Richard Williams

A tribute to animation master Richard Williams

Aardman co-founder Peter Lord pays tribute to legendary animator, and friend of the studio, Richard Williams, who has passed away aged 86.

The history books and the obituaries will tell the story of Richard Williams, the Oscar-winning animation genius. They’ll write about a man who made a huge impact in the animation world – an artist of prodigious talent, who also happened to be an exceptional man.

But I’d like to write a word or two about Dick, not as the international celebrity that he was, but as our friend at Aardman for the last decade or so.

Dick and Mo, with their children Natasha and Leif moved to Bristol about ten or eleven years ago (you’re not going to get accuracy here), with a thought to start a new chapter in their already amazing life.

Dave and I knew them a little already, and with their wonderfully sociable instincts, we soon came to know them much better. Gradually, as they settled into Bristol, we came to help each other in various ways. Dick gave us a taste of his legendary master-class (which by the way, was surely the best, most detailed, most inspiring and challenging masterclass in the modern era) and we helped as Mo and he put together the all-singing-and-dancing animated video version of Dick’s legendary book the Animator’s Survival Kit. They took an office on the Gas Ferry Road site, and in due course the room in the old Banana Warehouse which became Dick’s animation studio.

Richard Williams Aardman studio

Here, at the top of the old fire-escape, Dick worked away with a focus, an energy and – God knows – a talent that can rarely have been equalled. He produced piles of superb animation drawings on paper – drawings which in due course would have told the whole mischievous, raunchy story of the Ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes (yes, I had to look all of this up). They weren’t just drawings, of course, they were the minutely observed heartbeat of the story – movement, atmosphere, comedy, emotion. And he was thrilled to show a finished sequence (or indeed a finished shot) and proud to say that he believed he was doing the best work of his life. There’s a vision! There’s cocking a snook at time and refusing to listen to its pessimistic narrative. Wouldn’t we all wish to achieve so much, and of such incredible quality, in our eighties?

Dick’s joke – I’m sure anyone at Aardman who talked to him about his project would have heard it – was that the working title of his film was “Will I Ever Live To Finish This?” Well, sadly he didn’t, but my God he gave it a go! And typically, just because he’d set himself a virtually impossible task, he wasn’t going to compromise or take short cuts; not Dick. He persisted in the most elaborate, demanding, exquisite animation anyone’s ever seen. As a matter of simple fact, no one else in the world today could have achieved what Dick was doing in his eighties. And all this, on our doorstep from this modest, charming, friendly, easy-going man.

Richard Williams drawing

Clearly Dick loved working at Aardman. He loved the everyday contact with creative people. He loved to talk and share ideas and of course to tell anecdotes. He had a treasure chest of great stories about celebrities, in particular Disney’s Nine Old Men, about his life, his battles and his achievements, and he shared the stories around the lunch-table with pop-eyed glee and relish. Basically, he loved people. He was interested, attentive, enthusiastic and encouraging – very ready to share his enthusiasm for the work he saw at Aardman and to appreciate animation styles utterly different from his own.

Of course he was lucky in one crucial way: he had no responsibility except to himself and to ‘posterity’. His only producer, and the person who knew him best was Mo who also happened to be his greatest admirer and his wife. So Dick exemplified ‘pure creativity’. He seemed to us to work without compromise and for the sheer love of his chosen art-form. No deadlines, except the ones he set himself, nobody to please or answer to, except himself. But Dick didn’t need cajoling or motivating or inspiring because I’ve never in my life met someone so incredibly self-motivated, nor indeed so happy in his work as Dick was in this last chapter of his life.

Above all, I shall think of him as a benign spirit at our studio. Genial, kind, approachable, appreciative. He was a man with the special knack of making other people feel better about themselves and he drew affection to himself like a magnet. Dick was always so astonishingly appreciative of what we had to offer him. I told him – so I shall tell you – that he deserved the thanks, not us. It was an honour to ‘show him off’ as our special guest, our resident celebrity, and to see the look of amazement on faces when it would casually emerge in conversation that Dick was making his late-masterpiece at our studio. Dick didn’t potter round the studio like a superannuated pensioner, he moved in abrupt fits and starts, light on his feet, comical in his gestures – one of those ‘living cartoon-characters’ you’re sometimes lucky enough to meet. On several occasions, in the spirit of thanking me for something, he’d whip out his handkerchief to clean my shoes in a disconcerting piece of mime – sometimes very publicly!

He radiated energy, he inspired affection, he showed us all ‘how it could be done’ and he created the most amazing stuff. We’re lucky and honoured to have shared so much with him.

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