Persistence of Vision

You have an idea. You’re pretty sure you could direct/write/draw/compose/play/sing/act/animate this thing you have imagined, and it will be great. You get to work.

Some of it is good. But it’s not good enough. You need to fix the beginning and maybe also the middle. Or re-do that part…you have some new ideas for it. Then, someone sends you a link to someone else’s project and it’s pretty much the same as your original idea…but finished. You start again. Your new project is similar, but definitely different. You can use a lot of what you have and finish it. What you need is some more time to really focus on it, to make it good enough. To make it better. To bring it up to your exacting standards. To go over it with a fine-tooth comb from the beginning.  There’s no deadline, exactly. It just has to be perfect, is all.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why the obsession with perfection to the detriment of actual completion and improvement? Why the fear and the self-sabotage, and the ultimately paralyzing perfectionism?

Persistence of Vision, the intensely inspiring documentary by Kevin Schreck, tackles the worst of creative behaviour in a fascinating portrait of a creative genius.

The documentary tells “the untold story of the greatest animated film never made”. The Thief and the Cobbler, was to be a dazzling masterpiece by master animator, Richard Williams. The Toronto-born Williams had a respected animation house in London, England, producing commercials and shorts. In 1988 he received a Special Achievement Academy Award for the animation direction of the innovative and massively successful Who Framed Roger Rabbit? There was no doubt that Williams could draw and direct and animate. But Williams laboured for a quarter century on his magnum opus, only to have it snatched away by Warner Bros. and a completion bond.

It is easy to make the big company the villain here, and clearly they had no appreciation for the material they subsequently butchered, but what is most fascinating is that none of the obstacles the film faced could really take the blame for how things turned out.

Persistence of Vision is a psychological study of creative genius. Richard Williams, possessed with talent and vision, surrounded by some of the best animators in the world, obsessed aimlessly over his film, creating stunning sequences, while letting himself get away with basic rookie mistakes. In the meantime,  he sacrificed his personal life, his crew, and his film. It seems he had no goal except perfection in sight. The Thief and the Cobbler was legendary in animation circles. There was a great deal of anticipation for the film’s eventual release, and a great deal of confusion and disappointment when it arrived. When we saw the documentary, two animators who had worked on the The Thief and the Cobbler were on stage for a Q&A and they had worked on the film 17 years apart.

The documentary is also a cautionary tale. Any creative person can see something of themselves and their tendencies in Williams. We understand the fear of completing a work, and the fear of submitting it to criticism. We understand the obsession with perfection, and the sacrifice art can demand. We struggle to let things go and aim to do better on the next project. We sometimes lack experience in collaborating, or ignore someone’s expertise or advice out of pride or stupidity. We avoid the difficult task of moving on to the next piece of the process by revising and revising the same piece of work or ditch it, unfinished, to obsess over something new.

Williams, in interview footage spanning decades, shows earnestness and artistic passion. But, as he is consumed by the sprawling ambitious project that he has created, he also displays hubris and stubborness, and that strange lack of empathy that people who have never worked for others sometimes have.

We were lucky to have seen the film at this this year’s TAAFI. It is hitting the international festival circuit to critical acclaim, so it is likely “coming soon to a theatre near you”. It is truly required watching for any creative person.

Meanwhile, Richard Williams has offered his knowledge and expertise in workshops, as well as the highly respected and much loved Animator’s Survival Kit, which began as a book, but is now a DVD set and an app. He is 80 and working on a new project, and no doubt he has learned a lot from his legendary past – both the high points and the disappointments. We hope to see it soon, completed to his satisfaction.

*If you happen to be in the UK, you can catch him speaking here in a few weeks.


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