised would be "more fully animated than any animated movie ever".
For years, the movie appeared to be his version of Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune or Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, films that languished in development limbo for years amid creative and financial difficulties. But Williams and his studio reportedly received $14 million from Warner Bros. after the release of Roger Rabbit and seemed poised to complete the film around the time Disney released Aladdin.
Instead, Williams was forced to close his studio and lay off his staff in 1992, when a completion bond firm took control of the movie after it fell over budget and behind schedule. A heavily edited version was released by Miramax in 1995 under the name Arabian Knight, although Williams said he never saw it.
"There are incredible sequences in The Thief and the Cobbler that are actually difficult for me to watch, because as an animator it pains me deeply to know how many years of foresight, expertise, sacrifice, and raw work must have been required," said Hertzfeldt. "And it all flies by in seconds. Yet on the screen there was never any trace of struggle or compromise . . . only grace and flawlessness. I don't know how he did it."
Richard Edmund Williams was born in Toronto on March 19, 1933. His parents divorced when he was young; his mother was a commercial artist, and his stepfather organised business deals at the firm where she worked.
"When I was 5 I saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and my mother said it poleaxed me," Williams told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1998. But his interest in animation waned as a student at the Ontario College of Art (now the Ontario College of Art and Design University), where he burst into tears while visiting a Rembrandt exhibition. "This was the real thing," he recalled saying.
He travelled to Spain and then on to London, where he shuffled between animation studios and developed what became his first film, The Little Island (1958), an allegory about three men — Truth, Beauty and Good — who clash on a desert island. It won a BAFTA for best animated film.
His other movies included Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977), which he directed on commission and later regretted. "The lesson I learned was the Golden Rule," he said. "Whoever has the gold makes the rules."
Williams's marriages to Lois Catherine Steuart and Margaret French ended in divorce. In 1990, he married producer and director Imogen Sutton. They collaborated on animation workshops that were later adapted into a manual, The Animator's Survival Kit (2001), as well as a 16-volume DVD set and iPad app.
In addition to his wife, survivors include two children from his first marriage, Alex Williams and Claire Williams; two from his second, Timothy Williams and Holly Williams; two from his third, Natasha Sutton Williams and Leif Sutton Williams; a brother; and seven grandchildren.
With his wife, Williams shared an Oscar nomination for his last film, Prologue (2015). The animated short was intended as the first installment of a feature-length adaptation of the Aristophanes play Lysistrata, in which women withhold sex in an attempt to end the Peloponnesian War.
In interviews, he often joked that the working title was Will I Live Long Enough to Finish It? "My older friends are all dead," he told the Globe and Mail in 2002. "It's the doing of it that matters. Like [Robert] Altman, who didn't get paid a cent for Gosford Park and got nothing at the back end. And I thought, he knows, he knows. Do it for the love of it; that's all there is."