Thursday, October 10, 2013

Richard Williams - This Amazing Medium

The Richard Williams "This Amazing Medium" presentation was already underway by the time I arrived at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Despite the two complimentary lots dedicated to Academy events, parking there is always a bear (and who are all these animators who leave work before 7PM, anyway?). As I slid into my seat in the back of the dark theater, a scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves finished playing on the screen. As the clip finished, the lights went up and the master animator took the stage to tell of the films that inspired him when he was a young animator.

This Fantasia clip followed:

Williams then talked a bit about the projects he worked on as a young animator in England. When tasked to create some complicated water effects, he referenced the groundbreaking animated water effects in Pinocchio, and played this clip:

At this point I was fully settled in to the presentation. Pinocchio was the first animated film with which I was completely fascinated, and one of the drawings from childhood I still have is a tracing of the Pinocchio puppet off of a book I had back then. Williams then spoke about working on an intro sequence on the Sidney Lumet picture Prince of the City, and having a conversation with Lumet about the movie Dumbo. "It's the perfect film," Williams recalled Lumet saying, "each sequence is completely self-contained, but each moves the story forward." Then came the Dumbo "Pink Elephants" clip. Williams recalled a quick story about one of the Disney animators encountering a dumbfounded filmmaker who asked the animator: "What were you guys on when you were making that sequence?" The animator's answer: "Pepto Bismol and Aspirin."

Another inspiring animator to Williams was the legendary Tex Avery. Avery, while working at Disney, quickly realized he wasn't talented enough to draw like the animators at the studio, so he decided to go as far as he could in the opposite direction of Disney--toward the manic and hilarious. Avery went on to direct and write over 100 cartoons during the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Williams told a story about an elderly Avery coming on stage at a cartoon film festival just after a solid hour of his cartoons were played consecutively. Rubbing his face in shock, Williams imitated Avery's reaction: "This...this just isn't right! You're not supposed to play this many of them at once! They're crazy enough in just 60 seconds!"

Avery would be shocked at what the Internet has brought us. Forget film festivals, today an animation fan doesn't have to leave home to watch weeks worth of the wildest shorts created in the last fifty years. Next, a clip was played of Avery's "King-Size Canary" (1947), which showed the greedy exploits of a starving and short-sighted house cat:

Next came Richard Williams retelling of his experience with Ken Harris, the Warner Bros. animator who later worked with Williams at his commercial studio in England. He portrayed Harris as extremely talented, but a complainer, since he was the lead animator who always had to train the hired animators to emulate William's complicated hatched animations the studio would become known for.

The animator who made the biggest impression on Richard Williams throughout his career was the legendary Milt Kahl, a member of Disney's Nine Old Men. Williams recounted seeing The Jungle Book for the first time in theaters, and not being particularly impressed with the animation at the beginning of the picture. A bit further into the picture, however, and Williams saw something that completely floored him: the performance of Shere Khan, as animated by Kahl:

In 1968, Richard Williams's studio was hired to create a series of animated sequences for the British war film Charge of the Light Brigade. They were done in the style of 1850s wood engravings. Williams called it "the best job we ever got":

After the release of Charge of the Light Brigade, Williams received a call from Chuck Jones at Warner Bros., who asked if he was interested to make an animated special of "A Christmas Carol:"

(Right after this clip, Williams mentioned that he asked Kahl if he would come work for him in England, but Kahl declined. "If I wanted to work on shit, I'd stay here," was the ornery animator retorted.)

Next up was the fun intro credits sequence his studio animated for the comedy hit The Return of the Pink Panther (1975):

And after that, he arrived at the point in his career for "The Rabbit Job:"

The sequences his studio created for the film were unforgettable:

Williams then briefly mentioned his animated feature The Thief and the Cobbler, which was never released in theaters. The studio worried about its similarity to Aladdin, which would show in theaters around the same projected release date, and it was shelved until it became a straight-to-DVD release.. It was clearly a painful experience for Williams, who showed only the trailer before moving on in the presentation.

After seeing his dream film fall short of its ultimate goal, Williams picked himself up and moved on to continue mastering the craft of animation. While he worked, he would often visit the nearby house of Ken Harris to seek the advice of his longtime friend. Harris was much older and tired at the time, and would go in for naps at midday during their sessions, while Richard continued working in the living room. Harris would often say that he was just too old to help with animation any more, but Williams said with a smile that Harris would come out after his nap, look over the drawings spread out on the floor, stop to fixate on a drawing, then point and quickly proclaim "that's WRONG!"

One day, after finally finishing a particularly difficult sequence, he called up Ken Harris on the phone and proclaimed: "I did it! I can finally animate anything I can think of!" Williams yelled with his fists raised high above his head, smiling like a boy pedaling on a new bike for the first time.  He then lowered his hands, took a breath and imitated Ken's classic response: " long as you think that." The audience howled.

As the presentation started winding down, Williams reflected on when he was a young artist traveling in Europe one year. He had sold a portrait and was living off the money, and would spend his days sketching a troupe of acrobats who were performing in a small town in Spain. He had saved the drawings for decades, and planned on animating them at some point. Over the last couple years he had revisited them, and what followed in the theater was a short film that was part slideshow, part animation. The music was composed by a friend of his years ago, and the blending of it all was very quietly moving and impressive. The crowd heaped its praise as Williams took the stage to present his final piece.

The lights dimmed for a final time, and the screen flashed white. Illustrated in Williams's now-signature style of hundreds of painstakingly drawn hatchmarks, was a soldier on an ancient boat. The camera spun to show the ocean the boat was cutting through, as waves broke in front of the boat. Next, the camera flew off the boat and the wind lifted it toward land. A beach appeared and quickly filled the screen, followed by a field with daffodils, enlarging as the camera settled to inspect them. A rush of wind back from the naval soldier's boat stretched the daffodil apart, spraying the seeds across the screen. A large eye then shot open, and looked squarely into the camera. The second eye moved in from off screen as another man's face appeared. Alerted, he backed away from the daffodils and stood up. Sensing danger from across the ocean, he looked to his left and turned, but before we could see what he was looking at, the film cut out. After the lights went up and the audience finished applauding, Williams explained that it was the first two "chapters" of a 25 part story. I sincerely hope he completes the film, because I was blown away by what I saw.

It was truly special to have witnessed a night celebrating such a storied career. Having never met any of the nine old men, I felt it was as if their knowledge and spirit had returned before us all in the vitality and kindness of a master animator who had learned from them all and who had become another one of the treasured few in history to reach the top of the pyramid of creative self-actualization. At last he had the ability (and the confidence that comes with it) to animate something exactly as he imagined it. It took him a lifetime of drawing, traveling, observing, countless pieces of paper crumpled up in frustration, awards and honors, speeches, late nights and sore wrists, but he had pulled it off and lived to tell the tale. Williams then wrapped things up by reading a prepared statement thanking the people in his life. At the end of the list was his wife and producer Imogen Sutton, whom the crowd applauded. Richard then looked toward us all, cupped his hands to his mouth, and said with a kind smile a note of support for all of the animators who had packed the house, and were already beginning the standing ovation: "Good luck!"

Inside the Academy lobby with a Roger Rabbit painting made by Williams.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Official Trailer #2

New Secret Life of Walter Mitty trailer, with some good Patton Oswalt lines. You catch a glimpse of the street surfing sequence I briefly worked on at 2:25: