Richard Williams may not be a name that many are familiar with, but he’s someone whose work has been seen by millions and whose influence is strongly felt throughout the world of animation. Williams’ first film was the 1958 short The Little Island, which he wrote, produced, directed and, of course, animated by hand. The Little Island netted Williams a BAFTA for Best Animated Short and throughout the sixties and seventies he continued to work as animator, contributing title animations to a number of feature films. He also made a TV movie version of The Christmas Carol that was ultimately released theatrically and won Williams his first Oscar.
In the midst of all of this, he was also hard at work on a feature film, which he later titled The Thief and the Cobbler. Williams would eventually sadly lose the rights this film, following a painful situation that led to a number of versions of it being released. (If you haven’t seen this animated marvel, I would recommend tracking down the unofficial ‘Recobbled Cut’, which most likely provides the closest possible look at what Williams was working towards.)
This challenging chapter in Williams’ life, following his loss of the rights to The Thief, would come after what was arguably his most famous work, though: Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The success of Robert Zemeckis’ film hung on the blending of live action and animation and Williams did extraordinary work that left audiences stunned and led to many falling in love with the film. Williams picked up another two Oscars for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, including a Special Achievement Award. But following the loss of the rights to The Thief and the Cobbler, a project he worked on for almost 30 years, Williams didn’t fully return to filmmaking until 2010.
That year, he unveiled a short film entitled Circus Drawings, word came out that Aardman Animations had given him an office and further rumours swirled that he was hard at work on something big. Williams is a real ‘Animator’s animator’ and in animation circles there was a great deal of excitement about what he was working on. What could this new project be?
This year, we have our first look at what that it is and whilst it’s a thrilling piece of work, it’s also just the beginning.
Now screening around the world online and in cinemas, the short film Prologue is the first part of a larger film that Williams is making, piece by piece.
The idea to make the film like this came from Williams’ wife and collaborator Imogen Sutton. The pair were at the BFI this month for a screening of Prologue and she outlined the reasons for this approach:
“Because Dick is working alone, all the drawings are done by him. In this film, there are over 6,000 drawings, some of which take two to three hours. It’s a lot of work and it takes time. The idea, to give some satisfaction, is to create parts of the story as we go along. And each one will be self contained yet linked to the others.”
The film is loosely based upon the Greek play Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, and stems from an idea that Williams had when he was just 15. And despite the extraordinary work he has done between then and now – he is about to celebrate his 83rd birthday – Williams appears to be happier with this film than anything he’s ever done before.
“Something happened to me about three or four years ago. I had done all this teaching, all this studying. Sixty years of animation really and suddenly… There’s this terrible joke. People walking back and forth to work and they pass this guy sitting by a lake and he’s putting yoghurt in this lake. And they keep saying, this guy is nuts. After about a month, someone goes up to him and says, you must be crazy. And he says, I’m not crazy. Supposing it takes!
“That’s kind of what happened to me. I was sitting there drawing one of these complex things and suddenly, boom, this is mine now. This is my medium. And I just sure hope mother nature is kind to me. I’ve gotten good now. I’m surprising myself. Stuff I’m doing now, nobody’s ever done it. It’s all coming out and it’s all working. It’s never happened before, it was never good enough before. This short, unpleasant as it is [it is very violent] , is the only thing I’ve ever done, except the new stuff I’m doing now, that I’ve been completely satisfied with. It feels like we made a good loaf of bread.”
The animation style of Prologue, which is somewhat similar to Circus Drawings, is highly unusual and incredibly complex. Williams is drawing every single image by hand and the intricate detailing and fluid movements in this first part are utterly breathtaking.
“I’m just in love with what you can do with this medium and when you get in to unknown territory… Which is what I’ve always tried to do. Even with the rabbit. We got to combine the animation with what was real. I’m going to push the medium all the time and there’s a high price to pay for that. It’s just bloody hard work,” he says.
“It’s a very odd thing, the stuff that’s the hardest and most difficult to do is the suff that makes me jump and think, we’ve done it. Whereas the stuff that comes out easily is fine but I don’t go ‘wow’. It seems to be, the harder you work, the more you suffer, it’s the best stuff.”
Williams isn’t willing to share the title for the larger film yet and jokes that the working title is Will I Live To Finish This?. If Prologue is anything to go on, when he does finish the complete feature film, whatever it’s called, it could well be one of the most extraordinary animated features ever made.
Prologue is now available online as part of the Oscar-nominated short films package available from Shorts TV, who will also be screening the films in select cities. To see the full list of where you can download or rent the shorts, click here.
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