Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The unfinished masterpiece?

I want to write a bit about what inspires me about the film but also about some illusions that I lost towards the end of working on it.
When I was a student our animation teacher Hans Bacher gave me VHS copies of 3 documentaries about Dick Williams and the Thief. I was very taken by the combination of stylized characters and full dazzeling animation. Dick is very good at selling himself on TV, contagious in his enthusiasm. When he talked about making the best animated film ever I believed every word, especially since he always backed it up with amazing clips from the film. I had never thought it possible that I might get a chance to work on it, but when Dietmar and I went job hunting in London, Oscar Grillo and Eric Goldberg both advised us that we should submit our reel at Dick's studio. They were just about to start hiring and Dick offered both of us a job as assistant animators. We soon became animators and worked on the film for more than 2 years, full of enthusiasm, lots of 70 hour weeks. When Dick gave us the job he showed us around and introduced us to Roy. Dick explained that their approach to making the Thief was a bit like amateur film making, like a student who might do everything , wearing many hats. He showed us a scene he was working on. He didn't have an assistant and pointed out that he was doing every drawing himself on ones. I'm pretty sure it was this one:

Roy later told me about times when Ken Harris was about to arrive for his seasonal stay in London and having been busy on commercials Dick sometimes had not prepared any work for him. In a hurry they would whip out BG and character layouts for the Thief character. Dick would just say "Let's make him climb up the mountain..." and that would keep Ken busy for a while. These sequences were intended as comic relief and not really the main part of the film. Dick considered the Thief animation Ken's best work and fell in love with these sequences. They are still what I like best about the film, but this approach of putting secondary parts of the film through animation before the main story was taken care off is also a bit like amateur film making. As an animation student you are sometimes so impatient to start animating that you might neglect to work out the overall story of your film properly.

Another problem with the Thief is that sometimes his scenes are more compelling to watch than the scenes for the main story. Andreas mentioned before that in 1990 John Patrick Shanley, the screenwriter of Moonstruck was brought in by Jake Eberts to rewrite the script. He had to work around all the animation that had been finished already. Dick was not prepared to give up any of the animation jewels that Ken had given him over the years. A pretty thankless job. We all got to read the different script revisions. I didn't have any experience with reading scripts and wasn't too worried when I wasn't exactly blown away by what I read.

A further problem of the film at this stage might have been that in order to get the financing they had agreed to a budget that was basically too low. Dick probably spent too much time on some secondary shots before focusing on the important acting scenes and did his fair share of revisions. It's pretty common though on most feature films that a certain amount of work gets redone in order to get it right. I think for the small size of the crew the studio was pretty efficient and we cranked out an amazing amount of work.
As we keep on discussing scenes of the film you might be surprised at how many scenes were actually done in those final 2+ years. 25 years in the making can be a little misleading. However we didn't meet our footage quotas and deadlines and Warners forced Dick to fill in the gaps between the finished parts of the film with storyboards. There was a big screening at Piccadilly Circus and for the first time we saw the story in one piece. I was bitterly disappointed by the storytelling. I guess I was still expecting somehow that the whole film would live up to the promises made in sequences like the War Machine. Video copies of this version later circulated in the animation world as the "work print". The versions that were finally released were not improvements. In my opinion they made things far worse.

Dick approached each scene as a piece of art and some sequences like the War Machine indeed seem to be part of a masterpiece. I do consider Dick a genius for many reasons but I don't think the film as a whole would have been a masterpiece or even commercially successful if it had been finished the way Dick had boarded it out. Dick had promised to deliver a blockbuster. In retrospect it's easy to conclude that we would have gotten a better film if it had been finished Dick's way, but at the time Warners would not have been content with an eccentric film that appealed only to a small audience.

If you have seen Garrett's Recobbled Cut and compare it with the released versions you'll see the difference. Keep in mind that Garrett in order to make it more watchable to a general audience used some footage that was not animated under Dick's direction. While based on Dick's boards these scenes were done on smaller fields and the animators were paid by the foot, much different conditions. There has been a screening of this fan edit here in San Francisco and quite a few people have told me how much they liked it.

After many years my disappointments with the film have mellowed out and I have a rather nostalgic view on it now and appreciate the good parts on their own. I hope my ramblings make some sense and will now keep on celebrating the good parts of the Thief in future posts. I'm also curious about your opinions.


Michael Sporn said...

I think your story is something I'd thought about over the many years of hearing about and watching the development of this film. I read a script back in 1974 (I think I still have it someplace) and came away thoroughly disappointed. I'd seen several rough cuts of footage assembled, but that didn't seem to jive with the script I'd read. All the scenes were there but the overall story seemed so trite. I thought Dick would probably pull it out. He must realize the problems.

Over the years, I'd read four other scripts, and they all were, in some ways, variations on the first. The artwork, the technique, the animation is so incredibly masterful, but the story just never was there.

I thought about this again after seeing the bastardized final theatrical version. I wondered if Dick's final cut would have been any better, storywise.

What an excellent film it probably was that an entire blog can feed off it. What a great job you're doing in writing it. Thank you.

Holger said...

Thanks Michael,
I'm indeed fascinated by the attraction of the film and it's history, despite it's flaws; or maybe because of them? It's interesting how much you can consider a film that wasn't finished properly and it feels we just barely started.
I'm trying to stay away from the political back-story and really want to concentrate on talking about the work, but it's not easy.

mark kennedy said...

Interesting problem you mention, Holger...for a while we here at disney talked about doing just what you've done: creating a blog to talk about our experiences on certain films. But it would be impossible not to get into areas that would be unpleasant for some people and end up saying things that are better left unsaid. It is very hard to separate the political aspect from the creative aspect of making a film, as you say.

I think you are right and that the comments from the producer on the other post were very right: I've seen many artists become terrified to finish something because it can't turn out as well as the version you have in your head. I know that if I had spent 25 years on a film that I would become afraid that it could never live up to that much anticipation when it was finished.

I would also say with many films I've worked on that got abandoned or changed that people always look back to the path we didn't take and thought the film would have been better "if only we'd done it that way". It's impossible to know, though, because the discarded ideas will always live on in the realm of possibility rather than in reality where things don't always stand up as well.

Obviously the Thief movie is a technical masterpiece full of amazing ideas, judging from what I've seen over the years, but how good is the story that binds them all together? That's the real question, and I've noticed that sometimes artists assume that because something is perfect in a technical way that it must be flawless in every way, maybe because it's too heartbraking to imagine that all of that work went into something that wasn't perfect in some other areas.

Dietmar said...

Yes, Holger described my feelings. Watching the re-cobbled film, the film just doesn't really work in a storytelling or character driven film.

But the single scenes and and even entire sequences are still amazing and blow you away.

Will Finn said...

I have only seen the re-cobbled cut on YouTube (not my favorite medium) at this point, but i had the video (long lost now) of the director's cut and while it remains a technical marvel, as a piece of entertainment it was pretty darned frustrating.

For reasons I cannot pretend to understand, every single opportunity to explore character is thwarted in favor of leisurely orgies of technical bravado, many of them of a type only other animators could appreciate. I love pantomime (TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE used it well) but by dint of silence and other devices every single character seems to dwell in their own semi-autistic world, oblivious and indifferent and ultimately irrelevant to each other until the dazzling but monotonously timed climax, (which hinges on coincidence no less).

One of the documentaries showed Dick promising something "in the language of dreams" which is arguably true of some of the visuals, but the story was, as you mentioned, a disappointing jumble of familiar tropes that amounted to nothing. In my personal journal i described it as "a highly detailed picture of a complete and utter void."

I still enjoy the details though.

Andreas said...

I agree with Holger.Dick was incredibly motivated and motivating, full of enthusiasm and one couldn't help but be drawn into it.Also, like us Germans, it was the first feature film for a lot of people and we were all thrilled to bits to work on something we had read about as my case, the Kodak book of animation.Michael and I were also referred by Hans Bacher. We had just finished our student film and Hans told us to see Dick in London.It was called : Go forth and multiply", a sort of music video illustrating a song about over population. I remember my heart pounding as we waited for Dick to come down and meet us. He watched our film and was( in hindsight) particularly kind to it- he commented on the serious theme and said it was very german.Then he offered us a job and told us that it would be great, a wonderful crew, no fags or junkies.Well, I don't much know about junkies, but i thought...Oh great, so much for coming out of the closet.Ididn't know then that Dick often said inappropriate things that he didn't really mean.
As long as the hours were and as frustrating as it was sometimes to try and deliver more footage (" great, you finished it early...why don't we add some background characters and maybe reflections on the marble floor"...argh), i am immensely grateful for having had the chance to work on a once in a lifetime endeavour.So often, one works for people who don't even like animation, even less animators, or who make you feel tiny with a cruel comment born out of their own inadequacy. For all his contradictions, Dick was never uninvolved or acted superior. And though we all felt a big let down at the Picadilly screening, it was one hell of a ride.

Holger said...

Thanks for your comments. Like Will with his recent post on Chuck Jones I had second thoughts on some of the things in this post and I find it helpful to have this follow-up in the comments.
Andreas, you cracked me up again. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what's been said about the thin story and poor plotting caused by creating scenes and then building a story around them ...

... But I always really liked the film, and I think in the end its "unusual" plotting is a strength, because it essentially becomes that rarest of things, an animated art film. A slowly-paced piece of gorgeousness, hypnotic and strange and unlike any other.

You all did marvelous work.

Holger said...

Thanks Tygerbug. I was hoping you would join the discussion on this topic.

Will Finn said...

as usual, i think i regret my candor above and am tempted to delete it, but here's another memory i have of THIEF:

Not long after Disney's ALADDIN was released, about thirty of us who worked on that film were invited to a plush private screening room there to view the release cut of THIEF, as completed by the bond company. The executive who chaired the screening invited us to hoot and scorn the piece, i guess because it was seen as competition for ALADDIN, which admittedly bore superficial similarities. The expectation seemed to be that is wasn't enough that the Disney film was already out and making a big splash, we should feel even better that a "rival" film had devolved into a certain bomb. I in the executive world, gloating is supposed to be par for the course, but my experience among animators is not so for the most part.

The film unspooled and despite being coached to deride the film, no one could and we basically watched in silence. We had all seen the bootleg version and many people personally knew Dick Williams and others who worked on the movie. No one wanted to see this happen. None of us saw this as a "zero-sum game" and any animator who knows the history of the film can not relish the slings and arrows it suffered, least of all in it's release cut. It was clear to us that THE THIEF was something special and apart from big studio films like ours; it was the personal product of one man's muse and we all respected that (and still do, i think I can speak for everybody).

It was a sad day and i think our host was bewildered that we refrained from abusing the film. Nothing like that happened again, to my knowledge anyway.

I repeat the obvious: in any form the film represents a persistence of vision that inspires admiration even in the hardest hearted animators.

Holger said...

Will, Aladdin was a big topic at Dick's studio and I'm glad you shared that story. I'm also grateful you didn't delete your comment. I find my thoughts on the film often contradict each other sometimes depending on time of day.