Thursday, September 19, 2019

Richard Williams Troubled Masterpiece

The sad news of Richard Williams passing on Aug. 16th 2019 rocked the animation world.  It caused many to reflect on his brilliant career and contributions to animation as a teacher and master animator.

Part of his legend was the attempt to make the greatest animated film in history. The Thief and the Cobbler was going to be his masterpiece.  With a long troubled history spanning 3 decades the film  never accomplished Williams’s vision having been wrestled away by Warner Brothers.

The film existed in three different versions; the first was distributed in South Africa and in Australia as The Princess and the Cobbler on 23 September 1993. Then in December 1995, Miramax Films, released the second version entitled Arabian Knight featuring newly written dialogue, songs, and a celebrity voice cast that was added months before the film's release.  And the third most faithful version known as The Recobbled Cut is Garrett Gilchrist's fan restorations which follows the Williams work print very closely.

You can read the films checkered history in full here:

So why was this masterpiece so problematic, and why hasn’t it been seen by more people?  Mr. Williams did not like to discuss its because the failure hurt him deeply, but we can look at it today with our highly politicized social warrior eyes and see what spectacular things he was able to accomplish and also get away with, things that would never fly today.

 The film is an amazing feat of animation done before computer assistance and never intended only for children.  There are truly astonishing visuals and adult themes that may have more meaning than a casual viewing might yield.  What motivated Williams and why he shaped this story as he did may never be fully know.  But as glorious and amazing as the animation is, the film does have its flaws.

The story-line is paper thin, and the ending foretold right in the opening narration.  An unseen Narrator spills the beans by saying a threat can be stopped by the simplest of things while his disembodied hands conjure the Golden City and then frame it with a border shaped like a ‘tack’.  Later the king’s advisor Zigzag steps on a tack and accuses the cobbler, who just happens to be named Tack, of all things, had attacked him.  The whole film is built on this rather obvious wordplay of a tack and attack.  
The Narrators hands forming the tack clue

In the cast we have King Nod who seems oblivious to all that's happening in his kingdom, because he is, well, asleep.  The kings daughter is saddled with the horrible name Princess Yum Yum and, as her name implies, she looks yummy.  She is the love interest, and desire of the wicked Zigzag advisor to the king, who is voiced wonderfully by Vincent Price with the right degree of humor and oiliness.  Zigzag, probably the most developed character in the film, has six fingers on each hand, and wants to get them all over the princess by buttering up the king. Then, there’s the Thief, a silent figure, (unless you watch the Arabian Knight version with Jonathan Winters providing a nonstop internal dialogue that becomes annoying pretty fast).  This shifty guy has no character ark whatsoever and remains the same throughout the film never having learned a thing.  Last is the Cobbler, another mute figure who only speaks at the very end, the unlikely hero. He is kind to animals and clever with his hands.

 The film has wildly politically incorrect moments by todays standards, that were problematic even during production then and are the chief reasons for modifying the film with its different releases.  Garrett Gilchrist's Recobbled version is the closest we have to Williams original vision. We find inappropriate behavior, which may have actually been acceptable for the culture and time period the story is set in, like the feminized, castrated eunuchs who announce the arrival of Zigzag in their high pitched women voices.  Then there’s Zigzags gift to King Nod of a woman in a curtained structure, (a cage?), named Mombassa, who we never see except for one eye peeking coyly out of the curtains.  Now concubines and courtesans were historical rolls for women but this is particularly disturbing because as her name implies, she may be a black woman kept naked and caged only as a plaything! The scene is even creepier as the king puts his hand into the curtains and we hear her giggling inside while his daughter Yum Yum is standing there watching it all.  He even takes the cage with him to watch a public Polo match while sitting next to Yum Yum with his arm still in the cage! Then there are the gymnastic slave women of the evil king of the One Eyes who tumble and contort to form a throne for him to sit on! He is literally sitting on a chair made of women! These adult gags shine a light on Williams sense of humor, and one wonders if there is symbolism to the One Eyes. Were they a representation of the All Seeing Eye, the evil secret controlling power that exploit women in sex trafficking?  Perhaps that’s going too far. 
Eunuchs announcing the coming of Zigzag

Zigzags gift to King Nod as Yum Yun looks on
Mombassa peeks out of her cage
Yum Yum watching in disgust
King Nod, Mombassa, and Yum Yum at a Polo match
King of the One Eyes sitting on his throne of women
The Witch who has an obvious prophesy
The Thief and the Cobbler maybe exhausting in it’s totality with its long complex moving perspective shots and thin character development. It may take a long way to tell the story with incidental figures like the witch who reveals an obvious clue by uttering “A tack, attack!” in a vision that we knew about from the beginning.  But even with its flaws, it’s worth seeing over and over again for its wonders.

Sunday, August 04, 2019


It's been forever that I have posted to this site, and the last thing was about my personal short animated piece called Philo.  It was a cathartic experience that let me recapture the joy of animation and find the things that attracted me to the art form originally.

Since childhood I watched cartoons and was moved emotionally by the imagery and the music.  I  saw the potential to touch people in a way that live action movies could not.  Animation seemed then, and now to be the culmination of all the arts: Cinema, music, dance, painting, writing, etc.

As I was making Philo I tried to pay homage to the studios and individuals who influenced me.  I am an admirer of Walt Disney of course, but also the renegades, who broke away from the emulation toward realism, that birthed the stylized look of UPA.  Artists like Art Babbitt, Jim Tyer, Chuck Jones, and writer Michael Maltese, along with John and Faith Hubley, Ward Kimball, Bobe Cannon, were and still are reasons why I became an animator.  Another early influence for these people as well as myself were the works of the early silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin and the great Buster Keaton.

If you are familiar with any of these, you will immediate see the influence.   

Philo from Joel Brinkerhoff on Vimeo.

Monday, August 27, 2018

My Short Film Again...

I have always loved looking at animation production art.  A strong background designer like Maurice Noble who worked with Warner Bros. brought great sophistication to the classic Chuck Jones films.

Design, like animation, is a discipline that people devote their entire careers to, but it has never been a strong skill set for me.  Color and composition are further considerations important to good backgrounds and I'm so glad to be able to work digitally doing much trial and error but not burning through materials and supplies as I grope along.

Making my personal films show how indebted I am to others who went before me and also why the studio system works the way it does.  The burden of all those specialized skills suddenly left to me reveals great weaknesses and areas of insecurity, but it's also an opportunity to explore and grow.

As I make this particular film I'm seeing the influences of individual pioneers such as John and Faith Hubley whose playful loose style still feels fresh, fun and exciting to me.  Like UPA breaking the push toward realism that Disney was doing at the time, I see my film as a departure from the photo-real look of modern C.G. although it too is getting freer in style and more cartoony.

It wasn't intentional but I seem to be reliving my childhood and rediscovering my love of animation and the fun and wonder of it.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Will Vinton Turned 70

I don't know how I forgot to post this but my old boss, Mr. Will Vinton had a 70th birthday celebration this year that I was not able to attend.  I did however paint this portrait for Will with a sculpture of Mark Twain from the celebrated Claymation feature film The Adventures of Mark Twain as my present.

Will is one of the nicest people I've been fortunate enough to meet and so many opportunities were given to me at the Vinton Studios.  I hope Will enjoys many more happy birthdays!

  UPDATE: Unfortunately this was Mr. Vinton's last birthday:

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

New Short and the Graphic Influences

I’ve been working on some pretty stylized character designs for another personal project.  Why I do these things is not rational and is the same reasons, I suppose, an artist does anything.  But, I’m learning what I’m doing is heavily influenced by what I enjoyed as a child and the awe I felt watching animation: moving drawings, imagine that!  My films are stylistically different from each other, each having a graphic look I discovered while growing up in a family of artists.

I can point to individual artists that imprinted me, and with this new project I can see this style grew from the work of designer Ed Benedict who populated Hanna Barbera Studios cartoons from the late 50’s.

The backgrounds are influenced by the rebellion, that sprang against Disney’s realistic literalness, that began with the UPA studio and their embracing of modern art. The high styling of both characters and backgrounds was so popular that even Disney had to incorporate it to appear fresh and relevant.

The animation style I’m trying to work in comes from the Disney artist Art Babbitt who was able to mesh the fluid motion of classical drawn animation with the high stylized designs that was happening at the time. Unlike the limited animation that Ed Benedict's designs were subjected to at Hanna Barbera, Babbitt frequently animated on ones, meaning 24 drawings for every 24th of a second film required, instead of the 12 drawings shot twice which is a common practice, ( it is still recommended that ones be used on very fast actions).  A great example of Babbitt’s integration of fluid classic animation and high styled characters would be his work in Richard William’s The Thief and the Cobbler.

This new project may take some time to finish because I don't have any help on it,but I am having fun drawing just as crazy as I want.  Animation has become play again instead of work.

Below is a clip setting up the conflict between characters.  It's nothing too original but I hope it gets the story going.

Animation clip with scratch track and no sound effects.  

Saturday, March 17, 2018


The trouble with doing a personal film is they can take forever to do.  Real work and real life have a way of eating time and energy from projects that you may want to do, and this short film is one I never thought would be stretched out over years.  The short was fraught with troubles which made it easier to shelf and neglect.  But technology progressed and I was able to solve some of the problems I couldn’t when I first started.  One I’ve never quite fixed is the narration which was completely unusable.  I tried rerecording many times and never could match the inflections and feel of the first tracks.  After filtering the heck out of them, this is the end result.

I’ve always loved Wilhelm Busch and his quirky style.  He reminds me of Edward Gorey to some degree but Busch pioneered some visual jokes which have become cliché standards in cartoons from the golden age of animation.  I wrote about them in this earlier post:    

Here is my faithful adaptation of Wilhelm Busch’s Ice-Peter.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

"Welcome To My Daydream" a New Documentary

At last, the whole story of Will Vinton and Claymation is going to be told by filmmaker Marq Evans in the new documentary “Welcome To My Daydream”

This link from Cartoon Brew goes more in depth about the film and its importance in animation history:  

I’m not sure where I first saw “Rip Van Winkle” but it touched me emotionally with that strange beauty good animation has.  I remember these surreal moments in the film where Rip is dancing in the sky with pulsing color blobs set to the beat of the music, and how affecting the song Rip sang to his friend at the end was.   Later, I ran across a 16MM print of the early documentary made in the 70's about Claymation and saw a young Will Vinton with long hair and a full beard, along with Barry Bruce, and I think, Bill Fiesterman, and Joan Gratz.  It must have been during the shooting of “Martin the Cobbler” because it had this great scene where a clay crew of stage hands is frustrating the clay actor playing Martin. The door to the miniature set opens and the giant head of Will himself peeks in to ask how things are going on set.  I knew then and there these were people after my own heart and wanted to work for them one day. 

Not only is Will one of the sweetest people I know, but so many good things have come from the opportunities he made possible for me and many others.  Thank you Mr. Vinton, I look forward to seeing your story continue.