Last Sunday I was lucky enough to see the 1992 work print of Richard Williams‘ life’s work, ‘The Thief & The Cobbler’ at the BFI on the Southbank. To make the occasion even more special, the man himself was on hand to present it and answer questions, something he’d been reluctant to do for over 20 years since the film was taken, unfinished, from him by the studio and bastardised into not one but two flop versions of his great vision. It’s a long but fascinating story which ends in tragedy and is best told via the Wiki article here or Kevin Schreck‘s documentary ‘Persistence of Vision’.
In conversation with film critic David Robinson after the showing Williams was in fine form, laughing and joking about events during and after the film’s premature end. Several animators and people who worked on the film were present in the audience and he was at pains to mention as many of them as possible. Sadly because of the time that had passed since the film’s abrupt halt, several of the more elderly animators had died and Williams himself is now 81. There was a sense of closure about the showing, with the audience all willing a visibly moved Williams to shakily get through his list of thankyous before the film commenced.
The film itself was incredible to see on the big screen and at a fairly decent quality even though certain scenes were unfinished and shown via basic pencil animations or even story boards. The sound was also unfinished but most of the voice work was in place even if the music featured placeholders or rough drafts. You got a sense of the story and there were several new sequences that I’ve never see before in the various different versions floating around the web.
The incredible war machine sequence near the end was just breathtaking to behold, surely one of the greatest long-form animated sequences ever created. The pace of a lot of the animation was far slower than would be acceptable in today’s ADD world but this added to its charm and the humour was light but cutting. Had it of emerged at the time, after the spectacle of William’s other great work, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, it would have looked like little else seen before. Since more than 20 years has now passed you can see that ‘inspiration’ had been very liberally taken from it for the animated version of ‘Aladdin’ that Disney released some years later.
After the showing and a rather large applause, Williams took to the stage with Robinson and went through a number of anecdotes connected to the film before engaging in a Q&A with the audience. He was at pains to point out that this version of the film was only the last version they had before all the footage was repossessed, and not a very good quality copy at that. He revealed that his wife had sent the film to an overnight copy house to get a dub of the footage they had in the order that was assembled at the time. In this interview with London Calling he expands further on how the showing came about:
“The Academy wanted to screen my cut of the not quite finished ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’. With their help we reconstructed the work-print as it was on the day we had to abandon the film in 1992. Which is why we’ve called this version ‘The Thief and the Cobbler: A Moment in Time’. The whole film is there in good working order with all the amazing voices including Kenneth Williams and Joan Sims from the ‘Carry On’ films, and the legendary Vincent Price.”
During the session he recounted some of his battles with the studio and how it had affected him afterwards. When asked about why he hadn’t spoken about it he replied that, “when that happens to you, the last thing you want to do is talk about it”. Talking about surrounding himself with the best people in the business so that he could be sure they could be relied on to get on with the job he told a story he’d heard concerning a jazz musician with a drunk guitarist. On finding the inebriated player shortly before a show and realising that he wouldn’t be up to the job he hissed at him, “Don’t fuck with my hustle”, and this appeared to be his attitude to anyone who worked for him who couldn’t pull their weight.
Best of all was a seemingly throwaway comment he made when talking about the control studios exert over their charges once the finance is in place. Summing up probably a lifetime of experience at the hands of the moneymen and relevant to virtually any area of the industry where creativity is involved: “You know what the Golden Rule is, don’t you?” he asked the audience, “The one with the gold, makes the rules”…
Many thanks to Mark Nicholson (aka Osymyso) for not only getting me a ticket but for taking these photos during the event. For more behind the scenes info on the original production of ‘The Thief…’ take a look at this blog, written by some of the original animators and creatives involved in making it.