Art Babbitt by Richard Williams – Page 2

When he taught in our studio he insisted that people take the course. He started off by saying: “Please, in my lectures, do not be British. Be crude, be revolting; ask stupid questions. Please do not be polite; otherwise I’m wasting my time.”

He’s as tough as nails; yet it literally hurt him when someone couldn’t get a thing right, couldn’t understand it. Then when they got it right, he would dissolve in warmth. His patience was beautiful.

He knows so much about everything – about symphony construction, about the visual arts, about everything to do with the medium. He once decided he would teach himself to play the piano. He’s the one in the famous Disney story – when he was learning to play the piano, and Disney said, ‘What are you – some kind of fag or something?’ He hated Disney for that, because he wanted to understand music to apply it to animation. He knew that Fantasia or something like it was inevitable.

On the course he told us: ‘An animator must possess a curiosity about everything that exists or moves … must be a student of everything that might or does exist. From the shiver of a blade of grass – affected by an invisible breeze – to the behaviour of a starving hobo eating the first steak he has had in years. From a baby, tentatively trying to walk for the first time – to an elephant doing the can-can.’

I just saw Fantasia again and the Dance of the Mushrooms; and he was doing things there – treating perspective as a subsidiary action – that no one else was doing at the time. And he does not do it by feel, as I might, but because he’s worked it all out and analysed it. On the course he would say: ‘This is the cliché. This is the formula. And this is how to break it.’ He would set up the rules and then make you bust them.

And as well as the analytical capacity and the intelligence is the ability to start from basics – to deal with the minutest detail. He knows how the labs process the material; the way celluloid is made, the way the pencil is made. People who know that kind of thing don’t usually have artistic ability into the bargain. The ability to discern basics extends to his gift for statements that seem entirely simple and yet reveal vital things one often has not recognised: ‘We must learn to create movements if necessary that are caricatures of reality -but done with such guile they are always convincing.’ ‘We must expand our sense of caricature – to realise that we are not simply exaggerating external appearances – but more important, the inner character, the mood, the situation. A caricature is a satirical essay, not just doubling the size of a bulbous nose.’

My portrait is idolatry, maybe; but how do you not idolise someone who after more than forty years work in his and your medium still can find it ‘wonderful, exciting, exacting … A medium that has barely been discovered, let alone explored. A medium that can be an art form that encompasses practically all other art forms. A medium that can gratify aesthetically, that is not earth-bound, that can be an invaluable aid in teaching everything from elementary chemistry to the Theory of Relativity.

Goofy. Copyright Walt Disney.

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Printed in Animator’s newsletter Issue 10 (Autumn 1984)