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    The Great British Movie Toon Guide  

      King Nod  

     What follows is the extraordinary history of 'The Thief And The
     Cobbler', an animated feature film with three decades of artistic
     endeavour behind it yet to see light of day in its original form...

'The Thief And The Cobbler' was originally a Dream Project for animation
     supremo Richard Williams ('Pink Panther' titles, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit').
     It was to be based around the ancient Arabian character of Nasruddin, a figure
     from the classic texts of '1001 Arabian Nights'. Williams had conceived the
     project as early as 1964, but the production didn't really commence until 1968.
     Williams started working on the adaptation with writer and mystic Idiris Shah.
     The film was to be an exotic Arabian extravaganza and a magnificent showcase
     for the art of hand-drawn animation.

     The first voice tracks were laid down. Amongst the stars to contribute their
     talents were Sean Connery, Anthony Quayle, Donald Pleasance and Vincent
     Price as ZigZag the evil Grand Vizier. But in 1971, with a deal with Paramount
     looming large, Williams and Shah fell out. The mystic left the project, taking
     his screenplay with him, and as a consequence Williams dropped the Nasruddin
     concept and focused on one of the secondary characters, a luckless Thief.
     The project was renamed 'The Thief And The Cobbler'.

     For years Williams and his small, but dedicated crew had tinkered and toiled
     on the Thief project in-between other corporate and commercial assignments
     (including the flop feature 'Raggedy Ann And Andy'). They were creating an
     incredible intricately detailed Arabian world with rich, fluid, characters and
     eye-opening occurrences. This was well before the advent of computer animation,
     and each and every object on screen had to be  animated by hand, frame by 
     laborious frame. The film had gained notoriety in the animation world as a 
     masterpiece in the making, with over a decade of  part-time attention devoted
     to it, but it really did need some serious funding...

       Mad and Holy Old Witch 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.
     More 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
     Williams' feet...

     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.
      One Eye With 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...
     The Completion Bond Company sought a quick return for their creditors. A new
     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....

            written by The Hound

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