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When Minnesota-born and -raised filmmaker Kevin Schreck began making The Persistence of Vision, his documentary debut, he knew it was unlikely that the main subject of his film, legendary animator Richard Williams, would talk to him.
In the two decades since Williams's magnum opus, the animated feature The Thief and the Cobbler, had been pulled out of his hands, finished by an outside company, and released to the sound of crickets, the filmmaker hadn't spoken about the project to anyone.
Still, Schreck was in London filming interviews, and he reached out to the animator one more time.
THE PERSISTENCE OF VISION screens Friday, April 19, at 6:30 p.m. at St. Anthony Main Theatre.
Festival Facts: Dates: April 11-28 Location: St. Anthony Main Theatre, 115 Main St. SE, Minneapolis Admission: $12 ($6 for kids 12 and under). Visit the MSPIFF website for prices on opening- and closing-night films and multiple-show packages. More info: www.mspfilmfest.org
"Intellectually, I knew he would say no. But when he did, it was the first time that it hit me emotionally. I felt like a parasite," Schreck says. "I said to my line producer that we should stop the project. She told me that I knew he would say no, and [his story] was worth telling — an amazing lost chapter not just in animation but in filmmaking."
The striking documentary traces the decades-long journey Williams took while making his animated film. Schreck uses a mixture of archival footage from the studio, interviews with animators and others involved in the long process, and scenes from The Thief and the Cobbler to craft a portrait of a complex and driven artist who was among the last old-school animators.
The Persistence of Vision will be shown at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival on Friday, April 19, along with a selection of Minnesota-made animated shorts. Schreck, who now lives in Brooklyn, will be in town for a Q&A with the audience following the screening.
The filmmaker learned about The Thief and the Cobbler while in college. "A friend sent me a link to this lost masterpiece of animation, and it caught my attention," he says.
That link led to the "recobbled" fan edition of the film, which used a variety of sources to present the film in its intended form. It's stunning work, loaded with dazzling animation, largely silent main characters, and a visual aesthetic far from the Hollywood norm.
"The approach of it was very refreshing," Schreck says. "It was not a trendy animated movie with songs and pop-culture references. The art of animation itself was the focal point. It looked interesting and sounded interesting. I couldn't help but learn more about it. The more I learned about what happened behind the scenes, the more I became intrigued."
Williams began making The Thief and the Cobbler in the 1960s and continued to work on it for nearly 30 years, while building up his own animation studio. Along the way, he created plenty of commercial work, film title sequences, and several high-profile short films (including the Academy Award-winning A Christmas Carol).
The seeming break came when Williams's studio did the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, released in 1988. It raised Williams's profile in Hollywood, allowing him to get a deal to complete The Thief and the Cobbler. However, his studio's slow and methodical approach ran afoul of the budget. When Warner Bros. pulled out, the incomplete film was taken away from the studio by the completion bond company and given to another producer to finish. While the finished piece retains much of Williams's work, it also includes dialogue for previously mute characters, several banal songs, and an animation style that does little to match the original vision.
"I thought it would make a great story for a documentary but thought it would be years down the road. I couldn't help but research it, and as I got in touch with people, I thought, 'Why don't I make this project?'" Schreck says.
The clock was also ticking to tell the story. The history of Williams's film stretches back half a century, and the surviving key players are aging. "Memories fade and people pass away. Time was running out," Schreck says.
Schreck was able to track down plenty of potential interview subjects, and he found the funding for a two-week shoot in London. Not only was he able to get a picture of what working on The Thief and the Cobbler and in Williams's studio was like, Schreck also found a treasure trove of material.
"There were about two hours of animation that had been transferred from tapes and were buried in archives. No one had seem them in two decades, and some of them dated from the '60s, the early days of the project," Schreck says.
All those pieces gave Schreck a full portrait of Williams, as an artist, a boss, and a colleague. The film includes plenty of footage from The Thief and the Cobbler — adhering to fair-use copyright laws throughout — along with moments from other animated shorts and from documentaries and other filmed events that show the studio in action.
"One thing that everyone had in common was that being at Richard Williams's studio was the most formative and informative jobs in their career. I think it was an animators' boot camp in a way," Schreck says.
In fact, while Williams has retired from animation, he still teaches. He also published a seminal instruction guide, The Animator's Survival Kit, in 2002.