Monday, May 12, 2008



The artist's dilemma: you can't accomplish anything without compromises, but compromises distort what you hoped to accomplish.

One heartbreaking example of this is animator Richard Williams' 25 year struggle to bring his masterpiece, The Thief and the Cobbler to the screen.

Williams was the artist behind such films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and A Christmas Carol. An uncompromising perfectionist, Williams set out in 1964 using his own money from commercial assignments to make a complex and sophisticated animated film based on ancient Arabian stories. As one web history reports:

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.
Williams' funds soon ran out, but in the 1970s he obtained additional funding from Prince Mohammed Faisil of Saudi Arabia. After years of delays and editorial disagreements, the Prince withdrew funding. A few years later, Williams found new funding from Warner Brothers. However, the studio made him sign a guarantee that he would complete his film in 18 months.

Williams could not resist perfecting his project and missed his deadline.

To make matters worse, while Williams obssessively worked and reworked his drawings, the Disney corporate machine beat him to the box office with its own animated Arabian stories, Aladdin. As one commentator notes, Disney's heavily promoted feature "vacuumed up the market for animated Arabian adventures."

With only 15 minutes of material left to shoot, Williams' investors confiscated his masterpiece and turned artistic control over to a Completion Bond Company. The Bond Company re-dubbed and re-cut the movie, adding songs and bringing in new voices that sounded more "American." When the flawed version was finally released by Miramax, it sank like a stone.

Now, grieving co-workers and die-hard fans are like beachcombers salvaging remnants of a shipwreck that have washed up on shore. Fragments of Williams' original vision, lovingly reconstructed, can be found all over youtube and the blogosphere. They give us a glimpse of Williams' brilliance and tantalize us with what might have been.

So much of art today is a corporate effort, dependent upon teamwork, institutional funding, and an electronic infrastructure powered by utility companies and implemented with hardware and software from multinational corporations. Each new element has the potential to add new dimensions to art, but each requires fresh compromises as well.

Many of the talents required to complete this type of art are not artistic talents. That is why, time and again, I find myself returning to the mark of a humble pencil on paper to find the essence of an artist's talent.