The Animator Who Never Gave Up --
The Unmaking of a Masterpiece.
Richard Williams has won three - count 'em -- three Oscars for animation, an Emmy, a zillion awards for animated commercials both here and abroad, and the kudos of virtually anybody and everybody who knows even bip about animation. Williams is more than a ranking amateur; he may well be, in fact, THE animators animator.
Once upon a time, in fact it was almost 30 years ago, Williams dreamt of making an animated feature: a special one. After more transmogrifications than a jungle monkey goes through on its trip from the glint in its father's eye to life in a circus, a precious fragment of this dream barely made it to the screen in late Summer 1995 as Arabian Knight.
The staggering scale of this saga is unsurpassed in the annals of animation, so a precis is in order. Facts are often hard to come by here, so, as John Ford said, when the legend surpasses the truth, print the legend.
In The Beginning.....
It all started with Mulla Nasrudin the wise fool of Middle Eastern antiquity and Sufi folktales. Here's an example:
"What is Fate?" Nasrudin was asked by a Scholar.
"An endless succession of intertwined events, each influencing the other."
"That is hardly a satisfactory answer. I believe in cause and effect."
"Very well," said the Mulla, "look at that." He pointed to a procession passing in the street."
"That man is being taken to be hanged. Is that because someone gave him a silver piece and enabled him to buy the knife with which he committed the murder; or because someone saw him do it; or because nobody stopped him?"
(FOOTNOTE: The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, Idries Shah, Simon and Schuster, 1966. New York, p. 110
Zenlike stories similar to this and those of other nationalities (the tales of Chelm, or even Tyl Eulenspiegel for example) are intended to impart wisdom in an ass-backward fashion: you laugh at a fool, then laugh at the foolishness in yourself. Not a bad way to look at things.
Sometime around 1964...
Williams read some classic Nasrudin stories, and liked them very much. He got in touch with a writer named Idries Shah. Shahs sister was commissioned to re-translate the Sufi tales.
Collaborating with Idries Shah, Williams illustrated a newly translated tome of tales called The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin. The dozens of charming line drawings and stories were the birth cry of a motion picture project that came to be known by many, many titles.
The book is published by Simon & Schuster.
Now called "The Amazing Nasrudin," the film project goes forward. Scratch tracks (a kind of temporary dialog track that allows the animators to time out a film) were recorded. Actors included Vincent Price, Donald Pleasance, Anthony Quayle, and Sean Connery. Animation work commences, mostly in England.
Around this time, Williams studio also produced the now classic animated segues for The Charge of the Light Brigade.
The BBC produced a documentary on the films progress. It is now called "The Golden City." Stylistically, this film is in advance of anything ever done before. The 60s were characterized by a breakaway from the classic Disney style. Fueled by the UPA cartoons of the 50s and budgetary constraints, such features as Yellow Submarine substituted color and abstraction for realism and detail. Williams married the styles. In classic Disney fashion, he animated on ones (a minimum of one drawing for each frame of film: 24 base drawings for each second of film) compared to the one drawing held for 2 or 3 or 4 frames in limited animation. The look of this film, however, was a modern reinterpretation of Persian design: succulently colorful, whimsically minimal in character design, phantasmagorically rich in backround detail.
When viewed today, it has some of the appearance of the finest in spectacular computer animation. There is one important difference. Williams did everything by hand.
Faced with budget short runs, Williams took on a television special: a thirty minute version of A Christmas Carol, one of the most brilliant adaptations of Dickens classic. He had great difficulty in finishing on time and on budget: Chuck Jones stepped in to complete the production.
Williams made a tentative deal with Paramount to finish Nasrudin. Suddenly, Idries Shahs sister, who had done some of the fine translations for the Nasrudin book claimed she that she owned the stories. A law suit was threatened over copyright infringement. Paramount backed away.
Righteously incensed, Williams took the characters that were clearly his and dumped the wise and wonderful Mulla Nasrudin.
The Thief and The Cobbler was born.
Williams re-did everything. Everything. Really.
Williams was called in to make the animated feature Raggedy Ann and Andy, which, with no small travail, was finished and released.
Trying to re-start the Arabian film himself, Williams soon ran out of money. He did commercials to support himself, his staff, and the Project.
Mohammed Feisal, a prince of Saudi Arabia, and a relative of the Prince Feisal who figured so prominently in the epic of Lawrence of Arabia, agreed to back a test film of the new story to the tune of $100,000.
Williams missed the first deadline for completing the test.
Williams missed the second deadline for completing the test.
Around the middle of 1979...
The test footage is completed (to the tune of about $250,000). (Keep in mind that at that time, no animated film had ever cost more than $8 or 9 million dollars).
Prince Feisal flew to London for a screening.
The sequence, now referred to as "The Battle Scene," received a standing ovation. It was unlike anything ever seen before on the silver screen. It still beggars the imagination.
Around the end of 1979....
The Battle Scene is finished.
Staring into the black heart of missed deadlines and budgetary overruns, Prince Feisal backs out of the production.
The BBC produces another documentary about the Project, which was sometimes called "Once..."
Lena Tabori approaches Williams to work on a television special called "Ziggys Gift." They finish it and in....
...they win an Emmy..
Williams goes back to making commercials and working on what is now called, presciently, The Thief Who Never Gave Up. But animation is outre in the industry at the moment, and not much progress is made in getting serious studio backing.
Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back is producing a slate of pictures that includes the animated Little Nemo, Teefr, a live-action fantasy, The Spirit, another animated feature, and some additional projects including what became Return to OZ. He agrees to help with The Thief which receives a small budgetary input and is promoted to both studios and animation fans.
Williams puts together a sample reel that runs about 12 minutes and shows it to a friend who mentions the work to others who in turn get it shown to Bob Zemeckis who is so impressed by it all that he hires Williams to work on Roger Rabbit.
To keep up with the work on Roger Rabbit, Williams stops doing commercials altogether.
Roger Rabbit opens. It is a phenomenal boxoffice success and a phenomena of innovation in and of itself.
Later in 1988 ...
In the wake of this success, Warner Brothers makes a negative pickup deal to complete The Thief (which may by now have been entitled The Thief and the Cobbler or The Cobbler and The Thief). Williams also gets some money from Japanese interests.
Work on the film continues at Williams studio in London.
The film is not done.
Disney plans to open Aladdin (a stylistically diluted "appropriation" and expansion of many of The Thiefs finer ideas) in November. Realizing that The Thief -- if it was finished -- would open against Aladdin, Warner Brothers backs out of the deal.
Thoughtfully, one of the financial officers of Williams company had arranged a completion bond (a kind of insurance policy that pays for any cost overruns on a motion picture) for the project. The Completion Bond Company, which supplied the bond, was, however, getting a little nervous.
Williams shows what he has of The Thief in Los Angeles. All but about 15 minutes of film is finished.
Clutching stacks of red-inked balance sheets, The Completion Bond Company fires everyone including Williams.
Fred Calvert, an animator/producer, with a strong background in television animation is brought in to complete the project once and for all.
Williams assembles a kind of work print (much like the "Work-in-progress" version of Beauty and the Beast which was shown at the New York Film Festival) and turns it over to Calvert.
Calvert is actually finishing the film with the help of several other studios including Don Bluths which is called in to work on some songs which have been added to "flesh out" the story which has been shortened by compression of scenes and the elimination of some completed animation.
The Princess and the Cobbler is released in Australia and South Africa. It does not break any boxoffice records....
Miramax buys the film from The Completion Bond Company, which subsequently goes out of business.
Originally intending to release the Calvert version, someone gets "cold feet" and decides to rework the film in order to improve its box office performance.
A wall-to-wall dialog track is added, the order of events is changed, one character (the witch) is removed completely, and the film is shortened considerably.
So many weeks behind schedule that the publicity department at Miramax doesnt have a print to screen until opening day, Arabian Knight is released to mixed reviews and tepid boxoffice.
Given limited space, the foregoing barely touches upon what really happened. Given disagreement of sources, it is hard to know which spin to put upon the ball for any given event, but I suspect that this approximates something of what actually went on.
What is clear here is that fate threw this project into a whirlpool that bashed and smashed and spun it about for thirty years until a bare shell of a ship emerged from the other side. Laying blame is the least interesting part of this story. The film business has a way of partnering creative people who have conflicting visions. In the best of all scenarios the offspring of these partnerships are robust and take on a life of their own, in the worst the projects emerge weak and damaged or not at all. It is, in fact, a miracle that anything at all survived of Williams original project.
Based upon a viewing of the famous "workprint" of The Thief and The Cobbler, the one that was given over to Fred Calvert as a blueprint, it is certain that Richard Williams intended to make a film in the mold of, say, Cocteaus Beauty and the Beast: a film filled with wonders and delights, not one jammed with zingy one-liners and hummable Hit Parade jingles to break up the storyline. Aside from some Rimsky-Korsakov, what little original music there is in the temp track are surprisingly avant-garde Phillip Glass-like incantations and chants indicating that some sophisticated minds were hard at work .
The Storyline (until recently)
By 1992 the fallout of the endlessly bashed and ever-changing storyline had settled on a subtle tale of two befuddled protagonists -- one a gifted and compulsive cobbler too shy to say anything, the other a thief too obsessed with stealing shiny things to even bother to speak much less shoo away the flies that buzz endlessly around his fixated, pin-point eyes -- thrown together by a fate that makes them at once the cause of the fall of a great kingdom and also the means of saving it.
The Thief, who has no name, topples the hapless Cobbler, Tack, into the path of ZigZag (voiced from the very beginning of the project by Vincent Price) who steps on one of his cobbling nails. Dragged before the lazy, always napping King Nod, Tack is about to be executed when the Princess Yum Yum is entranced by the cobblers innocence, openness, and silence. Deliberately breaking her slipper, she gets her father to postpone the execution much to the dismay of ZigZag who has his lustful eye on her.
The Thief, in the meanwhile, has lustfully espied the three golden balls that glitter above and protect this ancient Arabian city from their perch on the spire of an inaccessible tower. "Only a freak of nature," could get them down observes ZigZag when the worried King awakes from nightmares of the fall of his kingdom to the army of the evil One-Eye.
Sure enough, the Thief steals the golden balls, precipitates the fall of the city, sending Tack and YumYum off into the desert to save the kingdom from One-Eyes terrifying War Machine. With the help of a band of idiot brigands, a Mammy Yokum-like witch and inevitably the Thief himself, Tack manages to save the day, rescue the kingdom, retrieve the stolen golden balls, and to marry the Princess.
The Perfect Obsession******
What gives this all an edge is that from top to bottom, from inside and out, this is a tale of obsession. The cobbler is obsessed with cobbling, ZigZag is obsessed with power and with YumYum, the King is obsessed with napping, YuYum is obsessed with the cobbler who in turn becomes enthralled with her, and the Thief is obsessed with stealing anything that glitters regardless of whether it is nailed down or not.
And the animators who told this story were obsessed with perfection. Never has the screen seen animation like this (heard that before, huh? But you need to take a look at this) nor will it again. In a metaphysical way, it is not realism that is going on here, it is truth: the truth in the way the characters move, the truth in what gives them weight, the truth in what motion through visual space is all about. The finest living animators in the world put (in the case especially of Art Babbitt and Ken Harris) their last drops of sweat and blood into this perfecting of their craft. Poetry may seem a long way from Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck cartoons, but it is hard to find a better term for what occurred in The Thief and The Cobbler. Sadly for The Completion Bond Company and Miramax and ultimately for the brilliant Richard Williams, poetry and perfection are rarely the stuff of Big Boxoffice. The Thief and the Cobbler is a true masterpiece of finesse. Williams himself worked harder than anyone else to complete the film, often without sleep, more often without pay. If only the War Machine had been a money machine, this story would be different.
From the evidence, it is apparent that Williams conceived of this as a nearly silent movie. It is pure motion that tells the story making it one of the ultimate examples of the animators craft. The sheer beauty and subtlety of the simplest details are breathtaking.
The Thief himself -- with the sparest of animated lines and the blobbiest of moving shapes -- has all of the beauty and hysterical humor of Buster Keatons finest mimimg. The Cobbler -- in his Escheresque clothing -- has all the warm, boyish innocence of Harry Langdon. Neither speaks a word (well, one short sentence in a special moment) with their lips, but in this case, a picture is worth a million clever lines of dialog.
The justifiably famous "Battle Sequence" accomplishes with pure elbow grease what would not be accomplished for decades afterwards without banks of computers. In its unedited splendor, the scene portrays the most nightmarishly massive Rube Goldberg machine ever conceived: the endlessly sensual play of destruction.
Little tiny story points pay off in amazing ways: the Thief steals two bejewelled back scratchers right from YumYums soapy hands while she bathes her gorgeous self in bubbles. Later, captured by ZigZag, the Thief substitutes the little metal hands for his own arms when they are to be chopped off in a public square. The Thiefs assaults on the tower, the wind fluttering his stench filled cloak, Tacks tacks rolling across the courtyard, YumYums amorous glances... A thousand and one delights.
Somethings not right here. A friend of mine, who didnt know history of the film, took his kids to see Arabian Knight. They liked, he liked it. "But," he said, "its kind of weird that none of the characters lips moved and they were talking all the time."
Here hinges this tale of woe. Once again, Nasrudin said it best.
What a Bird Should Look Like
Nasrudin found a weary falcon sitting one day on his window sill.
He had never seek a bird of this kind before.
"You poor thing," he said, "how ever were you allowed to get into this state?"
He clipped the falcons talons and cut its beak straight, and trimmed its feathers.
"Now you look more like a bird," said Nasrudin.
[FOOTNOTE op cit, P. 98]
The sweet birds of the motion picture business, the golden geese of the boxoffice, lay the golden eggs of ticket sales, of musical soundtrack recordings, of toys, books, you name it. The Thief and the Cobbler as Williams saw it in his minds eye did not look like The Little Mermaid or Aladdin. It looked like a work of art. But even Picasso doesnt sell well in toy stores, and hes pretty famous. So business men -- ever mindful of ledger sheets and bottom lines -- set to work to make the falcon look more like a bird.
When I was writing Little Nemo in Tokyo around 1985, I needed some reference material and asked if the studio had a video of Chaplins The Circus, one of his last silent features from the 1920s. Sure enough, the producer produced a tape and we sat down to watch it. Well, some oxymoronic guy had dubbed the movie into Japanese! I mean they did a terriffic job: there was Charlie speaking perfect Japanese! But it destroyed the movie. Chaplins genius was in the visual economy of his gags, in their universal clarity. Spoken dialogue in a silent movie wrecked the timing and made the pantomime redundant and annoying.
In short, that is exactly what happened to Arabian Knight. Jonathan Winters (genuinely witty man that he is) and others were hired to add dialogue where there was none: where once characters delicately pantomimed their humor they now -- lips unmoving -- never stop yakking. The storyline itself was re-arranged, hammered into submission to someones notion of "how a fairy tale ought to be." Songs were added. Characters vanished. Fred Calverts honorific inclusion of out-takes of the Thiefs hilarious antics behind the end-titles were removed. Lightning flashes of glory still remain, but not enough.
But in good fairy tale tradition, all is not doom and gloom. Somewhere, Richard Williams "workprint" survives and someday (are you listening good folks at Miramax) some brilliant marketing people (who will make lots of money from this!) will release it on LaserDisk so that we can all see what we should have seen.
And theres more.
Over the years, so many artists worked on this project for which they were scrupulously and personally trained by Mr. Williams, that it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Richard Williams single-handedly created an entire generation of animators who went on to make all of the wondrous animation that Disney and others are now releasing to great acclaim (and boxoffice). He single-handedly created an animation industry in England, a country whose film economy was well-past moribund. With reverence to the tale of Jason and the Argonauts (where the villain reaps an army by planting the teeth of a dragon in fertile soil) these scores of animators have named themselves "the Children of the Dragons Teeth." And they are young and still working hard....
The sheer brute force of the innovation in The Thief and the Cobbler rocked the art of animation from top to bottom. Even in its fragmented, unfocussed, unfinished and ever-altering manifestations it was an awesome and intimidating monolithic model of a masterpiece to live up to. No self-respecting animation artist can ignore it.
Williams son said his father is retired and living on an island off
the west coast of Canada. He is animating a personal film based on
a play by the Greek author, Aristophanes. He refuses to speak to anyone about Arabian Knight.
One of the Children of the Dragons Teeth remarked that animators in Britain owe Williams so much that they all ought to chip in and build a statue of him in London.
They should. He deserves it. Tell me where to send the check.
This article originally
appeared in Films In Review magazine
(c)1996,1997 Edward Summer, All Rights Reserved.
Special thanks to Ed for allowing me to post it.