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Richard Williams lives in the middle of nowhere. More precisely, he, his wife Mo and their two children live two hours from Cardiff in the Welsh countryside. There, using only a pad of paper and his pencils, he draws.

Of course, "draws" is Williams's own self-effacing description of what he does. In fact, the Toronto-born artist ranks among the modern giants of animation, an art form that, fuelled by technology, is enjoying a major cinematic renaissance.

Williams's stature was acquired during what he calls a 30-year apprenticeship, served at the feet of such masters as Ken Harris ( The Road Runner Show), Art Babbitt ( Fantasia), Myron (Grim) Natwick (Betty Boop) and Milt Kahl (known as King Kahl). Obviously, he learned well. In those three decades, running his own studio in London, he won some 250 international awards, including three Oscars, three British Academy Awards, and an Emmy. He is probably best known for directing the animation sequences of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the 1987 Disney-Spielberg classic, The Return of the Pink Panther and A Christmas Carol.

Now, 69 next week, the Toronto-born Williams has distilled his learning and his craft into The Animator's Survival Kit (Penguin), a 342-page, richly illustrated compendium of the essentials. The book took him more than three years to write. Much of it, he said over coffee this week -- in Toronto to promote the book and teach a master class for 680 would-be animators at the Bloor Cinema -- is "stuff worked out by the old birds" who worked for Walt Disney and Warner Bros. in the 1930s and 1940s. And, for all the power conferred by modern computer-graphics interface software, the art of animation, he insists, still requires an ability to draw and a fundamental knowledge of anatomy and human motor skills.

"The computer is like a microwave, so animation becomes an extension of puppetry, whereas the old way was an extension of drawing. But you still have to get weight, get the parts moving, get the empathy, deal with time. That's what an animator is," Williams said, "something between a real artist and a garage mechanic. I tried to duck it; that's why it took me so long."

But he had the "art" part of that combination early, virtually from the moment he could hold a crayon. He inherited the gene from his mother, who had been an illustrator and once declined an opportunity to work for Disney. At 5, Williams saw Snow White and "my mother said I was never the same again. I remember, the other kids thought these things were real, and I said, no, they're just drawings." The magnet of art was so powerful that, as a child, Williams would run in from playing baseball and, in the middle of the game, stop to draw.

At 15, he went to L.A. by bus and actually met Walt Disney and was encouraged to develop his talent. "I could draw the stuff pretty much at the level of Roger Rabbit even then," he says, "but of course didn't know how to move it worth a damn." He also met Walt's brother Roy and then-actor Ronald Reagan.

Later, a teacher (Eric Freifield) at the Ontario College of Art advised Williams to study the work of Albrecht Durer for two years. He did, learning enough about anatomy to become a skilled portrait artist.

"I'd knock off a painting and earn enough to go and live in Spain for a year," said Williams. But something in him recoiled against being part of the art world. One day he had an idea for an animated film. "And I thought, 'I don't want to do this; it's too much like real work.' But it kept eating at me. Before long I had a whole story board worked out. I think even when I was painting I was trying to move them."

He took it to London, where 3½ years later, the half-hour film was made. The Little Island was pure animation -- no dialogue -- a satire on philosophy that explored the conflicts between beauty, truth and goodness and that won critical acclaim: a British Academy Award and a prize at the Venice Film Festival.

It was only afterward, he says, that he realized how inadequate were his animation skills, "that I didn't really know how to articulate this stuff, to make things have weight, to make it convincing." It was the first of a series of shocks, each of which helped push him to another level.

In fact, it was while working on Island that he went to see Bambi, "and I thought, what a pile of sugary, Disney sentimentality. . . . And then, when I finished Island, I happened to see it again and this time I came out on my hands and knees, thinking how did they ever do that? The sugariness vanished and the momentousness of it hit me."

When his next film, an eight-minute short called Love Me, Love Me, Love Me, became a hit in theatres, he decided to set up his own studio. It was then that he met Ken Harris, who had been animating for Bugs Bunny creator Chuck Jones. Harris, then 68, came over to work for a week -- and stayed until he was 84. "Ken was a magnificent movement mechanic, and an actor. He had everything in the right place. After about eight years, he finally said I was starting to show some potential. I was 45 and he says, 'You know, you could be an animator.' "

The distinction between artist and animator is subtle but critical. Fred Astaire wasn't much to look at, but the reason we feel compelled to look more at him than the woman on his arm, Williams insists, is because of "the incredible Balinese articulation" of his limbs. Or Gwen Verdon. Technically, it's articulation. But instead of calling it that, Williams says, "they're really socking in more life."

The best animators can deliver the same range of motion and choreography, "and I wasn't one of those, and Ken knew it. It took me 10 years to get my head out of my ass."

Over the years, he had "three terrific offers" to work for Disney, but never succumbed. Instead, he worked at a distance with many of Disney's animators, all of whom maintained -- contrary to some recent biographies -- that the magic of the studio "came directly from Walt. He didn't give a damn for money. He was the inspiration and apparently a great actor, as good as Chaplin," in his ability to demonstrate the movements he wanted his artists to recreate. "And the old guys always said, 'We could never get the performance [on screen]as good as he did it.' "

Although Williams earned widest recognition for Roger Rabbit, his success also led to his greatest setback -- The Thief and The Cobbler. Inspired by the classic The Thief of Baghdad, Williams had worked on the feature-length film on and off, for 27 years, but financial problems led to its being turned over to Warner Bros. before completion, which added new animation sequences, dialogue and music. The film received mixed reviews, but in its final form was vastly different than Williams's original conception.

Now, working both in Wales and at his home on Saltspring Island in British Columbia, he's drafting another film of long gestation, an idea that's been on his mind since he was 14. "I wouldn't compare myself to Rembrandt, but I'm always amazed that he did some of his best work in those last 10 years, alone in a room. That's all it is, isn't it? Van Gogh isn't in the cornfields with a bunch of assistants, saying 'I like the yellow.' " He also plans to write the music, having studied orchestration, harmony and classical trumpet.

The working title for the new film? "It doesn't really have one. It's called, 'Will I live long enough to finish it?' My older friends are all dead. It's the doing of it that matters. Like Altman, who didn't get paid a cent for Gosford Park and got nothing at the back end. And I thought, he knows, he knows. Do it for the love of it; that's all there is."

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