Friday, January 18, 2008

David Byers-Brown, Part 3

In 13 Soho Square, 1984, the traces of the Thief were everywhere. Filmed segments resided in cans in a fire proof safe in the basement. There were small rooms filled with drawn scenes wrapped in clear plastic like corpses in an anatomy room which needed clean up or more work and which dated back fourteen years. At the top of the tall narrow building worked Roy Naisbitt in an attic room with many plan chests full of enormous and complex layout drawings for the project. Out side on a landing, a paint and trace girl showed me alterations in the design of the witch character which had taken place over the years, each one requiring totally new clean up on countless scenes. There was an otherworldly sensation of timelessness. A few years before, a Saudi prince had expressed interest in backing the film and an enormous effort had been put into preparing a product sample, but he had passed on it and the project was once again in limbo.
But the studio was churning over regular work on commercials and Dick was employing a team of animators, assistants, paint and trace and camera people to do them. Something around thirty staff at that point. Very few of these animators made it to the Thief full production, most falling out with Dick just before or during the production of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" two years later. One ended up declaring that Williams was the devil incarnate.
I discovered that the original idea for a feature had been Idres Shah's. Ex-wife Margaret, told me: " Shah said, "Come on Dick, let's make some money." They had collaborated on an acclaimed short called the Dermis probe in 1965.The feature was born somewhere around 1970, and the story was very originally about Nasruddin, who was sent to his death by evil courtiers, as an ambassador to another state with a message that he was to be executed on delivery. Nasruddin survives and triumphs in the wise/idiotic way of the Good Soldier Schwiek. The designs were originally to be like the Nasruddin books Dick illustrated. Dick had apparently been very interested in Sufism and Shah in the sixties, and Shah's brother, Omar Ali Shah , was the first business manager that the Richard Williams Studio had in its twenty year lease on Soho Square. "He was a crook!" Declared Dick in the pub after a life drawing class. "he stole from me!" He meant Omar but included Idres in his condemnation. "Shah wasn't even a good Muslim-he drank!" The falling out had taken place somewhere, I would guess, after Dick's half hour animated television special of the Christmas Carol, in the early seventies. Omar was a production consultant on this and it featured work by old Hollywood animators like Ken Harris and Chuck Jones. There was already some animation from the Nasruddin project-I found a scene of a pack of wolves by Ken Harris in a box in the morgue Dick kept at a removal company in Battersea. I was sent there to drop things up and pick things up in my runner capacity. There I also found a picture of Idres Shah at one of Dick's weddings in the late sixties. Also some books by Shah with friendly dedications hand written to Dick. They must have been very close at some point, but Dick was quite bitter about him and often said that the character of Zig Zag was directly based on Idres.
Dick had fallen out with Shah, but he'd already gotten into this Islamic animated feature and couldn't let it go. The character of Nasruddin was either copyright to Shah or the stories were, so he needed a new plot and wrote one with then wife Margaret. It's a shame he lost Nasruddin, as he is a more intriguing character as a protagonist than any of the "sympathetic " ones in the final film. It is built into his personality that you cannot tell whether he is very smart or very stupid.
The idea that the film would get made, and the studio existed for this was very present in 1984. Scenes for the Thief would arrive by post from Arizona or New Mexico from an old animator called Emery Hawkins, get shot and be shown in morning rushes along with scenes from the latest Frosties commercial. I remember one that was wonderfully weird, of the witch in a cave with some characters who got dropped. It went on for ages, everything was moving and transmogrifying and gave you the sensation of seeing a scene from an alien planet. Hawkins was an inventive New York commercials animator at one time whom Dick respected. Later he said: " He was mad for years, totally senile, and I was still paying him to work for me! Totally gone and no-one told me!"

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