Richard Williams’ passing last week at the age of 86 was a massive blow for the animation industry. Partly it’s because of his stature—the loss of someone involved in so many groundbreaking films, from the Pink Panther to Who Framed Roger Rabbit to his last film, Proluge, will always be a blow. But more than that, it hits hard because of Williams’ generosity with his craft, his dedication to passing on his knowledge (his Animator’s Survival Kit is a familiar sight on every animator’s bookshelf), and the way that, even after 70 years as an animator, his work was still evolving.
Prologue was his final finished film and, as the title implies, the start of an even more ambitious project. In his view, the film was something Williams had only recently become capable of creating, and it’s heartbreaking to listen to interviews on the film’s release where he talks about his hopes of finishing the whole project within his lifetime. It was aiming high, given that the film would be hand-drawn in a realistic style and animated “on the ones,” with a new drawing for all 24 frames in a second of screen time (twice as much work as the standard industry practice of animating “on twos.”) That larger project remains unfinished, but Prologue remains as a preview of what it could have been.
The film opens with Williams’ hands sharpening a pair of pencil crayons and rendering its title, doing double-duty in celebrating the tools of traditional animation and announcing to the viewer that they’re meant to appreciate the sheer effort that went into its creation. But effort is nothing if the results don’t stand on their own, and as esteemed as Williams is as a draftsman (and the draftsmanship here is stunning), it’s his aptitude for establishing character through movement that really shines. Prologue is bleaker and more visceral than most of his work, its brief run laced with blood and violence. But its intensity is amplified by the expressiveness of its combatants, in the overblown horror of their expressions.
Prologue is meant to be the beginning of an adaptation of Lysistrata, the Greek play where women withhold sex from their spouses to stop a war. It would be interesting to see where Williams aimed to take the production; how faithful he would be to its story, how much humour and horror he planned to bring to the piece. It’s a shame that the film stands as an epilogue to his career rather than the beginning of something new, but at least we’re left with a glimpse of where Williams was aiming.
dir: Richard Williams
(Note: there are definitely copies of the film out there, and those inclined to find unauthorized streams can surely do so, but since there are no actual approved ones, this clip with Williams discussing the film feels like the next best thing)
Bonus video essay 1:
Bonus video essay 2: