Friday, August 02, 2013

Persistence of Vision

Richard Williams

I will write an entry about TAAFI's third day, but Kevin Schreck's documentary Persistance of Vision, which screened at TAAFI, deserves an entry of its own.  The film is a chronicle of the making and unmaking of the Richard Williams' feature The Cobbler and the Thief.  Williams began the film as an adaptation of stories featuring the mullah Nasruddin written by Idries Shah.  A falling out with the Shah family led to the reworking of the story to eliminate the Nasruddin character and a cobbler became the new focus of the film.

Williams financed the film out of profits made from his studio's commercial work.  After the success of Williams' contribution to the animation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Warner Bros. agreed to finance his feature.  When Williams failed to deliver the film on time, Warner Bros. decided it was better to drop the project and collect the completion insurance, which put the ownership of the film in the hands of The Completion Bond Company.  At that point, the film had been in production for 24 years.

Stuck with a film they didn't want, the bond company took it away from Williams and had it completed in the cheapest, fastest way possible.  They hoped to salvage something financially by bowdlerizing the film to make it look like other animated features of the time.  The film, released as Arabian Knight, was a failure and Williams withdrew from active production to lecture, write The Animator's Survival Kit, and to work on personal projects.

That's a very bare outline of events, but the man at the center of it, Richard Williams, is a huge contradiction: he elevated the art of animation but was the author of his own misfortune.  Schreck's film explores both of these aspects of Williams' career by interviewing many people who worked on the film and using footage of Williams himself from interviews he gave over the years.

Left to right: Ken Harris, Grim Natwick, Art Babbitt, Richard Purdom, Richard Williams

Williams understood that the men who created character animation were getting on in years and that their art would die with them.  At his own expense, he brought animators Art Babbitt, Ken Harris, and Grim Natwick to his studio to train his staff.  These veterans of Disney and Warner Bros. gave their knowledge freely as well as contributing to the studio's output.  Williams himself was a perfectionist who demanded the best possible work from his staff.  While he was often a difficult boss, those who worked for him acknowledge the opportunity he gave them to grow as artists.

Left to right: Ben McEvoy, Kevin Schreck, Tara Donovan, Greg Duffell.  Donovan and Duffell both drew inbetweens on the Williams feature 17 years apart.

After the screening, Kevin Schreck made the comment that Williams had the sensibility of a painter working in film rather than the sensibility of a film maker.  That crystallized my thinking on Williams.  While he brought over veteran animators and idolized Milt Kahl, it's interesting that over the course of the production, he never brought in veteran story men like Bill Peet, Mike Maltese or Bill Scott.  He never consulted with directors like Wilfred Jackson, Dave Hand or John Hubley.  At no time did he hire a famous screenwriter or novelist.  He was interested in creating better animation, but he was uninterested in what the animation was there to serve.

Williams treated content as an excuse to create elaborate visuals, but he didn't much care what the content was and may not have been able to tell the difference between good and bad content.  In this way, he was perfectly suited to the commercials his studio turned out.  He was lucky that during that period, British ad agencies were writing literate and witty ads.  The combination of their content and his astounding artwork made his commercials the best in the world.

But when the content was mediocre, as it was in his feature Raggedy Ann and Andy or in The Cobbler and the Thief, the result was an elaborateness that wasn't justified. Character designs were overly complicated and had a multiplicity of colours.  Layouts used tricky perspectives.  The inevitable result was that artists could only work at a snail's pace, driving up the budget and jeopardizing delivery.  The detail overwhelmed the flimsy stories and the films collapsed under their own weight.

Someone in the documentary revealed that during the period when Warner Bros. was financing the film, Williams was still creating storyboards.  That was twenty years into the project.  It was obvious that Williams considered story an inconvenience; it had to be done so there would be something to draw.  In the panel discussion after the film, Greg Duffell recalled that there were mornings where Williams had to create sequences off the cuff in order to supply Ken Harris with work.  There was never a structured story, just sequences that tickled Williams' fancy. The visuals were what Williams cared about.

Schreck's film encompasses the heroic Williams and the self-destructive Williams.  Williams is animation's Erich Von Stroheim, making an impossibly long version of Greed.  Or maybe Williams is Captain Ahab, inspiring his crew to pursue the white whale but leading them all to destruction.  Williams set out to make a masterpiece, to show the world animation as it had never been done before.  Those parts of his film that survive are unlike anything else that's been done.  But being different and being worthwhile are not the same.  Williams chose to work in a medium where the audience expects a story that evokes emotions, but Williams saw story as a necessary evil instead of the heart of the project.

This documentary is a major work of animation history.  Schreck has been traveling with it to festivals all around the continent.  I don't know if the film will be picked up for distribution as clearing the rights to various clips would be expensive and time consuming.  For now, festivals may be the only way to see the film, so you'll have to seek it out.

Williams' career has undoubtedly been a benefit to the entire animation industry, but his success with audiences was greater when others created the content that was the basis for his work.


Unknown said...

Realistically, I'll just wait until this comes out on DVD. It already sounds like a must watch on my part from a cartoonist's perspective. Great analysis as usual.

ad said...

Robert, I had overheard from Kevin, at TAAFI, that for the time being, the film will only be screening at certain festivals. You owe it to yourself to catch it in the theatre. The doc was beautiful and it's a great opportunity to see the animation on the big screen.

Dan Haskett said...

Hi, Mark! Happy New Year!

Terrific analysis, indeed. I'm wondering how many animators will truly take PERSISTENCE OF VISION for the cautionary tale it is. (You know how stubborn folks can be, sometimes.)