A new documentary feature on the Academy Award-winning animator Richard Wiliams, Persistence of Vision, has been selected at Annecy festival, France. Its director, Kevin Schreck, talks to Zippyframes.com
Persistence of Vision tells the story of the ill-fated, long-gestating animation feature project of Richard Williams. The Canadian Richard Williams has been twice awarded an Oscar for his adaptation of The Christmas Carol (1971) and the creation of Roger Rabit in the 1988 Bob Zemeckis film.
However, his dream of life was to complete an independent animated feature based on Arabian tales, The Thief and the Cobbler. Persistence of Vision and director Kevin Schreck narrate the story. Kevin Schreck talks to Zippyframes.com
How were you first drawn to the Richard Williams' story of The Thief and the Cobbler? Did you plan a documentary on Richard Williams, and when did you decide to focus on the ill-fated project?
K. S.: In August 2007, a friend of mine sent me a link to what he described as being this lost masterpiece of animation. This was the fan edit by Garrett Gilchrist, his The Thief and the Cobbler: Recobbled Cut, and I was simply blown-away by the level of artistry and meticulous detail in the film. As I learned more about the making of Richard Williams' epic film, I found that backstory to be even more fascinating than the film itself. I thought instantly that, perhaps someday, it would be great to make a documentary about this amazing story. But whether I was going to make the documentary or not, I couldn't help but learn more about this story and do research on it. The obsession was contagious.
Almost all your interviewees seem committed to the cause of doing something artistic, never before presented (at least in the US animation studio sector). Did you get the same feeling, and could you tell us something characteristic from your conducting the interviews?
I had the wonderful privilege of being able to speak with numerous artists who worked on the film and at Williams' studio at various time across that thirty-year timeframe. Some people had more favorable opinions of working for the man than others did. But if there was one thing that these people had in common, it was that they all felt that working for Williams at his studio was very likely the most formative and important experience they've had in their artistic careers and lives. It was something of an animation boot camp, that was part company, and part school.
There are many factors that didn't work out for Richard Williams in making The Thief and the Cobbler the feature film he wanted it to be. In retrospect, do you think that this project could really be the kind of film Wiliams wanted it to be?
Williams definitely had a very distinct vision for the film, and it was vastly different from many other animated films before or since. But I believe that Mr. Williams was really interested in the process of the craft, and that's why he kept expanding the film and tinkering with it. Animation is also a very expensive medium, and when you're someone with as grand of a vision and with such a perfectionist approach as Richard Williams, it can take a long time to get a film like that made -- too long for any Hollywood studio, I think.
There is a moment in Persistence of Vision, in which The Thief and the Cobbler is juxtaposed to Aladdin, and similarities surface. Have Disney people ever commented on the fact officially?
Nobody has come out officially. I think they either don't know about it or don't see it as much of a threat.
Richard Williams declined to appear in Persistence of Vision. Did you have easy access to archival footage and material, and did you have to get his permission to show himself discussing The Thief and the Cobbler? Could you talk to any other member of his family (his wife Mo, his son and animator Alexander Williams)?
Most of the archival footage was supplied by collectors, especially Garrett Gilchrist, as well as the numerous animators we spoke with. One special effects artist in particular provided about two hours of pencil test animation that hadn't been seen in over two decades. It was almost like looking at the fossil record, seeing the evolution of this film come to life piece by piece, even in hazy, brief fragments. It was incredible to see what had remained, and it's somewhat tragic to think of how much we never will see (which is probably the vast majority of the artwork). Thankfully, almost everyone I spoke with said that this was a story worth telling and supported the documentary. Even those who were and are very close to Mr. Williams and who did not go on camera were very supportive, and that was incredibly touching and important.
Persistence of Vision screens at Annecy festival, a documentary film about a legend of animation. What do you think of the relation between animation and documentary? They seem the two different sides of the spectrum between 'realism' and 'subjectivism', but there are films such as Waltz with Bashir which were very succesful.
I don't think it's impossible to combine animation filmmaking and non-fiction storytelling. One excellent short that uses this technique that comes to my mind is Jacqueline Goss' Stranger Comes to Town, which uses Flash animation and machinima from the World of Warcraft video game to communicate the true stories of new immigrants coming to America for the first time. It can be a tricky balance, but it's not impossible, especially when you consider that all films carry some subjectivity and a unique voice, no matter how objective or realistic they attempt to be. That also applies to documentaries.
The debate between art and commerce is prominent in Persistence of Vision. Where would you place yourself? Should we expect another doc on animation or something completely different?
It's difficult to say. I don't think it's impossible to make a work of art and have it be a financial success. There have been instances of that, certainly. But Richard Williams' project is unique to me. In my opinion, he wasn't just a director making a movie; he is more of a visual artist, like Rembrandt or Da Vinci, who happens to work in animation, rather than oil paint or another visual medium. It was a magnificent art project more than a typical animated movie. As for my next project, it's possible that I'll return to focusing on animation in next documentaries... There are plenty of stories out there waiting to be told. But it's difficult to think of one as grand as the tale of the master artist Richard Williams and his beloved, incomplete masterpiece.