It almost came from an unlikely source.
In the late 70s the Saudi Prince Mohammed
Faisil agreed to finance the film's most
spectacular sequence - 'The War Room' -
in the hope that it might persuade other
financiers to come out of the woodwork. The
finished scene remains an animation triumph,
eye-boggling complex, but delays and
disagreements during its production meant
that it took a whole year to complete, and the
Sheik withdrew his support for the project.
time passed until the fortuitous arrival of
Roger Rabbit. Williams had
shown some of his 'Thief' footage to the creatives at ILM who had been astounded
at what he had achieved. It won him the deal with Zemeckis and Spielberg to
design the rabbit and to produce test footage for Roger's 3D design. When that
proved successful, Williams was hired to direct the animation unit in London which
was to animate the majority of the movie as a satellite to the Disney Studios in Los
Angeles. It was now 1988 and Williams hoped the high-profile project would
reawaken interest in his own work. And again, it did.
At the end of the decade work recommenced, full-time, on 'Thief' with the backing
of Warner Bros. in America and the steering hand of Jake Ebert's Allied Filmmakers
at the tiller in England. Guy East's Majestic Film and Television would act as sales
agents for European and international territories and a production schedule of some
eighteen months was drawn up - a tight turnaround - but at last a date was
being set for completion. But the passage proved far rougher than anyone could
possibly have expected.
Williams had a fearsome reputation for doing things his way, more so now with a
pet project designed to showcase the intricate possibilities in hand-drawn animation.
He was ferociously dedicated to his dream. Each and every element which could
be animated would be animated. And he was ruthless with his newly-expanded
crew, hiring and firing incessantly. He had a vision and only the very best
would be employed in its creation. It was obvious to colleagues that he was
on a crash course with his investors who were used to controlling the fortunes of
productions they were backing. Rumours began to circulate in the media. The
financiers were attempting to set weekly footage rates. Williams, it was said,
was secretly reworking already 'completed' material. It was said that a substantial
part of the footage shot in the early years had suffered a degradation in stock
quality which needed to be matched up to the new scenes. Other scenes
couldn't be re-shot or dubbed, because so many of the original voice artistes
had passed on over the years. The Chinese Whispers were beginning to run
out of control.
Then there were more general fears from the distributors. Outside of the
Disney stable animated features were still not 'performing' to expected box-office
levels. And then there was the Mouse Factory itself to deal with. Was it mere
coincidence which saw the granddaddy of the animation industry producing its
own Arabian extravaganza 'Aladdin' at just about the same time Williams had
picked up the pencil again on his film? Who knows, but there are many similar
elements in the two works, both in design, storyline and character concept.
'Aladdin' is a splendid fun film, but it wasn't created along the same artistic line
as 'Thief'. Nevertheless in the eyes of the financiers it vacuumed up the market for
animated Arabian adventures. Disney had sucked the magic carpet out from under
Warner Bros. and the other financiers were naturally concerned. They called in
Williams and the completed elements of his film for a test screening. They
believed they were getting a Box Office Bonanza on a plate - a triumphant
commercial feature to run their competitors into the ground. But Williams had
been producing a lavish Work Of Art. 'Plot points', 'story rhythms' and 'character
beats' were never part of the concept. It must have scared the bejeezus out of them.
only 10 - 15 minutes worth of footage
left to shoot, Warners and their partners
called in The Completion Bond Company
to confiscate the film. The reins of control
were taken from Williams hands and with it,
the dream he and his crew had lived with for
almost three decades...
Completion Bond Company sought a quick return for their creditors.
crew of animators, headed by Fred Calvert, set to work 'completing' the film.
Scenes were reedited, some cut out all together. New 'American' voices were
installed on the soundtrack. Character names were changed and, indeed, some
non-speaking characters were suddenly given voices - most notably The Thief, who
had always been conceived as playing a silent, Chaplinesque role. A Korean crew
normally employed to create Saturday Morning cartoons were brought on board.
Some of Williams' original London crew stayed on in a luckless attempt to stem the
fragmentation. But insult was finally added to injury when a number of songs were
inserted into the film - anything to improve the commercial prospects and get it sold
to a new distributor...
In 1995, 27 years after it had all began, it was Miramax who finally released
'Arabian Knight' at American cinemas. It performed unspectacularly, receiving
uninspired reviews and faded after a few scant weeks on the circuit. Buried in its
heart was the 'The War Machine' sequence. The opening was still almost there,
and ZigZag's magnificent scene with the playing cards, but precious little else in its
original form. After much delay it was later released on home video and, tactlessly,
the title was quietly reverted back to the original. But this creation couldn't have
been further removed from Williams' dream...
In 1987 I started work as an Animation Runner on 'Roger Rabbit' in the Disney
production offices in Camden Town and I can vividly recall the day Art Director
Roy Naisbitt ushered me into his office to show me, almost clandestine, some
of his work from 'The War Machine' sequence he'd contributed to 'Thief'. I just
couldn't get my head around the labour involved in producing each incredible
frame. Roy took immense pride in his work. He'd spent - literally - years creating
the art he was showing me. Even with the advent of today's computer technology it
would be impossible to capture the hand-drawn intimacy of those frames. But
this project wasn't about timesaving techniques, anyway. It was supposed to
be a showcase for the artistry of hand-drawn animation. It was an artistic
endeavour. Art for art's sake. No one was thinking about the 'Bottom Line' or
'Returns' on the project...
I later viewed 'The War Machine' sequence for real, spooled through a rickety
Steenbeck. Gobsmacking, even to my untrained eye, and in that rough form.
And the sequence with Zigzag and his playing cards, so beautifully observed,
with each playing card seeming to be animated individually...
I came across the film once more, four years later, whilst assisting Majestic
Films And Television - the film's sales agents - at the Cannes Film Festival.
A glossy A3 brochure had been produced, featuring new artwork for the film,
but instead of the original title the promotion merely referred to it as 'Once...'
The smattering of illustrations on this page and the previous are from its fold-out
artwork. Majestic also screened an assemblage of footage - a 'laika' reel,
featuring some finished scenes, animatics and static frames - to interested
parties, and two 'Thief' one-sheet posters were produced. (I'll add these scans
to the site when I can muster the time). Just a few months later news broke
on the project's collapse...
Once there was a movie. Not a Multiplex Movie, not a film with endless
character licenses and theme park promotions, but a movie for lovers of
animation and the artistry involved in its production....
MOVIE TOON GUIDE
copyright Miramax Films 'Pooch' copyright / site copyright - F2002