How the greatest animator of all time attempted to create the perfect cartoon, and how he blew it.
By Eric Lurio
(Written in 1995 but unpublished except for this website!)
There are a few films where "the making of" saga is of such magnitude, that the film is deemed a total disaster even if it's rather good. Films that took years to develop, had the best possible talent, cost a ton of money to make, and had potential coming out of every pore—but just didn't quite make it. Ishtar pops immediately to mind, so does The Last Action Hero and now, there's another to add to the list, Richard William’s Arabian Knight. Arabian Knight is a full-length cartoon. It was also Richard William’s obsession, his life for a full quarter-century, then it was taken away from him.
1964 wasn't a vintage year for animation. Disney came out with nothing that year. MGM and Warner’s had shut down their animation departments and were farming out the work to independents. Hanna-Barbera’s limited" process for TV only worked with first-rate scripts, and only they and Jay Ward’s Bullwinkle show had those. In London, where Williams lived, the situation was even worse. There were three choices for animators: commercials, the film-festival circuit, and DoDo, The Kid From Outer Space.
Wisely choosing the first two options, Williams was making a go of it. His first short The Little Island(1959) had won the British Academy Award, and his second, Love ME!Love ME!Love ME! was wowing audiences pretty much everywhere.
In 1964 Williams was reading a well worn copy of 1001 Arabian Nights, and fell in love with a story. The tale, about mullah(holy man) named Nasruddin. While not as well know in the west as Aladdin or Sinbad, Nasruddin is a major favorite in the Islamic world. Williams thought it had the makings of the perfect cartoon. Sort of the "War and Peace" of animation. "What I wanted to do," He told the BBC in a 1981 special, "was to relearn the craft, put it in a different direction and leave it."
That he did, winning three Oscars, an Emmy, and dozens of ad awards in the process. But other people’s movies and commercials were mere day jobs. In the words of Lina Tabori, his producer of his Emmy-winning Ziggy's Gift:"[Arabian Knight] is so, so special because it was his. It was his heart, it was his soul, it was everything he was, this film. It was his fantasy, all his desire—all his manipulations of how he led his life were there, everything was in that movie! That movie was about Richard. That film was Richard!"
His first partner on the project was Idires Shah, the great Sufi mystic. Shah brought in several of his relatives, including his brother Omar, who became Williams’ business manager. It was at this time, the late ’sixties and early ’seventies, that the original voice tracks, featuring Vincent Price, Ralph Richardson, and Anthony Quayle, were recorded. Williams and Omar Shah became involved in a financial dispute in 1971, and the following year, at just the time when a deal with Paramount was about to be closed, the mystic bailed out and took his screenplay with him.
Creating a story from what he could keep from the previous eight years work, Williams sauntered on. The bills were paid by commercials, movie titles, and a full-length animated musical flop called Raggedy Ann and Andy.
Then, in 1978, Williams seemingly hit paydirt. Prince Mohammed Faisil of Saudi Arabia expressed interest in the project. After two years of negotiations, the prince agreed to finance ten minutes as a test. "It was supposed to take thirty to forty weeks," former business manager Carl Gover said. "it took a year." The result was one of the greatest animation sequences ever made. Unfortunately, the delays and extra expense scared away the prince and his accountants.
According to the official Disney account, Robert Zemekis and Steven Speilberg got wind of the sequence and Williams screened it for them. This got him the allegedly impossible-to-do Who Framed Rodger Rabbit? and two Oscars. It also got him what he always wanted. A contract.
1988 was a vintage year for cartoons. Roger Rabbit, Disney's Oliver's and Company and Don Bluth's All Dogs Go To Heaven each made lots of money. Warner Brothers decided to get into the feature animation business, financing three animated features, including Williams’.
Williams now had the freedom to create and experiment to his heart's content in the second most expensive art form known. He scoured the art schools of Europe and Canada to find talented artists he could mold into his image. Old friends were called back from other projects. He had an army at his command and discipline was harsh. "He fired hundreds of people. There's a list as long as you're arm of people fired by Dick. It was a regular event." cameraman John Letherbarrow recalls,"There was one guy who got fired on the doorstep." He was just as hard on himself,"he was the first person in the morning and the last one out at night," recalls animator Roger Visard.
It was an exiting place to work for those who could hack it. Sequences of increasing complexity were devised "He wanted us to do some impossible things, he had me design this dragon. At the end of the war scene, Zigzag [the villain] was going to blow up this monstrous dragon. It was very complex, he wanted me to draw[each and every] scales and all..." But Williams surpassed both these sequences using only traditional methods in the 1970s and ’80s.
The spectacle was getting more spectacular by the day. Every drawing, cel and background was crafted with the utmost care. Every single tiny detail was attended to. That is except one. Warner Brothers’ ride on the Roger Rabbit bandwagon quickly turned sour. It's 1990 release, Lacewood studio’s Nutcracker Prince, lost money during it's theatrical release, and 1991's entry, Hyperion's Rover Dangerfield was so bad it was never released theatrically at all. The people in Warners’ front office began to worry.
"A guy came over from [Completion Bond Corporation] named Dan Rounds and some other people who came with a view to speed up the operation," John Letherbarrow said, "they were putting this computerized system in order to help us along but in fact was a complete shambles."
William's didn't take kindly to this kind of help, "His attitude was to carry on regardless, and in spite of them." Visard remembers. Several sources remember him talking about "keeping the dogs at bay." On January 1, 1992 the film wasn't ready. Warner's kind of expected that. It was put on the schedule for a November release, against an animated blockbuster from Disney called Aladdin, as one London animator said at the time, "it's a genuine tragedy."
The war between Williams and Warners’ and later CBC, began now in earnest. "They kept pulling Dick into meetings. Men would come into Imogene Sutten’s[Mrs. Williams] office," Visard explained, "then you’d see Dick come out very upset and mentally exhausted." "They had to twist his fingers to do storyboards, he refused to do them."
In March or April 1992, Warner’s asked Williams to come to LA and bring whatever he had. What he brought was a tape of what's called a "laika reel" a combination of finished footage, pencil tests and storyboards which showed approximately what the film would look like. This tape was duped and bootleg copies exist.
To fully appreciate what was attempted and what was accomplished, pop the Lion King in the VCR and fast forward to the stampede scene. Stunning, huh? The secret behind the sequence is that one wildebeest was animated by hand and the rest rendered by computer. It couldn’t be done any other way, all the media agreed, it was too complex to do by hand. The wild magic carpet ride at the "cave of wonders" sequence in Aladdin was done in the same way for the same reason. But Williams surpassed both these sequences using only traditional methods in the 1970s and ’80s. There's an old saying in the movie business—if people come out praising the sets, the thing’s a bomb. The animation is indeed spectacular. Most of the jokes even work. But Williams forgot two small things, the characters and the story.
The plot is boring, the hero a cipher, the villain cardboard, and the heroine hadn't even been animated yet. The parts were far greater than the whole. Warner’s, in horror, pulled out, and CBC sent lawyer Michael Fayne and animator Fred Calvert to confiscate the film.
"It came as a shock to him," many of the people who were there agree. It was CBC’s job to finish the film, no matter what. Williams was fired the studio closed down, and the cels and drawings packed up and sent to LA. "I think it was a contributing factor[to CBC's demise]" said Fred Calvert, the animator who replaced Williams, "they had to pay $16 million back to the banks, that's pretty unusual." It was Calvert’s thankless task to turn the greatest cinematic mess since Erich von Stroheim's Queen Kelly into wholesome family entertainment.
"It took a year and a half to finish the thing," Calvert remembers, Twenty minutes of extraneous film were cut out. The voice tracks had to be completely redone. They’d been recorded in the early 1970s and many in the voice cast, like Vincent Price and Anthony Quayle, were dead. Songs were added to shore up the plot.
An animation studio was set up in Burbank, and in London several Williams alumni agreed to help complete the film there, including Williams’ son Alex. The musical sequences were given to the top non Disney animation houses, notably Don Bluth’s.
Until Miramax agreed to distribute the film in January, no American distributor would touch it "it was a very difficult film to market, it had such a reputation," Calvert recalls. "I don't think that they were looking at it objectively" .and CBC went out of business. It was distributed in Australia and South Africa, but bombed both places.
Then, in December 1994, Miramax bought the rights, and for some reason no one will admit to, ripped out most of the sound track and deliberately turned it into a cheap imitation of Aladdin, turning several silent characters into veritable chatterboxes, and adding a narration that subtracted much from the film. It almost seems as if they were deliberately trying to make it worse.
Retititled Arabian Knight, it opened to wide release in the summer or 1995 and made all of $300 thousand. in six weeks before it was pulled from theaters to be consigned to video. Or was supposed to. Disney, which had the video rights initially scheduled release in December '95, then postponed it to March "96, before canceling it altogether.
Well, it came out at the end of February. It’s worth a look, and at a sell through price, perhaps even purchase. Despite it’s many flaws, there are still parts here that will knock your socks off. Especially the war machine sequence, which is breathtaking. You look at it and you can see the possibilities of what MIGHT have been. There’s gold in them thar film.