When I was 11, I wrote to Richard Williams who invited me up to 13 Soho square and I never looked back. We met a few more times after that and I know personally of his kindness, his drive and his immense talent. He is the author of the bible of animation, a signed copy of which is in my bathroom, and another two copies on my desk and in my briefcase. He is also the director of “A Christmas carol” (1972 oscar winner), “Who framed Roger Rabbit?” (another 2 oscars) and the unfinished film “the Thief and the Cobbler”
In 1972 I wrote to Richard Williams and was invited to visit his studio. I think I also sent him some artwork. It would have been about this time that a kind lady was also trying to arrange an exhibition for me I learnt recently, so I imagine I was doing fairly well as a little 11 year old draughtsman and impressing more people than I realised. Certainly, it took years to get back to the dynamism and accuracy of those early days partly because I was consistently bullied by the art teacher at school. I was called names by this man, had my work ripped up by him, and was consistently slapped down with words like “slick” and “easy” which I understood then to be criticisms but which today I would accept as some sort of defiant badge of honour. Anyway, this is not meant to be a whine, but more an excuse to think about what I got out of this process. The most important thing is some sort of resilience and determination to keep going whatever happens – that is useful for any animator as Williams testifies. Also, I think this is the source of my interest in teaching- the subject matters not a bit as long as I think I can master it before the lessons begin incidentally, but the desire to ensure that no child is treated as I was is fundamental. Many children are talented. We,as adults, need to harvest or harness those talents.Talent is not really like a plant. It may survive but it certainly does not thrive or grow if you throw alot of shit at it!
I had seen Williams on a childrens’ tv programme called “Clapperboard” and he was shown drawing one of the brigands laughing. I loved the way that the character moved as he laughed. It was subtle and in close-up, but there was clear movement and character. The laugh was something he had recorded himself and I believe, now, that the animation was loosely based on one of the imps in Sleeping beauty. But there is no disguising the mastery. The hand movement on this sequence as the brigand laughs is exquisite and I have looked at it in some detail- Williams draws hands like no one else. This character is now one of many brigands in the second half of the “Thief”.
The sequence is marked by a change from pen and ink outlines to wax pencil outlines that were used also on “Christmas Carol”. At the studio, I was given one of these pencils and some cel and told to draw something which I did, but I was very nervous and I found it difficult. The waxy pencil is easily smudged and is only truly bonded with the cel when it is exposed to hot light under the camera. I should imagine though that the cameraman was forever cleaning the glass panel that holds the animation in place. I think I may have tried using some paint. I am not sure, but I got to use paint later on working for “Wicked Witch” in the late 1980s as they wound up work on “Roger Rabbit” and took on project after project that aped the animation/live action combo style, or simply tried to look computer-generated ( some of the Waterboard adverts that accompanied one of the waves of Thatcher privatisation, for instance which were all actually drawn in coloured pencils on cels that had been sprayed with a formula that made them sufficiently textured to accept the crayons. The same method was used in the Snowman, Father Christmas and the Beatrix Potter films at TVC)
My trip to 13 Soho Square was a day that must have changed my life or at least given it proper direction: in the evening, so excited was I that I vomited with gusto on the train and over my mother’s handbag. I knew then, maybe from some kind of Rorschach test, that I had a vocation to draw animated films. I remember meeting the great man on the stairway in front of what must have been one of his own oil paintings. I draw no parallel at all between my vomit and his painting though I have no real memory of the visual content of either. His picture all looked very dark and grand to me. Animators upstairs flipped scenes that I think I knew even then were from the projected film of “Nasruddin”- I am pretty sure that I saw the thief bouncing from one canopy to another. that was also in the finished print we saw on Sunday. I had seen pirate versions of this on youtube and the australian DVD where it seemed a bit repetitive. In the NFI theatre, with a crowded audience, it looked wonderful. This is broad slapstick and it always needs an audience to get the most out of it!
Later, I went back to the studio a few times and had a delightful dinner with Richard Williams in which he compared computer people to madmen trying to sell crutches to people who have no difficulty walking. “But my crutch is gold plated” he said they would say. “Why walk when you can hobble with a crutch?” This was the infancy of Computer animation and within less than 10 years I myself would be involved for a brief period in the production of computer games animation. But he is right: there can be no short-cuts and nothing replaces the raw knowledge of being able to draw exactly what you can imagine in your head.
I was particularly keen for Necati to see “the Thief” in the best possible way. I have some publicity material the studio gave me by which time the name had changed from “The thief who never gave up” to “Once”.
During the talk after the screening, when a few odd people, one of whom I am afraid I have drawn above, hogged the microphone and went on and on (and on!) about pirate versions of the thief that they had seen on the internet (no one mentioned Gilchrist by name- why not? though Dick Williams urged him to get on with his own work instead of obsessing about “the thief”), Williams talked a bit about his current project,apparently based on “Lysistrata” and called “If I live”. When we met for Dinner in ’82 or ’83, he had been talking about an adaptation of the Epic of “Gilgamesh”- a story about a babylonian Noah figure, and there is a creation account in “Gilgamesh” which lies behind the first creation story in the bible. It is more vivid and much more fun, certainly worthy of animation as indeed is Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata”. I will dig out my own animated versions of Aubrey Beardsley and maybe the (unpublished and scurrilous) comics based on Greek texts and post them on this new blog in time but I suspect Williams is doing his own thing with the Greek comedy and has moved some distance away from Beardsley. I moved from Beardsley too: it simply took up so much time! I would love to know what happened to Gilgamesh and what Williams’ “Gilgamesh” would have looked like and also I would like to know what role the laughing camel must have had in “Nasruddin”. There was alot of publicity about the camel but he makes a very brief appearance in “The thief”. Had the hogs stopped talking evasively about Gilchrist, then maybe I could have asked about Gilgamesh or the Camel. Now, we may never know!! I will write more on this subject another time. In the meantime, here are some sketches made on Sunday afternoon during and after the screening.