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IFFBoston ’13 Review: Persistence of Vision

One thing you have to give Richard Williams- he’s a persistent guy. An award- winning animator, best known for his short films and credit title sequences for other films, in 1964, Williams undertook what was to be his life’s work- a feature-length animated film titled “The Thief and the Cobbler.” Well, that wasn’t the original title; Nasruddin was the title they started with, but that had to be changed after Williams’ business partner left after skimming a good amount of money and taking the title character with him.

Williams was a perfectionist- it wasn’t uncommon that one of his animators would find three months of work in the trash after Williams decided he wasn’t happy with a small detail in the work. This left a bit of a revolving door at his office, but, those who stayed were passionate about the work they were producing. Williams screened a 10-minute sequence from the film’s climax around Hollywood, hoping to gain an investor, but would return empty handed. The work, all agreed, was visionary, but not for them.

It wasn’t until Williams won two Academy Awards for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that the studios began to take interest in his passion project. Warner Bros. came onboard, and all that entailed, meaning a completion bond was taken out. As the work amped up in pace, there were a few chinks in the armor. First off, Disney’s Aladdin opened, with many of the characters bearing more than a passing resemblance to Williams’ characters. While a legal solution was possible, Williams decided to keep his head down, and focus on finishing his masterpiece.

persistence_001The second hiccup proved a bit more fatal- the animators realized as they worked that Williams didn’t have a finished storyboard and the sequences that he kept expanding left everyone with no idea how close they were to being finished.

The bond company ended up being called in, the film was finished in slap-dash manner, adding songs and a romance, two things that Williams desperately wanted to keep out of his film. The film sank without a trace- being marketed as a poor man’s version of Aladdin.

Director Kevin Schreck does a good job laying out the sequence of events in this documentary, showing the rocky path that the film and Williams went on. This work is even more commendable when you consider that Williams refused all interview requests, deciding to focus on his present work and not what has come before.

However, where Persistence of Vision lets one down is in the craftsmanship. The vast majority of the film is presented in 4×6, only occasionally making full use of a 16×9 movie screen. It’s a shame you don’t get to see Williams’ work in widescreen- after everyone raves about the detail of the animation, you don’t get a chance to truly absorb what you’re looking at. Granted, the filmmaker was forced to work with bootlegs and outtake footage to assemble the film, but the sound as well forces you to lean forward. And a good sound mix would have done wonders.

All of this is a true shame, since the story is fascinating and the animation is wonderful. You just leave wishing you had a chance to see the work in its full glory.

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