Kim Masters: My Evening With Animator Richard Williams on 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit'

Richard Williams - H - 2019
Nick Beek-Sanders

The Hollywood Reporter's editor-at-large recounts the time she sidestepped Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg to meet Williams in London to talk about the project, the company's most expensive at the time, that would go on to change the industry.

I met Richard Williams, the great animator who just died at 86, when he was working on the film for which he became best known, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It wasn’t easy: Disney had set its sentries to prevent this meeting from happening. It turned into a caper.

Roger Rabbit was a bold attempt to create something completely different: a blend of live-action with hand-drawn animation that looked three-dimensional instead of flat, like the penguins in Mary Poppins. Roger and the other characters cast shadows. They touched objects. They grabbed live actors by the lapels.

While the movie was still in production, everyone in Toontown was buzzing about this crazy attempt to shatter old rules. For God’s sake, the camera would move — it wasn’t locked down! The horizon line wouldn’t be steady! An army of animators would have to draw every single frame by hand instead of every other frame, as was typical for the best feature films. Each expensive minute would take a team of 20 about a week to complete. The work-in-progress film was dubbed “the Ishtar of animation.” (For those too young to remember, Ishtar was a 1987 movie long synonymous with excess and box office failure.) 

When I first started asking around about this disaster in the making, I was working at the Daily News (the one in the Valley) and I had never met a single industry titan. So I didn’t know Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was then running the Disney studio. But I knew I was onto something when he called me, unsolicited, and demanded, “What are you doing to my movie?”

Michael Eisner, then Disney’s chairman, and Katzenberg hadn't been in their jobs that long when they greenlighted the film with the hope that Roger Rabbit could be the first important new Disney cartoon character in years. They recruited Steven Spielberg to produce and Robert Zemeckis to direct. That part was tricky because Eisner had not thought much of Zemeckis' talent, dismissing Romancing the Stone as a fluke. With Back to the Future, Eisner re-evaluated that assessment, but that wasn't enough to appease Zemeckis, who set up production of Roger Rabbit in London in part to be as far away from Disney as possible.

Zemeckis also didn’t trust Disney’s animators with the project. The company had been at low ebb and The Black Cauldron had recently foundered. So he hired Williams, a Canadian expatriate living in London.

Williams later told me his plan was to throw out “every rule that these stupid animators developed for working with live action.” Locking the camera was for the faint of heart. As if to test the proposition, Zemeckis moved the camera fast and furiously. Animators labored to adjust the characters’ size, lighting and location. As many as 8,000 pieces of art might have to be assembled for one 30-second shot. The film would soon fall behind and soar well over budget.

I didn't know all the details when I wrote that first story about the ongoing production of Roger Rabbit for the Daily News. But Katzenberg, annoyed, tartly told me that I could write whatever because soon Premiere magazine was sending a real reporter to do the real story anyway. I didn’t tell him that Premiere had just hired me and the making of Roger Rabbit would be my first major assignment.

Once I started at Premiere, Disney seemed to have cold feet about cooperating with the article. Finally, the editor, Susan Lyne, got fed up with the stalling and sent me to London to see what I could learn. I went very nervously, as the prospect of failing on my first important story was unappealing. 

And at first it seemed I would fail. The project was cloaked in secrecy. Security was tight. Normally chatty animators had been terrified into silence. But at last, Disney cracked and I was admitted to the production offices, though I was hardly allowed to roam freely. I was moved from place to place in a tightly controlled tour, given a few minutes to talk to this or that person, until I was sent to meet Zemeckis at a pub. (His comment toward the end of that first meeting: “You’re not what I expected. You’re sort of…feminine.”)

It was later that night when I realized I hadn’t actually met the guy developing this notorious new animation technique. I rang Williams the next morning and he eagerly agreed that I should come to his office. I think he suspected that Disney was keeping the focus on Zemeckis and he didn’t care for that. 

I slipped into the Roger Rabbit production fortress but no sooner did my behind hit the sofa in Williams’ office then a Disney person burst in, literally shaking with agitation. (I can’t remember who it was, but he probably does.) Dick couldn’t take time to talk, he said. But I felt Williams was essential for my story. “He’s the animation director!” I protested, surely he could give me 10 minutes.

I was shocked when Williams spoke up, and not on my behalf. “He’s right — you should go,” he said. I shot him an accusatory look but he stood and stretched out his hand. I reluctantly reached out to shake it and then realized that he was palming me a quickly drawn map on a tiny post-it. It said, “7 p.m.”

And so I made my way to Williams’ apartment in London that memorable evening, where he showed me a meltingly beautiful reel of his work and told me some of the most interesting things I would learn about the making of Roger Rabbit. I could see why the studio didn’t want him talking to me. He had driven Disney crazy from the start, taking the animation team to screen his unfinished passion project, The Thief and the Cobbler, without permission. “I’m not a corporation man,” he told me. “They do things through channels and I don’t know how to do that.”

When my article was published in advance of Roger Rabbit's release, the Williams quotes were the ones that stood out and other journalists called me and asked how to reach him. (Though the film had wound up as the most expensive film Disney had ever made to date, it was No. 2 at the box office that year, behind Rain Man.) 

When I went on to report on the making of Beauty and the Beast, Katzenberg let me run through the production offices unsupervised. I asked him why and he said, “Because I don’t want the story to be boring.”

Williams hoped that thanks to his service on Roger Rabbit, Disney would help him finish and promote The Thief and the Cobbler. That didn’t happen. That film arguably holds the record for longest duration of production ever. Ultimately Williams was forced off of it and it was completed, after a fashion, by another director.

But the Internet always remembers, and you can find clips of his work online. Seek them out if you want to experience some of the magic that Williams created.