During the past year, somebody on the Internet undertook the thankless task of creating a new, not-for-profit, version of the film. That somebody was filmmaker Garrett Gilchrist and his recently completed version – THIEF AND THE COBBLER: RECOBBLED CUT – incorporates footage from a variety of existing sources. It’s also of a much higher quality than the famous Williams workprint that has been floating around animation circles for years. It’s currently available, in seventeen parts, on YouTube, and hi-res versions are available on BitTorrent sites like Demonoid.com and Mininova.org.
I wasn’t 100% clear on what the intent of this restoration was so I got in touch with Garrett and asked him some questions about this project. Our email interview is below.
Cartoon Brew: What is it specifically about the THIEF AND THE COBBLER that inspired you to invest so much of your time and money to restore this film?
Garrett Gilchrist: When I was seven years old, I read an article in COMICS SCENE magazine, and in it, Williams said he was trying to revolutionize animation, that he was trying to create the greatest animated motion picture ever made, and that he’d been working for twenty-three years on this one film called THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER. Now at the time I was sleeping on Roger Rabbit bedsheets, I had Roger Rabbit bendies, a Jessica PVC, so if the man who animated Roger Rabbit says that, you better believe I was interested. Richard just had a way of talking about this film. He made it seem uniquely magical. He exaggerated like P.T. Barnum, but you could tell he really believed in the project.
I was about fourteen when I actually saw a trailer for ARABIAN KNIGHT in the theater, and I thought it looked awful. But it stuck in my mind that this was from the animator of Roger Rabbit, long-lost memories came unstuck. Somehow this was the same masterpiece he was talking about when I was a kid. But something’s gone horribly wrong here. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I read the actual story of how the movie was destroyed and never finished as intended.
Now he’s known as the master animator, the animator’s animator. He’s written THE ANIMATOR’S SURVIVAL KIT, which is now THE textbook for any animator. It’s the best book ever written on animation. His Animation Masterclasses were huge events, always sold out. People who took them became teachers themselves. A lot of the great animators today learned from Richard, or they owe a lot to Richard. But people have never seen his masterpiece. You can’t rent or buy or watch Richard Williams’s THIEF AND THE COBBLER. It doesn’t exist as it was meant to be seen. I think that’s a pretty damn good reason to restore the movie!
It was rumored some years ago that Roy Disney had been trying to convince Disney to do an official restoration of the project. Do you see this as a replacement to any eventual official restoration that Disney might do, a companion piece, or something completely different?
GG: God, I really hope Disney does restore this film some day. The latest I hear is that Don Hahn is (or was) working on it with Richard. So it’s in good hands. I don’t think they’re scared of the film anymore, as certain people were for awhile after ALADDIN. Roy Disney tried to get a restoration done for almost a decade. But it’s impossible to get those two sides to come together. Richard doesn’t trust Disney with this film – or trust anyone with this film after what happened! – and Disney can’t quite play ball with Richard. The story I heard was that they just weren’t spending the money to do it right, that they’d let Richard be involved but wouldn’t pay him to have a staff. He’d have to do it alone.
I’m not trying to step on Disney’s toes. I’m hoping that what I’m doing will help their cause. For one thing, my goal is to prove that there IS a market out there. I said on-line that I was doing a restoration of the THIEF AND THE COBBLER and people went nuts. It’s such a legendary film among people who really know animation. They would sell a lot of copies. They could do it with much better picture quality than I ever could, and people who have seen my version would want to buy Disney’s version in a second.
It looks like you’re also compiling some amazing DVDs of supplementary materials like documentaries, interviews, and other Williams animation projects.
GG: Yeah. Ten DVDs so far, which is pretty remarkable. Everything about this project has been larger than life, which is appropriate since Richard is a larger-than-life figure and this is a larger-than-life film. We’ve collected lots of documentaries, including a whole bunch recently from 1969 and 1970! We’ve collected rare short films, commercials, promo pieces, lots of things you just can’t find on video, all in good quality. There’s also the matter of all the artwork, images, interviews, articles. I recently scanned a thousand pieces of original THIEF artwork. We’ve scanned about five hundred pages worth of interviews and articles.
How much involvement have original crewmembers had on this project, and who are some of the artists that are helping out?
GG: The guy who really kickstarted this proect was a fellow named Simon Downes, who was layout assistant to Roy Naisbitt on the film. I kind of mused out loud on a message board that I wanted to restore THIEF AND THE COBBLER. Simon contacted me saying, “Hey, I worked on this film, here’s some rare stuff.” He sent me the widescreen DVD version of the THIEF from Japan, which is pretty rare, a beautiful copy of a 1980 documentary about the film and some really rare camera tests he’d saved from the film. I just ran with it from there, and I’ve been hemorraging money on this project ever since.
Roy Naisbitt was also great. I called him up. A very nice man, and a genius at that. He was Dick’s assistant and layout man for nearly three decades. He sent me some really rare stuff – documentaries from the 1960s and television commercials. I visited Alex Williams, Richard’s son and a primary animator on the film (he did Tack and the opening). Andreas Wessel-Therhorn, who animated the lackeys, has been very nice. He lent me his vast collection of THIEF artwork. Tony White, Holger Leihe, Steve Evangelatos, Greg Duffell, Jerry Verschoor and Beth Hannan are others who have helpd. I’ve been such a fan of this beautiful film for years, and now I get to see it from the inside, and in a lot of ways touch a piece of it. It’s beautiful, it’s such an honor. I hope more people get in touch.
If anyone is reading this who worked on the Thief, my email is tygerbug (at) yahoo (dot) com. What we’re doing is we’re putting together a scrapbook. I’m collecting everyone’s memories, good, bad and otherwise. If anyone has saved artwork, video or anything else, I collect it and I send it to EVERYONE, so that everyone involved in the film can share in it. I’m planning on writing a book about the THIEF and doing a documentary. It’s an insane story, a story of obsession and the desire for perfection in art. I’m primarily a filmmaker; I’ve directed seven features and thirty shorts, which you can see at OrangeCow.org. I once spent three years on one feature so I know a few things about obsession in art.
There’s already a rough ‘director’s cut’ by Richard Williams that has been floating around the animation biz for many years. How does your version differ from the existing Williams’ cut that many in the industry have seen?
GG: Yeah, that bootleg. That’s the whole inspiration for this project because it’s terrible, isn’t it? I mean, it’s beautiful to watch because it’s a great film, but the quality is terrible. You can’t see anything. And half the film isn’t finished. My goal is to take everyone who has that crappy bootleg, and quietly replace their terrible copies with a gorgeous DVD-quality copy. This is why I’ve been giving it out for free so much, because I want this version of the film to spread enough so that Disney says, “Hey, we’d better get on to restoring this film.”
I noticed that you’re doing some really ambitious things like compositing frames from two different sources to create a widescreen effect. Can you tell us what other types of things you’re doing that’ll make this the definitive version of the film?
GG: We spent a few months searching for the best version of the workprint we could find. First, I edited the whole film with a poor quality workprint, and I released that as the “Recobbled Rough Cut,” which a lot of people have. But better quality copies of the workprint kept turning up. I wound up re-editing the whole damn movie twice! Finally a REALLY good quality copy turned up on Emule of all places. I have no idea who originally posted it there. I’m sure it was someone who worked on the film. So I’m starting all over again. The crappy Miramax version is available on DVD in widescreen, and I’m using that, so you can see 80% of the movie in glorious widescreen. The audio is from the workprint mostly, and has been noise-reduced and restored. Anything they cut out, we take from the workprint, which has been restored by Chris Boniface.
The workprint is matched to appear in the same place as the DVD material, so it transitions seamlessly. It’s all color corrected. More music has been added that wasn’t there before to make it feel more like a finished film than a workprint. I’ve added back a few scenes Dick originally cut out, and I’m actually using a lot of the stuff Fred Calvert animated, even if it’s kind of cruddy, because it tells the story better than storyboards. Some of the film is still unfinished, and you’ll see storyboards, but you’ll see a lot less of them than you used to. Also, there are some really important scenes that are in Fred Calvert’s PRINCESS AND THE COBBLER version of the movie but not in the Miramax cut, which is much worse. These include the old witch, the entire march of the One-Eyes, a lot of the best stuff in the film. I wish I had PRINCESS AND THE COBBLER in widescreen but it was never released in widescreen. So, what I’m doing is pasting the really clear pan-and-scan image over the less clear widescreen image from the workprint. It works great, because the pan-and-scan image contains the important part, like the witch herself, and that’ll be really clear.
I’m also using a lot of trickery to make it work better. I’ve created my own backgrounds for some pan-and-scan shots so the whole picture can be clearer. I’ve composited parts of shots over clearer backgrounds. In one shot, the Thief is really tiny in it, so I just composited The Thief over a really clear background from the DVD, and reanimated the FX elements around him myself. I did the same with a shot of the One-Eye War Machine: I created a background and animated it with rain. My main goal is to create something Dick would like too. I don’t know if I’m capable of that, but I hope so even though my cut is not the same as his cut.
Since this whole thing is obviously a non-profit fan-driven project, how will the average reader of Cartoon Brew be able to get their hands on this material?
GG: The final “Recobbled Cut” is available for free via torrent at Demonoid.com and Mininova.org. There’s already an old torrent there somewhere which has a terrible version of the workprint and some good specials on it, but the real “Recobbled Cut” will almost certainly end up there. I don’t know about the ten-plus special feature discs, but we’ll see. They’ll certainly be spreading around. I’ll make sure of that.
For more info about anything related to this project, contact Garrett at tygerbug (at) yahoo (dot) com.