Saturday, 26 July 2014

Alex Williams, founder of Animation Apprentice, talks about his latest book, The Queen's Counsel Lawyer's Omnibus

The Queen's Counsel Lawyer's Omnibus - 20 years in The Times
Animation Apprentice founder Alex Williams initially trained as a barrister, and since 1993 he has published a weekly cartoon strip Queen's Counsel in the law pages of The Times. Recently he published a new book, The Queen's Counsel Lawyer's Omnibus, a compilation of his favourite cartoons printed in the newspaper over the past 20 years. We asked him to talk a little about the book, and also about how a lawyer became a cartoonist and an animator.
Alex Williams

You were a barrister before you became an animator? How did that happen?

Alex: Well, I had done a fair bit of animation before I became a barrister, but yes, in 1992 I went to law school and trained for the Bar. I became a junior barrister in 1994, and it was a year before that (in 1993) that I and a friend approached The Times and The Spectator with the idea for a comic strip about lawyers. It was the era of lawyer jokes and the OJ Simpson trial, so we got lucky with the zeitgeist. The Times said yes, as did The Spectator.

Why this new book now?

Alex: The new book is a celebration of twenty years at The Times. The strip has been published in the newspaper every week since 1993, making it the longest job I have ever held down, by far. It's a compilation of the best jokes over the years. Or, at least, the ones I think are the best.

AA: What are the cartoons about?

Alex: The cartoon strip is a satire on law and lawyers. I started the strip as a way of poking fun at the legal system, my fellow law students (and lecturers) and - later - my colleagues at the Bar. In the early years the strip was really about my own life as a junior barrister. I would go to court, something bizarre would happen, and I would think: "how do I turn that into a four panel gag?".

AA: You're not a lawyer anymore - where does your material come from?

Alex: Even after 20 years I continue to love writing and drawing Queen's Counsel. Actually I feel as though I am just getting into my stride. If it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something, I guess I'm  probably just about starting to have done my time after two decades.

My wife Sarah is a solicitor in a big firm in the City, so she keeps me up to date. She'll come home exhausted after a long day at the office and will say "you'll never guess what happened to me today", and I'll say "hold on darling, let me grab a pen.". Her misery is my comedy. And, as she puts, she, she writes all my jokes. The funny ones, anyway.

Which are your favourite jokes?

Alex: It is hard to pick out my favourite comic strips but some of the early jokes which were most autobiographical are probably still my favourites. It reminds me of what I was going through at the time, almost like a personal diary in cartoon form.

What has all this got to do with learning animation?

Alex: Well, you'd be surprised. Cartoons and animation are close cousins; it's all about characters, and it's about telling a story. The audience have to like the characters, even if they're not very nice (most of mine are not). It's the same with animation and film-making; it's all about telling a great story.

Animation Apprentice is all about learning practical skills to equip our students for a freelance career. I want my students to be both great story-tellers and great technicians. The great animator Milt Kahl said that a true animator needed to be a "Jack of all trades", because it wasn't enough just to be a technician - you needed to be able to entertain an audience as well.

Here's what he said:
It’s a very difficult medium. Animation requires a pretty good draftsman because you’ve got to turn things, to be able to draw well enough to turn things at every angle.  You have to understand movement, which in itself is quite a study. You have to be an actor. You have to put on a performance, to be a showman, to be able to evaluate how good the entertainment is. You have to know the best way of doing it, and have an appreciation of where it belongs in the picture. You have to be a pretty good story man. To be a really good animation, then, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades.”

What about the students at Animation Apprentice - will they do cartoon strips and books?

Alex: I certainly hope so. I hope that many of our students will go on to publish books of their own - perhaps collections of their own work, perhaps books on animation, or even books on ground-breaking new visual effects technologies.

Being able to put a pitch together and approach a publisher - or even self-publish - is part of the essential toolkit of an independent freelance artist. Our students will go on to enjoy careers in many different parts of creative and digital media and we want our course to be a superb preparation for their journey.

Where can we buy the book?

Alex: It's available at amazon, naturally, and you can also buy it direct from Law Brief Publishing at

For more information on finding work and surviving in the animation and visual effects business, read our post on how to find a job in the animation industry, and check out our post about what not to do at a job interview. Also see our post on starting your own small animation business, learn how to create an invoice, and see how we are helping our students find work through our film co-operative Nano Films.  Download the free Escape Studios Careers in VFX Handbook. Take a look at how can help you find a job, and read our piece about how to survive as a freelance animator. Also, find out what Cinesite look for in a student's demo reel, and read our post on setting up your own animation business.

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