VIFF 2012: Must-see Persistence of Vision is a mindblower
The subject of Kevin Schreck’s outstanding doc, Persistence of Vision, is so amazing, and yet so obvious, that you can hardly believe nobody has attempted to make this film before. The story is fairly well known: in 1964, producer-director Richard Williams began work on what he hoped would be the greatest hand-animated feature of all time, a film variously known as The Amazing Nasruddin, The Majestic Fool, The Thief and the Cobbler, or—more generally—“the Project.”
Twenty-eight intense and exhausting years later, his film was unceremoniously seized by an insurance company, re-cut, mangled, and “completed” with vastly inferior new footage. Naturally, it bombed. Even though its production devoured him (and countless overworked employees) for almost three decades, Williams has since refused to talk about it.
Maybe that’s why nobody has tried to tell the story, although Schreck is surprisingly ambivalent on the great animator’s self-imposed silence. “He just won’t go on record about it, for whatever reason,” the filmmaker says, in a call to the Straight from his home in Brooklyn. “I dunno, it might be personal, it might be legal, it might be a combination of the two. I really don’t know.”
Luckily for Schreck, plenty of other people who slaved over but weren’t killed by Williams’ "mammoth ego trip" (his words) were eager to go on the record, quite bitterly in some cases. Even then, amidst tales of his all-consuming drive, impossible standards, and wild temper—in Schreck’s behind-the-scenes footage, the dapper young Williams of the ’60s takes on a mad scientist aspect as the years pile on—the respect is total.
“I think people felt that it’s not really a story about a failure,” Schreck offers. “You know, this was a great artist. Animation is a relatively young art form. Dance and painting and sculpture, they’re around for millennia, but animation’s only been around for slightly more than a century, so he’s one of the last great innovators of that art form, and it’s sort of a celebration of his work.”
That much is true. The Canadian-born Williams ran a highly successful studio in London, England, and Schreck includes a tasty cross-section of the work it produced, from thousands of commercials, to celebrated title sequences like What’s New Pussycat, to an Oscar-winning adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Almost all of it was done to finance The Thief and the Cobbler.
More germane to the story is the esteem that Williams commanded inside the field. Gradually, “master animators” Ken Harris and Art Babbitt (he once punched Walt Disney!) signed on to “the Project,” and we see these icons conducting after-hours classes for the studio’s sleep-deprived artists—all part of the grand adventure for those with the requisite dedication.
Persistence of Vision clearly describes the practical reasons for the Project’s sorry final act, in which Williams—having won another two Oscars for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”—entered into a deal with Hollywood and ended up having his cobblers thieved. But the deeper questions will always go unanswered.
“I guess that’s one of the reasons that it interests me, because maybe it takes a certain level of, you know, mad scientist quality to make something like this even close to possible,” Schrek says, in reference to the film’s fabled “war machine” sequence.
Dazzlingly beautiful, and infinitely complex, the “war machine” simultaneously suggests what could have been, and possibly why it never was. There’s an endlessly recursive quality to those 10-minutes, among the most beautiful ever committed to celluloid. Looking at such heightened levels of perfectionism, you find yourself thinking that finishing the Project would have been like finishing therapy.
Still—what’s left behind is mindblowing, as anyone who’s seen Garrett Gilchrist’s painstaking fan-edit, The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut will tell you. Schreck managed to leech yet more of Williams’ original work back into the public eye, and he’s put it where it belongs. “Some of the quality isn’t always good, but we’ve done a great job of restoring this amazing footage, and I think it’ll look really nice on the big screen,” he says, with deserved pride. For this and a host of other reasons, Persistence of Vision is one you shouldn’t miss.
Persistence of Vision receives its world premiere at the Empire Granville 4, on Thursday (October 4). It screens again on October 7 and 12