Kevin Schreck is a first-time director whose Persistence of Vision tells a tale of artistic obsession, tracing the career of master animator Richard Williams. Williams is best known for 1988′s Who Framed Roger Rabbit which seamlessly mixed live action and animation, putting the director on the map as one of the master storytellers in the medium.
The success of that film lead to a breakthrough for Williams’ pet project – The Thief and the Cobbler. Conceived in 1964, the movie began as an animated version of the satirical Persian folktales that feature the character Nasrudin – a kind of Sufi fool whose failures teach moral and social lessons. Several versions – and failed funding schemes – later, Williams won two Oscars for Roger Rabbit and made a deal with Warner Brothers to fully finance and market his self-described “masterpiece.”
Schreck’s handling of the subject matter here is respectful without being reverent. The nearly-three-decades-long tale of Williams’ film is convoluted to say the least and Schreck has trouble with pacing in the beginning – the director’s handling of failures of the first version of Thief nearly brings Persistence to a standstill, but once Williams’ project snaps into focus, so does Schreck’s.
Williams’ gorgeous, hand-drawn animations are all beautiful and the footage from Thief is outrageously ambitious. That said, it’s a shame that a movie about beautiful pictures doesn’t labor over its own visuals more. Much of the found footage here looks like lo-fi YouTube downloads and some of Schreck’s own footage is pixelated and washed-out on the big screen. I haven’t found similar criticisms online and I suspect many critics have screened Persistence online or at least on small screens. It’s hard to blame projection problems as certain scenes were jarringly crisp and clear. I’m all for low-quality images in a context where they make sense aesthetically, but in a film about an artistic obsessive who handcrafts perfect pictures, they don’t.
Williams never does get his picture made. It’s eventually taken out of his hands, chopped to pieces and released in various versions under various titles including Arabian Knight and The Princess and the Cobbler. Schreck’s telling of the Thief story shows that the director knows a good subject when he sees one, and his poised, thoughtful Q & A session following the film’s first screening at the Nashville Film Festival found him to be a thoughtful, imaginative artist who already has a good handle on the kind of stories he wants to tell. The end credits of Persistence assure us that Williams is currently working on a new animation project that is “unlike anything anyone has done.” I’ll be looking forward to Schreck’s next film as well.
Here is the cult-tastic “Workprint” version of The Thief and the Cobbler which fills in the blanks in the animation with storyboard images. This is as close to Williams’ original vision as we are ever likely to get.