A tale of artistic obsession run amuck, Kevin Schreck’s micro-budget, low-tech docu “Persistence of Vision” pieces together the story behind “The Thief and the Cobbler,” the epic, nearly 30-years-in-the-making animated feature that Richard Williams (Academy Award-winning animation director of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) never completed. Combining rare archival footage with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from Williams’ former employees, this fascinating slice of film history could have a life on cable and in home formats once rights issues pertaining to the material excerpted are resolved. Further fest play is guaranteed.
A Canadian by birth, Williams came to London in the mid-1950s, where he formed his own production company. Specializing in meticulous, hand-drawn 2D work, Richard Williams Animation soon earned a reputation for quality and innovation with visual sequences such as the titles for “What’s New Pussycat” and the segues for “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Young talent from all over the world sought to work there.
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One of Williams’ early producing partners, Omar Ali Shah, introduced him to the Middle Eastern fables featuring Mullah Nasruddin. Charmed by the characters, Williams provided illustrations for a book translated by Shah’s brother, and as early as 1964 he started animating sequences based on the stories. But when Williams and Shah parted ways, Shah claimed the rights for the Mullah character; this setback was just the first of many to dog Williams’ pet project.
Key animators and artists who worked for the company wryly recount the intense, exciting atmosphere of the studio, albeit noting that workaholic, perfectionist Williams could be mean and thought nothing of requiring 80-hour weeks. Their work on the feature, provisionally titled “The Thief and the Cobbler” continued in between high-profile commercial projects (including 1971 animated adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” and the title sequence of “The Pink Panther”).
Always more of an artist than a businessman, Williams poured his own money into the feature. His subordinates observe that he was his own worst enemy, fond of making material he liked even longer, and throwing out months of work by others if it didn’t meet his standards.
In 1990, after the success of “Roger Rabbit,” Warner Brothers put up $25 million to finish “The Thief and the Cobbler,” with another $25 million for P&A. But with the big money came deadlines and budgets that Williams, who had never even storyboarded the pic, couldn’t meet. As one interviewee remarks, what Williams had was merely a bunch of sequences in search of a plot.
Although Williams has refused to speak about his labor of love since the completion bond company seized it in 1992, 23-year-old writer-helmer-lenser-editor Kevin Schreck incorporates public-domain interviews of him talking up the project over the years. Schreck also obtained salvaged footage and line tests from some of the animators and private collectors, giving viewers a privileged view of the evolution of the project’s style and design.
Although the assembly would benefit from futher tightening, as a whole it reps an ambitious first work. The interviews were shot with standard-issue video equipment from Bard College, where Schreck was a film major, with another student recording sound. The archival materials are of variable quality, with considerable footage downloaded from the Internet.