Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Thief and the Cobbler - The Recobbled Cut Mk 4

Cover artwork for Garrett Gilchrist's Recobbled Cut
Garrett Gilchrist is an independent film-maker with a passion for animation. He has spent many years attempting to rebuild the original director's cut of one of animation's greatest might-have-been epic films: The Thief and the Cobbler. In a two-part interview, FLIP asked Garrett to talk a little about his latest edit - The Recobbled Cut (Mark 4).

FLIP: What is the Recobbled Cut?

GG: The Thief and the Cobbler: Recobbled Cut (Mark 4) is an unofficial restoration of an incredible and otherwise-unfinished animated feature by Richard Williams, who won three Oscars for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and A Christmas Carol. We've tracked down and restored rare footage from all over the world and created new material to present the film in as complete and watchable a form as possible. Unfortunately, with the film mostly complete, Dick was fired and replaced by someone who "completed" the film quickly, cheaply and poorly. So we're working with occasionally-inferior footage, but doing our damndest to make sure that Dick's original vision shines through.

An unpublished poster from the original Thief and The Cobbler
FLIP: What made you want to take this project on?

GG: People who really know animation might know the sad story of The Thief and the Cobbler. It's a complicated story and I apologize in advance if I mis-speak, but here's the story as I understand it. Richard Williams spent over 23 years working on this one film, a visually lush Arabian Nights fantasy which he intended to be his masterpiece, and which contains some of the most complex animation ever attempted onscreen.

Dick was never able to get full funding for the film until after Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1989, so for two decades he'd just pick at it, inbetween working on some amazing animated commercials, and the Oscar-winning A Christmas Carol, and Raggedy Ann & Andy, and so on. And his art style kept changing, becoming more complex. When he started in the 1960s, classic Disney-style animation had largely gone out of style, replaced by cheap and simple "modern design," suitable for television.

Richard Williams was a brilliant artist but he wanted to be a great animator, and this film was his way to learn. He hired some of the greatest old guard animators - Art Babbitt, Ken Harris, Grim Natwick, Emery Hawkins - very late in their lives, to pass on their knowledge to a new generation before it was lost forever. Richard's studio helped train the great animators of the 80s and 90s, like Eric Goldberg and Andreas Deja, and helped make the Disney renaissance (Aladdin, The Lion King) possible.

Animation masters - Art Babbitt and Richard Williams
The Thief is a hugely influential film, even though it has wound up as a footnote in history. And it's a work of genius, plain and simple. Richard Williams is a genius, with all that that implies. He was difficult to work for, and demanded perfection from his crew, but he was also an inspiration, and now has become one of the medium's great teachers.

All these years later he's become the great, legendary animator he could only pretend to be in the 70s, and has literally written the book on how to animate - The Animator's Survival Kit, easily the best book ever written on the subject. But people haven't seen the project he treasured more than any other. Because there wasn't any good quality, complete version of it you could really watch.
Richard Williams' text book on animation

FLIP: What is it about the original film that so inspires you?

GG: It haunted me, quite frankly. I'd never seen anything like it, and I still haven't. I first heard about The Thief and the Cobbler when I was seven or eight years old and sleeping on Roger Rabbit bedsheets. I thought Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was a nearly perfect film, and I still do. It was this huge technical achievement, to do Disney-style animation on live-action sets with a moving camera, and constantly shifting perspective, and make it believable. A hugely difficult project that Richard Williams executed perfectly. I read an interview with him in Comics Scene magazine where he talked about the project he was really interested in. For over two decades he'd been trying to make what he intended as the greatest animated film ever made. The audacity of that, the ambition of it, astounded me. And he wouldn't share any art from it now, because he'd been ripped off before. Ironic, now.

About seven years later, I saw in the theaters a preview for a terrible-looking Aladdin ripoff called Arabian Knight, with a K. Everything about it looked cheap and pathetic. When I got home, something clicked in my brain. This was by the Roger Rabbit guy. So this was his masterpiece, and something terrible happened to it somewhere along the way. Three years later I was on the internet - this was 1998 - and I found a website by Eddie Bowers, which talked about The Thief and the Cobbler. I finally knew the entire heartbreaking story.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Disney/Amblin 1988
How Williams obsessed over this film and created some of the most complex animation of all time - this huge war machine filled with every piece of weaponry and machinery imaginable - and some of the most delightfully subtle. And beautiful cinematography and lighting effects; every in-camera trick in the book and a hundred which aren't. But still no one would fund the thing until he won two Oscars for Roger Rabbit, and Warner Bros. decided to pick it up.

Williams hired a new crew of mostly very young animators who he could train to animate in his own very unique style. People who hadn't already learned those Disney habits. And up until the first half of 1992 they worked hard and worked fast, even considering what a perfectionist Dick was, and had finished most of the film. All those years of training and practice had led up to this moment, and Dick created something absolutely unique. It's not a Disney film. It's a film which was designed in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, and uses design trends from four decades, and ideas which are all its own. Some of the characters look like they came out of Yellow Submarine, or Dick Deadeye, but they move with perfect fluidity, whether it's realistic or stylized. It's a dream. As Richard said himself, "The whole thing is in the language of a dream."

But the film had a reputation at this point, and so did Dick. He'd earned that reputation with his perfectionism, but people were saying he'd never finish it at the point where he was working furiously to finish it. Meanwhile Disney was making a movie called Aladdin which was, let's say, suspiciously similar. Even before seeing it they knew they were screwed. He'd had a script all these years and knew exactly what the film was. Every scene was numbered, everything had been in place for a decade now. But he'd never actually storyboarded the thing out, and people were claiming he had no story. They say he storyboarded the whole thing in two weeks - hundreds of gorgeous drawings, which could easily be keyframes. And they cut the whole thing together as a workprint, which is what we still have now. The executives from Warner Bros. watched the 90 minute movie and saw some of the most lush, complex and spectacular animation ever attempted. And there was just silence. No one was impressed. They got up and walked out, and eventually they fired Dick and cut their losses.

While everyone was grabbing what they could and getting out of there, Dick was still at his desk animating a scene. The film had become a "reason for living." He doesn't talk about it to this day. I'm not sure he was even allowed to, legally, at the time.

The film was "finished" by some idiot who cut out half of it and turned the rest into a cheap saturday morning cartoon animated in Korea, called Princess and the Cobbler. You've never seen a film ruined so thoroughly. Then Disney bought it through Miramax, I think just to make sure no one would ever watch the thing. They made it even worse, adding Aladdin references and a voice track making fun of the film, but at that point it was a mercy killing. They called it Arabian Knight.

Arabian Knight was released in 1995
FLIP: What was the genesis of the Recobbled Cut? Were you approached by others or was this your idea?

GG: A little of both. At his website back in the 90s, Eddie Bowers had edited the backscratcher scene to use some footage from Arabian Knight. So the idea was sort of there. I rented the Arabian Knight VHS and made a copy where I just muted the voices, when someone obnoxious was talking over this otherwise amazing animation. Eddie sent me The Princess and the Cobbler and Dick's early-1992 workprint, and some documentaries, all on one SLP VHS tape. The quality was horrific. You couldn't see anything. But I'd seen the other version; I knew what I was looking at. And it was absolutely haunting. Even if you could barely see the footage, the film just casts a spell. Because it's one man's vision. It's not like anything else.

So I tried to talk to my friends about how I'd just seen this incredible film. But I couldn't show it to them. I'd watched three versions and filled in the blanks mentally. This film only existed in my head. I was a filmmaker by that point, and I cut together a version on SVHS, which wasn't copyable due to Macrovision protection. Just so I could show one or two of my friends some version of the movie and not feel crazy. I called it the Recobbled Cut; maybe five people saw it in that form.

By 2006 I'd gone to USC Film School, written and directed a few features and edited them digitally. I mainly wanted to be a TV writer but couldn't figure out how to get a job in the industry. One weekend when I was sick I decided to edit a little documentary called Deleted Magic, about how Star Wars was hard to film and could have been as bad as The Phantom Menace, but George Lucas and his team were smart and fixed the thing in the editing room. It was a big hit on the internet, I think a couple hundred thousand people watched it, via torrent or Youtube. It was a fan thing, a not for profit project.

And I was posting at a forum which was trying to convince Lucasfilm to release the original Star Wars films in full quality on DVD, which they still haven't, sadly. We were discussing which films people should do fan edits of. And I said, nobody else will have heard of this film, but someone should really do a restoration of The Thief and the Cobbler, because dear God. Then one of those amazing coincidences happened where you realize this must be fate. There was someone on those boards who everyone knew, who was putting out rare Star Wars stuff we hadn't seen before. He messaged me saying, I was actually an assistant on The Thief and the Cobbler. I'm sending you some DVDs. Get started.

So I did.

My goal was the same as before, to combine the three versions into the version that was in my head, so that I could show maybe five people this movie that didn't otherwise exist. I was editing it for myself. I figured no one else would be interested. But I needed to do it, to make the film more complete.

Now, people in the animation industry had heard of this film but no one at this site had. Not this generation. None of my friends. And yet something funny happened. I edited a trailer together and people got interested, very interested. The artistry of the film, and the sad story behind it, captivated people.

In January 2006 I edited a new Recobbled Cut. I mainly used a widescreen Japanese DVD of Arabian Knight and that same old terrible workprint Eddie Bowers had given me on SLP VHS. I never released that version, because people started coming out of the woodwork and giving me stuff … animators who had worked on the film, and some who hadn't. I probably redid the edit about six times because people sent me some very rare footage and a better copy of the workprint, then a copy better than that, which was still pretty terrible. I released the final Recobbled Cut Mark 1 in April 2006 or so.

But the best part was hearing people's stories. All these talented artists and very nice people - Andreas Wessel-Therhorn, Holger Leihe, Tony White, Eric Goldberg, Greg Duffell, Tom Sito, Douglas Kirk, Beth Hannan, Steve Evangelatos, Margaret French and so on.

One way or another, this film is Richard Williams' legacy, and it's been my goal to see it treated with respect.

Everyone was extremely helpful and I suddenly realized I was curating a massive archive of documentaries, pencil tests, video clips, articles, interviews, and artwork dedicated to the work of Richard Williams. I restored this material and released it to the internet in any way I could. Patrick McCart started a Youtube channel called thethiefarchive and I'm still running it today.

I was considering making a documentary and writing a book about the film, but never quite found the time inbetween my own artistic projects. Recently Kevin Schreck made a film called Persistence of Vision which tells the story very well.

Persistence of Vision, a documentary on The Thief by Kevin Schrek
But the chief focus was always The Thief. Trying to find better quality material and preserve this film and its legacy. People who had seen the Arabian Knight version, or even a really low-quality VHS workprint of Dick's workprint, hadn't really seen the film. I wanted to take all those terrible quality VHS tapes and quietly replace them with a beautiful restored DVD. I wanted to make sure that people respected this film and its place in animation history. I wanted people to forget the cheaply made "Aladdin Ripoff" Arabian Knight, and that fuzzy, unwatchable VHS workprint, and remember the film the way Dick Williams would want it, until it became popular and beloved enough that someone would have to officially release it on DVD in some form.

That's not to say that The Recobbled Cut, in any form, is Dick Williams' intended version of the film. It's not. A guy called Fred Calvert took over as director back in 1992. Some of the footage he produced is taken from Richard Williams' pencils and looks pretty close to what Richard would have produced. But a lot of the footage looks like something you might produce in the toilet after a bad meal. It's very much a gradual, sliding scale from nearly-Williams to nearly-unwatchable.

I don't know if Richard has seen my Recobbled Cut, but if he has, some of the footage I've used probably offends him. It probably makes him angry. Even though my edit is intended as a tribute to his genius.

Unfortunately I can't change history. This is something that happened, and unless someone gave Dick Williams five million dollars to actually animate the remaining footage as intended, and if he were even still up for that, we have to work with what we have. In some cases I was altering and reanimating bits of Calvert footage myself, so that Tack wouldn't speak, as he does in that version.

Tack the Cobbler was silent in the original version

But I remembered that night when I watched three versions of the film in a row and filled in the blanks myself, in my mind. With the Recobbled Cut I assume that my viewers are smart and can fill in the blanks. I assume I don't need to hold their hands and tell them, this is good footage, this is bad footage. I include whatever footage tells the story best, even if the picture quality or animation quality is a bit impaired, so that they can fill in the blanks and have the perfect version of The Thief and the Cobbler in their own heads.

This seems to have worked rather astonishingly well. The edit I thought five people would watch has become something of a cult phenomenon. It's been picked up by Cracked and the Nostalgia Critic, Cartoon Brew and the Mythbusters website Tested, and so on. As of this writing, the war machine sequence in particular has been viewed 685,522 times on Youtube. So yes, that's more than five people.

(Editor's Note: You can see the 2nd part of the interview hereFor more about Richard Williams and his career, check out this tribute video here. You can also read Alex's tales of the Annie awards and The Christmas Carol, and find out about Williams new Animator's Survival Kit (formattted for the iPad), due for a March 2013 release.)

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