Monday, May 12, 2008



The artist's dilemma: you can't accomplish anything without compromises, but compromises distort what you hoped to accomplish.

One heartbreaking example of this is animator Richard Williams' 25 year struggle to bring his masterpiece, The Thief and the Cobbler to the screen.

Williams was the artist behind such films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and A Christmas Carol. An uncompromising perfectionist, Williams set out in 1964 using his own money from commercial assignments to make a complex and sophisticated animated film based on ancient Arabian stories. As one web history reports:

Williams had a fearsome reputation for doing things his way, more so now with a pet project designed to showcase the intricate possibilities in hand-drawn animation. He was ferociously dedicated to his dream. Each and every element which could be animated would be animated. And he was ruthless with his newly-expanded crew, hiring and firing incessantly. He had a vision and only the very best would be employed in its creation.
Williams' funds soon ran out, but in the 1970s he obtained additional funding from Prince Mohammed Faisil of Saudi Arabia. After years of delays and editorial disagreements, the Prince withdrew funding. A few years later, Williams found new funding from Warner Brothers. However, the studio made him sign a guarantee that he would complete his film in 18 months.

Williams could not resist perfecting his project and missed his deadline.

To make matters worse, while Williams obssessively worked and reworked his drawings, the Disney corporate machine beat him to the box office with its own animated Arabian stories, Aladdin. As one commentator notes, Disney's heavily promoted feature "vacuumed up the market for animated Arabian adventures."

With only 15 minutes of material left to shoot, Williams' investors confiscated his masterpiece and turned artistic control over to a Completion Bond Company. The Bond Company re-dubbed and re-cut the movie, adding songs and bringing in new voices that sounded more "American." When the flawed version was finally released by Miramax, it sank like a stone.

Now, grieving co-workers and die-hard fans are like beachcombers salvaging remnants of a shipwreck that have washed up on shore. Fragments of Williams' original vision, lovingly reconstructed, can be found all over youtube and the blogosphere. They give us a glimpse of Williams' brilliance and tantalize us with what might have been.

So much of art today is a corporate effort, dependent upon teamwork, institutional funding, and an electronic infrastructure powered by utility companies and implemented with hardware and software from multinational corporations. Each new element has the potential to add new dimensions to art, but each requires fresh compromises as well.

Many of the talents required to complete this type of art are not artistic talents. That is why, time and again, I find myself returning to the mark of a humble pencil on paper to find the essence of an artist's talent.



Peter said...

I have a copy of the "completion bond" film, and it is terrible. That said, the visuals are stunning, and if you watch it with the audio turned off, you appreciate his genius all the more.

One of the manifold "sins" of the company was to have Jonathon Winters, normally a fine comedian, prattle in endless monologue as the voice of The Thief. It is excruciating.

No one emerges artistically intact from that experience.

Eric Hamlin said...

Thanks as always for the blog, David. As it happens, I'm a friend of Richard Williams' son, but I was unaware of this project. I'll have to see if I can get a screening of any of the original reels. Even the low-quality Youtube bits look incredible.

David Apatoff said...

Black Pete, I have seen the "completion bond" version as well, and I agree-- some segments are marvelous, while others are shallow and facile. It is a work of art with a split personality.

Eric, I am glad to hear that someone so close to the family is unaware of this story. It suggests that Williams, however devastated he may have been, has managed to move on with his life.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Blog. i dint know the existence of this animated film. I managed to glimpse what survives on Youtube.

It's clear that the visuals of this movie have influenced much of the retrĂ² style of nineties and 2000s animation (and obviously Disney's Aladdin,Hercules and Mulan

Williams worked on this film for more than 20 years. Seems to me that he suffered the absence of a consistant, strong and good producer.

I think that artists often need an authoritarian father figure which can give them a halt, If not they can carry on working forever

These figures are usually the opposite to the artist: Unimaginative,materialistic,practical.

Think of all the patrons, nobles cardinals and popes which in the past commissioned artwork to often undisciplined artists.

Using cheap psycology we can compare the artist to the 'wild child' and his patron as the 'authoritarian father', to which the artist can rebel, surprise,obey, escape from, charm or surrender.

Stephen Worth said...

I worked with Art Babbitt when he was animating on this picture. He said that Williams had nearly three hours of finished animation, and only about a half hour of it was approved to be used in the picture- and even that was subject to revision and change without notice.

Williams was incredibly wasteful, and the results look overworked to me on every level... details piled up on top of details, superfluous movement on top of superfluous movement... It's as if he decided at the very beginning to do everything the hard way. Animation is hard enough to produce as it is, without trying to attempt backbreaking efforts for the sake of effect.

In my opinion, Bakshi's first three films (Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin) are the most important animated films of modern times. Yes, they're sloppy, quickly produced and rough... but they're honest and have a fierce passion and point of view. Animation has done the fairy tales and fables to death. Bakshi took a moribund artform and totally reinvented it. If you haven't seen it yet, check out Bakshi's new book next time you're at the bookstore. The artwork used to produce the films is astounding.

David Apatoff said...

Steve, thanks for an interesting and informed perspective. We do need to keep in mind that many artists lack a necessary filter (which Hemingway called a "bullshit detector") and would soon follow their muse off a cliff if they weren't restrained by good editors, clients and spouses.

It is probably impossible to unravel who did what on this film, so the world will never really know. Personally, I find the few segments that are clearly attributable to Williams to be stunningly designed, and the rich detail didn't bother me at all. Could I have survived 3 hours at that level? Definitely not.

Jesse said...

One of my favorite animated films! So wonderfully exaggerated and the amount of detail can be staggering. For anyone interested, check out the "Recobbled" restoration of the film which attempts to pull (and cull) from all available sources and get as close as possible to the original plan.

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing this film years ago and thinking how different it was (in a good way) from every other animated film at the time (or since)...mainly the visuals of course. I never knew it was a version pirated by the studio...sounds like it was a lose lose situation all around.

Ken Meyer Jr.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Stephen...I agree with you on Bakshi...the film I remember being really affected by was American Pop. Looking back at it now, some segments are incredibly overwrought, but still...great music and an interesting storyline with the family's involvement in music through the generations. I must have seen that film 15 times back in the 70's/80's.

Ken Meyer Jr.

Stephen Worth said...

Bakshi's first three features are much better than his rotoscope pictures. Coonskin was the first film to be inducted into the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection before it was even released. It was retitled Street Fight on home video. That one is Bakshi's masterpiece.

See ya

Anonymous said...

I can't help but wonder if Williams did any of the work on the 'recobbled' edition, seeing as he is still around. I was glad when I looked into the film and found that, a great relief to see that all is not lost in the world of animation.

illustrationISM.... said...

Thanx so much for these articles! That little short of Richard WIlliams was enthralling!
How the sorcerer's shoes curled out and in (one would of have missed that!) at the throne was a small point i was! My eyes were exploring to see all that was involved in the short animation - such fluidocity!
So sad the cartoon 'pit bulls' got him tho'...maybe like most other, passed on artists, his true greatness will truly shoot up and be noticed NOW through the corporate crap!

mark jaquette @
illustrationISM &

Anonymous said...

Blogger David Apatoff said...
....It is probably impossible to unravel who did what on this film, so the world will never really know. ....

Not entirely.....
You can find out more on who did what on this fascinating blogspot.
Its a collaboration of 4 animators that worked on it:

greetz, Peter Wassink

David Apatoff said...

Monque and Peter, thanks for the links! They are helpful.

Ken, you're right. You'd think in a situation like this someone would find some way to salvage something. Instead, it was lose/lose/lose.

Steve, is Street Fight available now?

David Apatoff said...

Illustrationism, I am so glad you notice those cool shoes that curl and uncurl. They continue throughout the movie and are one of my favorite parts!