Richard Williams’ not-so-fine madness: 'Persistence of Vision'

“It wouldn’t be the first time a labor of love arrived stillborn.” That was the closing line to a 1980s article about animator Richard Williams’ long-gestating animated feature The Thief and the Cobbler.

“It wouldn’t be the first time a labor of love arrived stillborn.” That was the closing line to a 1980s Film Comment article about animator Richard Williams’ ongoing quest to complete his long-gestating animated feature The Thief and the Cobbler.

The author of that article was close; what ultimately (and briefly) made it into the theaters as Arabian Knight wasn’t just stillborn; it was an abortion.

Williams (as just about everyone reading this article knows) created the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (a multi-million dollar fanboy film if there ever was one, but that’s a story for another day) as well as several kick-ass movie title sequences, including the original Casino Royale and What’s New Pussycat?

A fellow named Kevin Schreck has made a spot-on doc documenting Williams’ personal heart of darkness, aptly titled Persistence of Vision. It’s been popping up here and there (evidently he’s been working on it a few years himself) and I was fortunate enough to catch it at a recent Manhattan screening.

Schreck did his homework and quite a bit of digging. He interviewed numerous participants in The Thief and the Cobbler’s production and managed to unearth piles of pencil tests, outtakes – and no small amount of footage of Williams himself, pontificating (“we’re going to save the art of animation”), animating and agonizing over his ongoing self-crucifixion. “I’m going to do a masterpiece – if I ever finish the thing,” he confesses/boasts early on. He makes a similar grandiose statement elsewhere while the collaborator sitting alongside turns his head away, apparently to keep Williams from seeing his eyes roll.

The animators who worked on the film were mesmerized by Williams’ zeal (“it was something really special we were all working on”) and never realized they were contributing to a lost cause. Let’s call it the cartoon equivalent of the Stockholm syndrome; they guzzled the Cobbler Kool-Aid big time – oh yeah!

“I’ve mastered the medium at last,” Williams says by way of justifying his lofty goal. I hate to be the one to tell you Richard, but no, you didn’t. You may have mastered the technical aspects of creating smooth, elaborate animation – but you forgot you’re supposed to tell a story, to create characters you can invest in emotionally, to root for the hero and hiss the villain.

Williams and his collaborators instead went on an esthetic bender, crafting clever, often tromp l’oeil backgrounds and overlong, ‘hey look how beautiful this animation is’ shots that go on and on and on. (One animator describes how Williams was so in love with a shot of a wounded soldier trying to climb onto his horse that he extended it by ten seconds, then another ten…) At another point there’s a whiplash zoom out from a palace window into an aerial view of the entire city, rendered in obsessive, microscopic detail… that’s onscreen for a second, a second and a half tops.

Now about those characters…wait, what characters? You have the title personages, at least one of whom (in Williams’ original vision) evidently never said a word. Sorry again Richard; pantomime went out with the silent movie. The cobbler (named ‘Tack’) doesn’t even have a mouth, just two tacks (get it?) that keep angling into formations to suggest one. So your villain has six fingers on each hand and five rings on each finger, all perfectly animated – whoop de do…

Williams obsession is most apparent in an extended set piece of the thief wandering through an enormous mechanical war machine, unknowingly avoiding detonating bombs and gears about to crush him in pursuit of one of the golden balls he has coveted all through the film. (A metaphor for Williams’ own quest, perhaps?) An undeniably impressive sequence, yeah – but stuff that a few years later could’ve been spit out by a computer in its sleep (or rendered while the animator snoozed), every bit as impressively.

At one point a T&C animator complains that Disney has ripped off Williams’ film via Aladdin’s Arabian Nights setting. (Not to mention its humble protagonist, evil courtier, clueless sultan and princess to be won.) Perhaps, but Disney’s characters have actual personalities and emotions; who cares about 60 perfectly animated rings on twelve fingers when you can empathize with Al’s desire to be more than a street rat?

Once Williams has missed his completion date and blown through his budget, his pride and joy is ripped out of his hands, half-assedly completed by Miramax and released as the aforementioned Arabian Knight. The eponymous characters were given voices, or at least voice-overs: Matthew Broderick (replacing Sean Connery!) as Tack the cobbler and Jonathan Winters babbling a non-stop, incredibly irritating monologue as the thief. (The last time somebody tried to ‘rescue’ a film that way, Sanrio hired Peter Ustinov to narrate the studio’s Winds of Change, originally a dialog-free Metamorphoses. To quote Rocket J. Squirrel, “that trick never works.”)

My take-away: Williams was/is a full-tilt narcissist, and not just in the endless video self-documentation Schreck uncovered. (There’s a shot early on, probably taken from a vintage Williams profile where the camera performs an elaborate crane maneuver up the façade of his studio, ultimately framing him inside a window flipping through a stack of penciled animation frames.) The Thief and the Cobbler is Williams’ narcissism run amok: he intended to make his movie his way, pure animation with only the flimsiest of plot lines and non-existent characterizations. Had he been able to get away with it, Williams would probably still be animating his masterpiece to this very day, trying to make it even more perfect…

So kudos to Kevin for deftly accomplishing his own quest to tell the tale of Williams’ folly. (Choosing Rimsky-Korsakov’s grandiose Scheherazade suite to accompany Williams’ showy animation and behind the scenes self-aggrandizing was a stroke of genius.) Don’t miss this cautionary cartoon tale; to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “be careful what you wish for – you might not get it.”

So much for Richard Williams; now let me tell you about the kids TV series I’ve been trying to launch since 1978…

[You can learn more about Kevin Schreck’s Persistence of Vision at http://www.facebook.com/PersistenceOfVisionOfficialDocumentaryPage

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