Sunday, 14 January 2018

THE LEIGH SPENCE MOMENT: THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER


57. “Belief in yourself is what you lack. Attack, attack, and never look back.”

14/01/2018

Space at home is scarce, but if I am ever in the position to have a coffee table, two of the three coffee table books I would have, if that really is a genre, are the two song writing books by Stephen Sondheim, “Look, I Made a Hat,” and “Finishing the Hat.” The third would be “The Animator’s Survival Kit” by the Canadian-British animator Richard Williams, credited on the book for directing the animation for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” for which he won a special Academy Award, something only given out three times since 1989.

Without Williams, the suspension of disbelief required for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” simply would not have worked. Production on the file was moved from Los Angeles to London to accommodate Williams and his animators, still drawing by hand, combining Disney, Warner Bros., MGM and other characters in a way that seemed possible at that single moment, and would never work again – that Williams pulled it off at all is a miracle.

However, Williams’s magnum opus as an animator was never meant to have been a production made for someone else, or other productions like “Ziggy’s Gift,” “Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure” or the countless TV advertisements made by his company. Just like Orson Welles taking acting and voiceover jobs to make his films, Williams was using his money to produce a feature film of his own, inspired by the tales of Mullah Nasruddin.


“The Thief and the Cobbler,” variously titled “Nasrudin,” “Tin Tack,” “The Majestic Fool” and “Once…” during its near thirty-year gestation period, features, well, a thief, a cobbler (named “Tack”), a sultan, a princess, and a villain voiced by Vincent Price, Zigzag the Grand Vizier. The story is inconsequential, but one person wants to gain power, and the other person wins because of their inherent goodness. Anthony Quayle, Donald Pleasence, Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter also provided voices, but Tack and the thief say nothing, their reactions driving the plot like they were Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati. If anything, the characters and story exist to serve the gorgeous animation, both intricate and two-dimensional, inspired by Persian miniature paintings, while featuring hand-drawn geometric designs now routinely handed to computer programs to complete.

Sadly, “The Thief and the Cobbler,” again like some Orson Welles films, remains unfinished… well, it was finished, but not by Williams. The leverage of producing “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” led to a deal with Warner Bros. to complete the film, but what Williams had been producing at his own pace, rewriting and redrawing scenes as he wanted, now had other people depending upon it, and a deadline of 1991 to meet, leading to Williams being kicked off his pet project. For someone who insisted on animating every frame of the finished film – animation is usually produced “on twos” instead, to save time and money – the result was unfortunately inevitable.


With a completion bond being signed by Warner Bros. to ensure they had a finished film, and with the guarantors employing TV animation producer Fred Calvert to supervise production, Warner Bros. ultimately abandoned the film when they saw what was made, which was fifteen minutes short of a completed film. The guarantors replaced Williams with Calvert, to complete the film as quickly and cheaply as possible – the results were only released in South Africa and Australia as “The Princess and the Cobbler,” but was recut and released by Miramax – hmmm - as a “[Disney’s] Aladdin” rip-off titled “Arabian Knight,” with the originally silent Tack and thief now voiced by wise-cracking Matthew Broderick and Jonathan Winters. Remembering that this all began in 1964, “The Thief and the Cobbler” was finally seen in the UK, where it was made, when a DVD was released in 2012.

This film has been endlessly discussed, and a bootleg of Williams’ workprint is as responsible for preserving the film’s reputation as much as that of “Blade Runner,” although we will not see a director’s cut here – the workprint is now held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and is subtitled by Williams as “A Moment in Time.” While our view of film, for the last fifty years, has been based on the guiding light of the “auteur,” it can be argued that animation requires too many people for this to be viable, unless you are on a very small scale, like Bill Plympton, or you afforded yourself an extraordinary amount of time – it does not appear to be possible any other way.

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