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13 Beautiful Facts About The Thief and the Cobbler

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Sometimes referred to as "the greatest animated film that never was," The Thief and the Cobbler was an animated movie nearly 30 years in the making. Creator Richard Williams never got the chance to complete his magnum opus; the movie was eventually taken away by its completion bond company and handed over to producer Fred Calvert to finish.

Two versions—one for Australia made by Majestic Films and one for the United States by Miramax—were finally released in 1995, after being in and out of production for three decades. The edited film added new scenes and music to help make it more marketable, but it hampered Williams's original vision. The commandeered film was never a commercial success, but it is often seen as a triumph in traditional animation. Many animators today are still inspired by the movie and Williams’s work. Thanks to Kevin Schreck’s documentary, Persistence of Vision, we now know the story of this ill-fated movie and its turbulent history. 

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE A SERIES OF SHORTS.

Long before the plot of The Thief and the Cobbler was conceived, Williams was working on illustrating a series of short stories by Idries Shah called The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin. The books were based on popular Eastern folklore of a satirical Sufi, a wise fool who travels to exotic lands. While working on the shorts, Williams one day decided to turn them into a full-length feature film. He created a world for Nasrudin to explore and created new characters. The thief made an appearance in this work in progress, but with a more sideline role: He would silently follow the main character around and steal his belongings when he wasn’t looking. 

Shah agreed to the movie, provided his family received half of the profits. Shah's brother, Omar Ali-Shah, became the producer of the movie. Williams worked hard on animating the story and eventually accumulated over three hours of footage. He showed what he had to Howard Blake, his story development artist and composer, who thought the progress was beautiful, but lacked a plot. The movie, at that point, was just a series of shorts with nothing connecting them together. Blake explained that characters needed to be developed and go somewhere. When Williams mentioned that the Shahs would be resistant to the idea, Blake saw there was a problem. 

These problems came to a head when it was rumored that Ali-Shah was embezzling money and a copyright infringement lawsuit loomed overhead. Williams broke their deal and the Shahs left with Mulla Nasrudin. The thief was Williams’s original character, so he became an integral part of the new story (the movie’s working title was The Cobbler, the Thief, and the Grand Vizier). 

2. THE MAIN CHARACTER WAS BASED ON SEVERAL SILENT FILM STARS. 

Williams gave his characters a heavy dose of dumb luck. He modeled his characters on famous silent movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. “[Williams] was doing the story about worthwhile people who aren’t the smartest, maybe, while they do everything, but it’s better for them to succeed than the damn villain,” said John Culhane, who was the development artist from 1969 through 1974. Williams and Culhane visited the British Film Institute to watch movies of Chaplin and Harry Langdon to get inspiration. Tack, the main character, retains these qualities. 

3. THE MAIN CHARACTERS WERE GOING TO BE MUTE. 

While fans might remember Matthew Broderick and Jonathan Winters voicing Tack the Cobbler and The Thief, respectively, that was not always the intention. Williams had planned to keep both characters entirely silent, save for one line: At the end of the movie, Tack would tell Princess Yum Yum, “I love you.” The single line was meant to be voiced by Sean Connery. Instead, Williams's wife’s friend performed the line. Eventually actor Steve Lively voiced Tack in the Majestic Films version and Broderick voiced the lead in the Miramax version. 

“We had had difficulties with the formula,” said Philip Pepper, lead animator from 1990 through 1992. “This was a film that didn’t go along with all that stuff. It was great to watch the rushes where you see all this acting—fantastic acting—this incredible unfolding of ideas without the cheesy dialogue.” 

Williams was also completely against musicals, despite them being the norm for family animated films. As we know now, after the film was taken away from Williams, music was also added to the finished movie to appeal to a wider audience. 

4. WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT GAVE THE MOVIE ITS BIG BREAK. 

Legendary director Steven Spielberg caught wind of Williams's work and offered him the role of animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Upon accepting the position, Williams told Spielberg, “I’m your living pencil. Tell me and I’ll draw it.”

When Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released in 1988, it was the most expensive movie ever made, with a budget of $70 million (almost $149 million in today's dollars). The hard work and oodles of cash paid off. The movie was met with critical acclaim across the board; Roger Ebert gave it four stars and wrote, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit is sheer, enchanted entertainment from the first frame to the last—a joyous, giddy, goofy celebration of the kind of fun you can have with a movie camera." Williams won two Oscars for his animation direction: Best Effects, Visual Effects and a Special Achievement Award. 

The success of the movie proved that Williams could manage a large team and a large budget. Warner Bros. promised to give him the money he needed to finish The Thief and the Cobbler, as well as an equal amount to promote the film (around $25 million)—so long as the movie was finished on time. As long as Williams stuck to the approved schedule and budget, Warner Bros. would stay out of it. 

Before Warner Bros., the studio’s animators would all have a small scene by their desks, which they would work on when they had time in between advertising jobs. With a full budget, the animators could now focus all their attention on the film. The experience working on Roger Rabbit helped Williams craft The Thief and the Cobbler; working with real-life backgrounds gave him a better understanding of how to animate moving backgrounds. 

5. EXTREMELY TALENTED ANIMATORS LENT THEIR SKILLS. 

Some of the talent found in Williams’s studio included legendary animators like Ken Harris (Merrie Melodies, How the Grinch Stole Christmas), Roy Naisbitt (Balto, Space Jam), and Art Babbitt (Fantasia, Dumbo). Babbitt (known for his work on Disney movies) gave lectures to the studio’s animators while the studio was shut down for a month. The students described the seminars as grueling, with condensed homework and group evaluations.  

Williams managed to snag Harris when having a conversation with Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones. He impressed Jones by being able to cite the specific scenes that Harris had animated. Jones pointed out that the now-retired animator would be traveling near Williams and suggested that he write him a fan letter. The two met and struck up a friendship. “We got on so well, that I sat him down—and his wife went off to Italy or somewhere—and three months later, he’s still at the desk,” Williams recalled on Skwigly podcast

6. NEW ANIMATORS WERE BROUGHT ON AS WELL. 

Williams did not want all of the movie's animators to be too influenced by other styles or movies. He avoided animators who had a Disney or TV background, so that they could easily adapt to his style. People from all over the world were flown into London to work on the movie. 

7. STUDIO EMPLOYEES WERE WARY OF LENDING THINGS OUT.

In the 1970s, Williams and Culhane would storyboard by covering large corkboards in layers of artwork that they ripped from art books. They were looking for visual inspiration from Middle Eastern artwork and Leonardo da Vinci's war machine sketches. The duo was always on the prowl for more books, but no one wanted to lend them anything from their collections, for fear that the books would get sliced up. An assistant once dropped off a book but warned Williams not to damage it. Moments after she left his office, she returned to find him with scissors in hand over her book. She confiscated it and scolded Williams, who replied “Oh, you have this silly, middle class idea of books!” 

8. WILLIAMS WAS A PERFECTIONIST.

Williams was a genius, but sometimes his vision took a toll on the people around him. 

“He had a terrible reputation,” said special effects artist Chris Knott. “He could be the best of the worst. Usually for good reason. He had very high standards, which he applied to himself above all, and to everyone else. And if you didn’t ... cut it, then he wasn’t very backward about letting you know what he felt.” 

Williams expected a lot from his employees and never settled for anything that wasn’t perfect. A common phrase of his was “there’s the door.” Warner Bros.'s strict schedule put stress on everyone: Animators were expected to work 60 hours a week and did not receive any time off. Often the hours would be from eight in the morning until midnight. One animator only got to visit his wife, who had meningitis, during his lunch breaks. Another had a pregnant wife and refused to do the full 60 hours, so he was fired immediately and escorted from the building. 

Despite the long hours, production was still slow. The movie was Williams’s baby and he wanted each scene to be exactly right. One painter spent three months on a single scene—the one of Zig Zag playing cards—which was then scrapped when Williams decided to change the colors. Another scene—the opening scene of the arrowed-up soldier—started as a 15-second shot and ended up as a full minute-long scene. 

9. WE CAN THANK THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER FOR ALADDIN. 

Watching both movies, it’s impossible not to notice the striking similarities between The Thief and the Cobbler and Aladdin. “Disney just stole it," said Pepper. "It’s as plain as the nose your face." Many of the outfits, imagery, and character designs were very similar. Williams had been working on his movie for 20 years and dozens of animators had passed through and taken some ideas with them; it seemed only natural for the movie to blend into others. The studio recognized this natural thievery as a problem, but had no other option than to trudge forward. The Thief was meant to beat Aladdin into theaters, but it missed the deadline, greatly upsetting Warner Bros. 

10. THE PLOT KEPT CHANGING. 

Even with Warner Bros. breathing down Williams's neck, production was slow. The story underwent many rewrites, with the final screenplay being written by Williams's then-wife, Margaret French. Toward the end of production, Williams began to storyboard, which greatly concerned his animators. Despite all the completed footage, there were many gaps in the story that needed to be filled in. 

Warner Bros., already annoyed about Aladdin, started checking in on the studio. Seeing that the movie would not be finished, they turned it over to the production's completion bond company on May 15, 1992. Animators were told to go on vacation and to be out of the office for a few weeks. They came back to cleared desks and empty shelves. A week later, they held what was probably an extremely sad wrap party. 

11. IT WAS THE FINAL MOVIE FOR SEVERAL PEOPLE. 

The Thief and the Cobbler appears as the most recent job on many people's IMDb filmographies, including actors Kenneth Williams, who died in 1988; Sir Anthony Quayle, who died in 1989; and Vincent Price, who died in 1993. 

12. IT HOLDS A WORLD RECORD.

The ambitious 2014 movie Boyhood took 11 years to make and holds the record for the longest continuous production for a live action movie. This is, of course, no match for The Thief and the Cobbler, which took 31 years to complete, starting in 1964.

13. YOU CAN WATCH THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER AS IT WAS (SORT OF) INTENDED.

If you’re curious to see what the movie would have been like if it had been finished by Williams himself, you probably never will. But you can see something close. In 2006, USC film grad Garrett Gilchrist—a major fan of the film—took it upon himself to recreate the movie using all the materials he could find, including a 1992 Williams workprint and a Japanese widescreen DVD. Called The Thief and the Cobbler: Recobbled Cut, the reconstructed film removed the musical numbers and returned the original voice actors. You can watch the recut on YouTube, although some portions might be blocked in certain countries. 

Additional source:
Persistence of Vision
(2012), directed by Kevin Schreck

Images courtesy Miramax via YouTube

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Walt Disney Studios
15 Things You Might Not Know About Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Walt Disney Studios
Walt Disney Studios

As both a groundbreaking feat for the world of animation and an enjoyable crime comedy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit stands in a class all its own. Here are a few interesting nuggets about the cartoon-live action classic, on the 30th anniversary of its release.

1. IT WAS THE MOST EXPENSIVE MOVIE EVER MADE.

At the time of its release on June 22, 1988, Who Framed Roger Rabbit boasted the highest budget of any film to date: a whopping $70 million (nearly $150 million in today's dollars). It topped the previous record holder, Rambo III (which had come out less than a month earlier), by about $12 million. Roger Rabbit held the designation until July 1991, ultimately falling to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which cost $100 million.

2. THE FILM ALSO BROKE THE RECORD FOR LONGEST END CREDITS.

Recognizing a cast and crew of just over 800, Who Framed Roger Rabbit featured the longest closing credit reel ever upon its release. The film’s credits ran for over 10 minutes, even without attribution for Jessica Rabbit’s voice actor, Kathleen Turner.

3. BOB HOSKINS WAS NOT THE FIRST PICK FOR EDDIE VALIANT.

Director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg communicated with a number of big name actors in regard to the casting of human protagonist Detective Eddie Valiant. Among those considered for the curmudgeonly private eye were Harrison Ford (who was too expensive), Chevy Chase (who was not interested in the part), and Bill Murray (who allegedly never got the message and was dismayed to learn he had missed such an opportunity). Other names tossed around included Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, Wallace Shawn, Ed Harris, and Charles Grodin.

4. CHRISTOPHER LLOYD WASN'T THE FILMMAKERS' FIRST CHOICE EITHER.

Christopher Lloyd in 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' (1988)
Walt Disney Studios

Before landing on Zemeckis’s Back to the Future colleague Christopher Lloyd as the nefarious Judge Doom, producers considered Tim Curry (who they deemed too scary), John Cleese (not scary enough), and Christopher Lee (who turned the role down). Also in early contention: Roddy McDowell, Eddie Deezen, and Sting.

5. LLOYD WAS MORE TERRIFYING THANKS TO ONE SIMPLE TRICK.

Prompted by a suggestion from Zemeckis, Lloyd does not blink even once while onscreen in the film.

6. CHARLES FLEISCHER ACTUALLY DRESSED UP LIKE ROGER RABBIT WHEN PERFORMING HIS LINES.

Voice actor Charles Fleischer was so devoted to his role as the animated title character that he asked the costume department to create a full-body Roger Rabbit suit for him to wear on set. Fleischer delivered all of his lines from inside the suit, claiming that it helped both him and costar Hoskins immerse within the fantastical world of the film (even though Fleischer admits that Hoskins initially thought he was out of his mind).

7. THE “DIP” IS REAL.

Kathleen Turner and Bob Hoskins in 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' (1988)
Walt Disney Studios

Who Framed Roger Rabbit subverts the old maxim about cartoon characters never dying by introducing the one thing that proves fatal to the lot: a liquid concoction known as “dip.” There is actually a bit of science behind this plot device. The ingredients of the dip are revealed to be turpentine, benzene, and acetone, which are all paint thinners commonly used to erase animation cells (in other words, wipe out cartoon characters).

8. THE FILM SENT BART SIMPSON TO STARDOM.

One of the film’s most chilling sequences sees Judge Doom exacting his wrath upon an anthropomorphic cartoon shoe. The character never speaks, but it squeaks and whimpers as the Judge lowers it into a vat of dip. Those cries were the work of relatively unknown voice actor Nancy Cartwright, who would rise to fame one year later as the voice of Bart Simpson.

9. EARLY DRAFTS OF THE SCRIPT WERE DARKER.

The screen adaptation of Gary K. Wolf’s 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? underwent quite a few changes before it hit the big screen. Some drafts involved Jessica Rabbit and Baby Herman each turning out to be the story’s villain, Judge Doom revealing that he was the hunter who shot Bambi’s mother, and even Roger’s death.

10. ROGER AND EDDIE HAD FAMOUS STAND-INS FOR TEST SHOOTS.

At various stages in the film’s development, animators put together test reels for studio presentation. An early go at the project employed the vocal talents of Paul Reubens, better known as Pee-wee Herman, for a variation of Roger marked by neurotic stammering. Some time later, Richard Williams (who eventually became Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s animation director) treated Walt Disney Pictures to a taste of his talents via a scene uniting a more recognizable Roger with an appropriately cranky Eddie Valiant. Here, Eddie is played by future The Sopranos star Joe Pantoliano.

11. ROGER WAS MODELED AFTER BIG STARS.

In designing Roger Rabbit, Williams wanted to incorporate elements from classic animation. He has expressed that Roger is meant to embody the production caliber of Disney, the character design of Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes, and the personality and sense of humor of animator Tex Avery. Furthermore, Roger’s anatomy and attire can be broken up by studio influence: His face is meant to resemble a Looney Tunes character’s and his torso a Disney hero’s, while his overalls are a nod to Goofy, his gloves to Mickey Mouse, and his bow tie to Porky Pig.

12. JESSICA WAS INSPIRED BY SOME A-LISTERS, TOO.

While Jessica Rabbit’s principal aesthetic inspiration was the titular heroine of Avery’s famous short “Red Hot Riding Hood,” she had a few human influences as well. Among them were Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth, and Veronica Lake.

13. THE FILM SPAWNED THE INDUSTRY TERM “BUMPING THE LAMP.”

For movie animators and special effects artists, the phrase “bumping the lamp” refers to the application of tremendous effort to a particular aesthetic feature that viewers will more than likely never even notice. The saying entered the lexicon thanks to a scene that involved Bob Hoskins’s character repeatedly bonking his head on a low-hanging ceiling lamp, causing it to swing around the room. Animators had to draw and redraw Roger Rabbit in a fashion that was consistent with the rapidly fluctuating illumination of the scene. While the team was well aware that absence of the effect wouldn’t bother most audiences, they were so devoted to their craft that they stuck with it. (You can watch the scene above.)

14. THE FILM FEATURES OVER 140 PREEXISTING ANIMATED CHARACTERS.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the only film to date to unite Disney mascot Mickey Mouse and Warner Bros. icon Bugs Bunny; the pair shares a scene in the latter half of the movie, merrily skydiving next to an airborne Bob Hoskins.

In addition to Mickey, Disney showcased 81 distinct characters, as well as 14 “groups” of characters (for instance, the titular sprites from the short “The Merry Dwarfs” or the anthropomorphic fauna from the short “Flowers and Trees”) in the movie. Meanwhile, Bugs was one of 19 Warner Bros. characters to get screen time. MGM, Paramount Pictures/Fleischer Studios, Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox, King Features Syndicate, and Al Capp’s cartoons all had characters make appearances as well.

15. THAT SAID, THERE WERE SUPPOSED TO BE MANY MORE CAMEOS.

Although Zemeckis and his crew managed to populate Who Framed Roger Rabbit with a vast array of recognizable characters, their original ambitions were even more sweeping. Contractual issues and time constraints kept characters like Popeye, Chip and Dale, Pepe Le Pew, Mighty Mouse, Tom and Jerry, Pedro from Saludos Amigos, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Witch Hazel, Heckle and Jeckle, several characters from Fantasia, and even Superman from the final cut.

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Pixar
10 Fast Facts About Cars
Pixar
Pixar

Pixar’s Cars was released on this day 12 years ago. So put on your helmets, rev those engines, and let’s take a look at some behind-the-scenes facts about the Oscar-winning animation studio’s fastest-moving film.

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY AN UGLY DUCKLING-TYPE STORY ABOUT AN ELECTRIC CAR.

Cars started off life as Little Yellow Car, about an electric car that faces prejudice from its gas-guzzling counterparts. Pixar animator/artist Jorgen Klubien, who developed the story during production on A Bug’s Life, was inspired by real-life automotive history from his home country of Denmark.

“In the 1980s some enthusiastic folks got the idea of making a three-wheeled one-person car that ran on electricity,” said Klubien. “They put it into production and it worked great in the city, but out on the highway it was too slow. People also thought the car was ugly. I thought the electric car was ahead of its time, and it struck me as odd that my fellow Danes didn’t agree. It reminded me of The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. This famous Danish character wasn’t accepted at first, but in the end it proved to be right on the money.”

The story was deemed too slight to carry an entire movie, but the small-town setting remained an inspiration.

2. ITS CO-WRITER/DIRECTOR PASSED AWAY DURING PRODUCTION.

Cars is dedicated to Joe Ranft, the film's co-writer and co-director, who died in a car accident on August 16, 2005—while Cars was still in production. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005), which Ranft executive produced, is also dedicated to him.

3. MATER IS BASED ON A REAL-LIFE NASCAR ENTHUSIAST.

The country bumpkin tow truck Mater got his name from NASCAR superfan Douglas “Mater” Keever, whom the filmmakers met while on a research trip to North Carolina’s Lowe’s Motor Speedway (now called the Charlotte Motor Speedway). Keever has a voice cameo in the film, as the motor home who says “Well dip me in axle grease and call me slick” early in the film. (Keever improvised the line, which was originally “Well dip me in axle grease and call me lubrication.” Producer Darla Anderson opted to change it, Keever speculated, because “maybe she thought it sounded sexual, I don’t know.”)

4. MANY AUTO WORLD LUMINARIES LENT THEIR VOCAL TALENTS.

Reigning racing champ Strip “The King” Weathers is voiced by legendary racer Richard Petty, who has the same nickname as his animated counterpart. Weathers’s wife, credited as “Mrs. The King,” is voiced by Petty’s wife, Lynda Petty. Several other automotive notables contribute their vocal talents: announcer/former racer Darrell Waltrip plays “Darrell Cartrip”; Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of NPR’s radio show Car Talk, voice Lightning McQueen’s sponsors, Rusty and Dusty Rust-eze; and racers Michael Schumacher, Mario Andretti, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. voice automotive versions of themselves. (Despite voicing announcer “Bob Cutlass,” sports analyst Bob Costas doesn’t actually cover racing.)

5. SEVERAL ACTORS CHANGED FOR INTERNATIONAL RELEASES.

For Cars’s UK release, Jeremy Piven was replaced as the voice of Lightning McQueen’s never-seen agent Harv by Top Gear co-host Jeremy Clarkson. “The King” was also voiced by different racers in some international releases, as Richard Petty isn’t as well known outside of the United States. In Germany, The King is voiced by Formula One champ Niki Lauda, while in Spain he is Formula One’s Fernando Alonso.

6. MOST CHARACTERS ARE BASED ON REAL CARS.

Lightning McQueen, Mater, and Chick Hicks are all original Pixar designs, but most of the other characters are based on existing cars. Among them are Doc Hudson (1951 Hudson Hornet), Ramone the body paint specialist (1959 Chevy Impala), tire salesman Luigi (1959 Fiat 500), hippie Fillmore (1960 Volkswagen Microbus), military surplus store owner Sarge (1942 Willys Jeep), and Mack, the truck that drives Lightning around (Mack Superliner). Sally, as a 2002 Porsche 911 Carrera, is the only Radiator Springs character modeled after a contemporary car.

7. IT BROUGHT A NEW STANDARD OF REALISM TO ANIMATED FILMS.

Cars was the first Pixar feature to utilize a technique known as “ray tracing,” which properly renders the way light passes through and collides with surfaces. More simply, it enables artists to accurately depict reflections without having to go through and “paint” them individually. Ray tracing takes up a massive amount of computer power; as a result, each frame (or about 1/24th of a second) of Cars took an average of 17 hours to render. Some frames took up to a week.

8. IT WAS PAUL NEWMAN’S FINAL FILM—AND HIS HIGHEST-GROSSING.

Cars marks the final film of Paul Newman, who in addition to being an actor/entrepreneur/philanthropist also became a racing enthusiast after starring in the 1969 racing drama Winning. Cars is also the highest-grossing film of Newman’s career (not adjusted for inflation).

9. ONE OF LIGHTNING MCQUEEN’S CHARACTER INSPIRATIONS WAS KID ROCK.

To help get a handle on the character of rookie racing sensation Lightning McQueen, directing animator James Ford Murphy “put together a series of little bios of great personalities that were really cocky but really likeable.” Among the people he pulled inspiration from were sportsmen Muhammad Ali, Charles Barkley, and Joe Namath, plus musician Kid Rock.

10. YOU CAN VISIT THE MOUNTAIN RANGE THAT SURROUNDS RADIATOR SPRINGS IN REAL LIFE (SORT OF).

The mountain range surrounding Radiator Springs is inspired by the real-life Cadillac Ranch, an outdoor art installation located outside Amarillo, Texas that consists of heavily spray-painted Cadillacs, half-buried facedown in the ground.

Additional Source: The Pixar Touch, by David A. Price

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