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Back to the Drawing Board Photographs by Sylvain Dumais.

Back to the Drawing Board

Richard Williams spent more than twenty-five years creating what has been called the greatest film never released. Peter Henderson illustrates the story of the Canadian animation icon whose masterpiece ended his Hollywood career.

TWENTY-ONE YEARS, six months and twenty-five days after his life’s work was taken from him, Richard Williams rose in front of a packed crowd at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills to introduce The Thief and the Cobbler—the film that effectively ended his Hollywood career.

The Canadian animator is considered by many to be the greatest practitioner of his art alive today. And, standing onstage, Williams himself seemed to have sprung forth from an animator’s brush. With a sing-song voice, expressive eyes and a shock of hair that seems perpetually tousled, the slightly built Williams—Dick to his friends—was still a ball of nervous energy at eighty. Pacing and gesticulating in front of the red velvet curtain, he did his best to downplay expectations for the first public showing of what has been called the greatest animated film never released.

The reel that was about to be shown was actually a workprint, he explained, hastily assembled and replete with scratches and noise in certain frames. Some scenes were no more than pencil drawings, while others lacked music and sound effects. Yet the story was mostly complete. “This is like going to a rehearsal of an opera where half the cast are all decked out in their costumes and the other half has come in off the street,” he said.

The theatre was packed with some of the biggest names in the animation world. There was Eric Goldberg, a bright young animator under Williams who went on to direct Disney’s Pocahontas. Nearby was Tom Sito, who helped lead Disney into a creative renaissance in the early 1990s and later founded the animation department at Dreamworks SKG. Further up, in an aisle seat, sat ninety-six-year-old June Foray, the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel.

Up on stage, Williams alluded to The Thief’s tortured production history, which spanned more than twenty-five years of his life. It went through several complete rewrites, a never-ending search for funding and a rotating cast of artists and assistants whose names could fill a phonebook. He explained that the print he was about to show was assembled forty-eight hours before May 15, 1992—the day he was told that The Thief and the Cobbler was no longer his film to make. It was the day his employees were fired and his office, his sketches and even his pens were seized. It was the day that Richard Williams Studio no longer belonged to Richard Williams.

Sitting in the crowd, ensconced in a plush red seat, Garrett Gilchrist was hanging on to Williams’ every word. Though the two had never met, Gilchrist and Williams had much in common. For eight years, Gilchrist slaved over his own reconstruction of the supposedly lost movie, spending countless hours acquiring and repairing rare scraps of animation that were created during the film’s production. Gilchrist poured everything he had into completing his own version of Williams’ movie while attempting to stay true to the animator’s vision. And now here he was, about to watch the original in the same room as Williams himself.

The lights went down, the curtain rose and the film began.

THE STORY OF The Thief and the Cobbler started eighty years before its eventual 2013 screening. Born in Toronto in 1933, Richard Williams gained a lifelong love of animation when his mother took him to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a child. He recalled this moment while giving an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences lecture on animation a few months before his showing of The Thief. “My mind opened, and it has never shut since,” he said of the seminal event. (Williams did not respond to interview requests and, until the December 2013 screening, had rarely spoken about his experience working on The Thief and the Cobbler.)

Unlike other children caught up in the story of the beautiful damsel and the wicked queen, when Williams watched the film he saw the potential for animation to create fantastical worlds outside his quotidian existence in North Toronto. At fifteen, he ran away from home, taking a bus all the way to the Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles. There, a friend of his mother’s set up a studio visit for him. The young Williams was awestruck—but he had the courage to show around some of the drawings he had made.

One Disney animator, Richmond Kelsey, took it upon himself to speak with Williams, explaining that that there was only one way to become a great animator: forget animation, ignore cartoons and really learn to draw. Study the great painters, understand the fine artists of history and, then and only then, come back to animation.

Williams took Kelsey’s advice to heart. After a stint in art school in the early 1950s, he went to Europe, studying the Old Masters in galleries across the continent and, for a time, sketching a village circus in Spain. The drawings, which still survive, are two-dimensional portraits imbued with the action and emotion of the acrobats and animal acts. They demonstrate the expressive quality of Williams’ hand and his skill with the intricate art of draftsmanship.

By 1955, Williams had immigrated to the United Kingdom and set up shop as an artist. He won a BAFTA award for his 1958 animated short The Little Island and, by the early 1960s, was producing advertisements and commercials at the eponymous Richard Williams Studio in London.

Even as his business grew and Williams became a mentor to some of his staff, he maintained that he himself was a student of the art. He sought expertise from the best animators of the previous generation. Ken Harris, who had worked closely with the legendary Chuck Jones on the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts at Warner Bros. Studios, was recruited in the late 1960s and served as Williams’ mentor throughout the next decade. Art Babbitt, one of the original Disney animators (the wicked queen in Snow White and Geppetto in Pinocchio were his handiwork) came over in the mid-1970s as a senior animator and a teacher for Williams’ staff. Babbitt was a master of visualizing human movement, considered the most difficult part of the animator’s craft because the brain is wired to detect inaccuracies in the familiar.

While Harris and Babbitt were recruited to train staff, Harris provided something even more valuable to Williams himself: the title of animator. “It’s a gift word,” Williams said in the 1982 documentary Richard Williams: The Thief Who Never Gave Up. “Like only a poet can appoint somebody a poet. I was both his student and his director.”

By the 1970s, Williams had become a towering figure in the animation world. His studio received more than 250 awards during its first two decades. Aside from his advertising work, Williams created the opening credits for 1965’s What’s New Pussycat? and The Return of the Pink Panther ten years later. Yet while the advertising contracts kept coming in, Williams and his staff were spending their spare time on another project, a feature-length film that Williams could call his own. Every free minute, every spare second were used trying to bring Williams’ vision for The Thief and the Cobbler to life. 

THE THIEF HAS ITS BASIS in centuries-old Islamic folktales from The Thousand and One Nights, as well as the work of Mullah Nasruddin, a wise cleric who dispensed humorous advice and populist philosophy in equal measure. After an initial attempt to put Nasruddin’s stories on film fell through in 1972 when Williams lost the rights to his main character, he changed the focus to one who had been a minor figure in his initial pitch: a mute, bumbling thief.

The story, despite its countless revisions, followed a relatively simple outline: long ago, in an ancient Arabian city, the titular unnamed thief steals the three golden balls that sit atop the town’s tallest minaret. These are no ordinary decorations, though; the golden balls are what protect the area from nefarious forces. And so it falls to a simple cobbler named Tack, along with the Sultan’s daughter, Princess Yum Yum, to protect the city from the invading forces of the Mighty One-Eye and his giant war machine. A traitorous grand vizier who schemes to win Yum Yum’s hand in marriage complicates matters as the princess and the cobbler set off to save the kingdom and restore the golden balls to their rightful place.

However, with The Thief and the Cobbler, Williams was not simply looking to tell a story—he was trying to revive an art form that he thought was in danger of being lost.

The period between the 1928 release of Disney’s landmark Mickey Mouse film Steamboat Willie and the late 1950s is known as “the golden age of American animation.” It was a time when big-budget studios such as Disney and Warner Bros. invested in talented artists and gave free rein to their best animators. Before the advent of television, all animation was bound for the cinema, and that meant using twenty-four drawings to fill the twenty-four frames per second of film reel. This technique made for smooth, realistic animation with the maximum possible detail and  delity.

However, as televisions became more prevalent during the 1960s, other studios started seeing animation as a way to produce low-cost entertainment for children. Instead of twenty-four frames per second, producers began working at twelve—using each drawing for two frames of film. This resulted in poorer-quality animation, but it was good enough for companies, such as Hanna-Barbera and Underdog creator Total Television, to pump out a huge number of Saturday morning cartoons. Using repeated frames, simplistic character drawings, unchanging backgrounds and little creativity in the on-screen action, titles such as Yogi Bear, The Smurfs and Super Friends were hit shows that cost a fraction of what Disney spent on one of its films.

This cheap animation style did not translate well to the movies. When projected on a thirty-foot cinema screen, twelve drawings per second looks jerky and robotic, as the flaws in a character’s movement become much more evident than on a twenty-four-inch television. That did not stop producers, though, and so it is no surprise that there are few films from Disney’s rival studios released in the 1960s and 1970s that are considered classics. Even celebrated works of alternative animation produced outside the studio system, such as Ralph Bakshi’s 1972 Fritz the Cat and the 1981 Canadian animated fantasy Heavy Metal, relied on simplistic animation and a technique called rotoscoping, where animators draw over live-action footage.

Richard Williams aimed to do everything, including his commercials, at the gold standard of twenty-four drawings per second. The Thief was to be his masterpiece—heralding a return to the quality and craftsmanship of the past, while showing audiences the detail and beauty that modern animation could achieve. “This is a culmination, what I’m trying to do,” Williams said in the 1982 documentary. “I’m just making one picture, one big picture, with all the stuff I know packed in like a triple-decker sandwich, just jammed. I’m trying to regroup animation.”

Williams’ quest for perfection was clear during the production of The Thief. The exquisite animation of surviving clips shows the film’s colourful and lively characters against constantly moving, minutely detailed backgrounds—the furthest thing possible from the limited animation of Saturday morning cartoons. In one scene, which Williams animated entirely on his own and spent weeks perfecting, the scheming grand vizier, Zigzag, flicks a set of playing cards from hand to hand in a mesmerizing sequence of moves. Each card in the deck is drawn with picture-perfect accuracy as it flutters across the screen, all at twenty-four drawings per second. The end result is twenty seconds of perfection in animation.

BY 1978, RICHARD WILLIAMS NEEDED MONEY. Despite his studio’s success, he needed cash to continue working on his masterpiece. He sought a major investment for The Thief from Mohammed Feisal, a Saudi prince. To woo the royal, Williams put together a significant chunk of what would become known as “the war machine sequence.” In it, the thief becomes lost amid the innards of a giant apparatus that includes spears, cannons, boiling oil and every other weapon imaginable. Williams missed two deadlines putting the scene together and, although he received a standing ovation during its eventual screening for the prince, Feisal backed out of the deal.

After two more years of work, Williams had invested huge amounts of his own money and the studio’s profits into the picture, amounting to millions of dollars. Then, one day, his work on the war machine sequence paid off. In 1985, a sample reel made it to directors Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg. The two were so impressed that they recruited Williams for what seemed like an insane project: a mash-up of live-action and animated cinema that would hearken back to the hard-boiled detective serials of the 1940s. Only someone with Williams’ talent could help them put together Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The film was a groundbreaking technical effort. Williams pushed Zemeckis to treat the animated characters like real actors: move the camera, use moody lighting and don’t skimp on the action. For any animator, drawing characters consistently in the correct perspective is a difficult task—drawing them interacting with humans at twenty-four frames each second in realistic lighting was not supposed to be possible. Williams won two Oscars for doing the impossible.

The achievements of Roger Rabbit may be hard to understand for modern cinema audiences used to seeing Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers taking on outlandish computer-created foes in whiz-bang set-pieces. Yet according to University of Notre Dame professor and film scholar Donald Crafton, Williams’ accomplishment in 1988 should not be undersold. “Williams was able to play animation style as a kind of organ, pulling out the different stops as necessary and hitting the right chords,” he says. “It’s an astonishing film.”

Flush with commercial success and critical acclaim, Williams finally had the money and time to complete his magnum opus. Full-time production on The Thief and the Cobbler began in 1989 with millions of dollars in investment from Warner Bros. and an initial deadline of fall 1991.

Williams went on a hiring binge, filling his studio with new staff from all over the world. Andreas Wessel-Therhorn, a young German artist who joined the production right out of university, says that every new artist knew about Williams’ decades of work on his pet project. “By that time, The Thief and the Cobbler was already one of those legendary things, even before we worked on it,” Wessel-Therhorn says. “And everybody knew he was the greatest animator in the world.” The studio moved to a large building on London’s Camden Street, and Williams set up his work station in middle of the second floor, surrounded by an ever-expanding spiderweb of desks, filing cabinets and drafting tables.

The space filled up over the next few months as new people arrived nearly every day. Artists, assistants and other employees soon numbered nearly one hundred and fifty. For many, The Thief and the Cobbler was a chance to prove their talents. Williams seemed to prefer hiring younger artists not set in any one approach to animation, regardless of their level of experience; that way, he would be able to shape their abilities to meet his demands.

Lynette Charters was just twenty-four when she joined Williams as an FX artist in 1990. By that point she had worked only briefly on one other film. Williams liked her, Charters explains, because she hadn’t been “contaminated” by the Disney style. Charters says that she knew the atmosphere at Williams’ studio was special from the first day she walked in. “They were much more into making art and  guring out how we could do it in the best way without just doggedly following the tradition,” she says.

While Williams’ studio was an inspiring place to work, it was far from easy. For staff, there was not much difference between a conversation with their mercurial boss and an infantry assignment on the Western front—like the trenches, an explosion was never far away. “He didn’t really care if he trampled on somebody’s feelings and he probably didn’t care if anybody trampled on his because he was too thick-skinned to notice,” says Dietmar Kremer, another early hire.

Steven Evangelatos, who joined the production as a character animator in September 1990, defends Williams’ sometimes callous treatment of those around him as a symptom of his genius. “It wasn’t pleasant, but it was rewarding,” he says. “You knew he wasn’t doing it because he was an awful person. You knew it wasn’t something he had control over; it was his dedication to the art. And also maybe occasionally a blood sugar issue."

EVERYONE WORKING ON The Thief and the Cobbler had a moment when they realized Williams' drive for perfection meant the film would not be delivered on time. For Charters, it came just a few weeks after she began, when Williams chastised her for not moving quicker on the swirling clouds she had to draw for nearly every outdoor scene. When Charters explained how long her process would take to get the level of detail he wanted, Williams relented. “It was like, ‘If that’s what it takes then we’ll do it and figure it out later,’” Charters says. “He just wanted to make it perfect.”

After his Roger Rabbit Oscar wins, Williams had the clout to bring big names onto the project in the hopes of speeding up the process. But an assist from George Martin, former producer of the Beatles, did not bring the musical score any closer to completion. And Wessel-Therhorn says that script changes suggested by future Oscar-winning writer John Patrick Shanley only served to slow down production further. “There was always someone new starting and he [Williams] would proclaim that they would save the movie in some fashion,” Wessel-Therhorn says. “But of course, no one could live up to that, and he would sour on them.” Even though the production was progressing at a snail’s pace, Williams was always looking for ways to perfect individual scenes, sometimes redoing work that was near completion because he did not like a certain element. Artists also had difficulty updating the original work of Ken Harris and Art Babbitt, which featured decades-old character designs and animation styles. What began as fifty-hour weeks evolved into eighty-hour commitments, with work bleeding into weekends and holidays for nearly everyone. Charters says the job, while rewarding, could be overwhelming. At one point in production, she crawled under her desk, laughing hysterically. “You wanted to do the work, you just occasionally would freak out,” she says.

Williams’ approach to managing the project added an additional layer of complexity to an already painstaking process. The design of the film was almost entirely in Williams’ head, meaning he was the only one who knew the grand plan for the project. As a result, all production decisions and assignments had to go through him. It also meant that Warner Bros. could not hire others to help execute Williams’ vision. “You’d go to Dick and say, ‘Look, I need a new scene [to work on],’ and he would sometimes draw it on a napkin or while you were there you’d scribble something,” recalls Kremer.

Many who worked on the project say that the biggest issue with the film was Williams’ inattention to the broader story—the meat and potatoes of the actual narrative. As the film’s first deadline came and went in late 1991, a theory developed among some of the animators to explain Williams’ reticence to get on with building a coherent plot. “He did all the juicy bits and he left out all the story parts because he was probably thinking, ‘Even if they don’t like the stuff that I do now, they have to let me animate the story,’” Kremer says.

Soon there were whispers of another film in production, one created by Disney that was also inspired by the Arabian tales found in The Thousand and One Nights. It was called Aladdin. Echoes of The Thief and the Cobbler were rampant: there was an evil, black-clad grand vizier, and a confused but well-meaning bearded sultan dressed in white robes with gold trim. Many animators had passed through Williams’ studio on their way to Disney, and perhaps it was meant as homage. Or maybe some artists subconsciously took the designs with them. There is a chance the similarities were unintentional; regardless, many in Williams’ studio cried foul. “People said The Thief, when it  finally came out, was a rip-off of Aladdin, but of course The Thief was much older,” Kremer says.

Many artists have cited Aladdin as the reason Warner Bros. finally began to lose patience with Williams. His contract with the studio included a completion bond—if the film was not finished by a certain date, the rights would pass to a company that would release the film on schedule, regardless of Williams’ wishes.

Antonia Dewhurst was at the studio the day completion bond workers came to assess the value of everything from Art Babbitt’s priceless animation to the stubby pencils sprawled around the room. “They were just asking so many questions: what we did, how long it took,” Dewhurst says. “But I didn’t think anything of it until later.”

In the final weeks, at the behest of the movie’s financiers, Williams agreed to create an outline of the film using its extant animation and roughly planned animatics spliced together in as comprehensible a way as possible. It was to be The Thief and the Cobbler’s final workprint.

By May 15, 1992, Williams had completed approximately seventy minutes—about two-thirds—of the final film after more than twenty-five years of planning, innumerable hours of work and $28 million in investment. His time was up.

Williams’ employees consoled each other and gathered up their belongings after being told that they were getting shut down. Many cried, but Dewhurst remembers her sadness being mixed with relief that the project was finally over. Lynette Charters and several of her colleagues left the office for a nearby pub. Yet Andreas Wessel-Therhorn says that in the midst of the disorder, one person remained at their desk: “I remember Dick, sitting in the middle of this chaos of people running around, animating a scene like he could still make the movie happen."

AFTER WILLIAMS AND HIS STAFF were let go, animator Fred Calvert was called in to finish the film as quickly and cheaply as possible. His contribution runs at twelve frames per second, contrasting with the laboriously perfected work of Williams and his team. Calvert’s version, released as The Princess and the Cobbler, went straight to video in 1993 to almost no notice. Miramax later bought the rights to the work and recut the film for a 1995 theatrical release titled Arabian Knight.

Richard Williams wrote a script meant to update Islamic folk tales for the modern viewer while maintaining a sense of wonder and Middle Eastern allure. He had refused to Disney-fy his film with songs or a love story. Arabian Knight had both. In the released versions, the mute thief and the humble cobbler were dubbed with celebrity voices and spouted anachronistic dialogue. Williams’ former staff describe Arabian Knight as “unwatchable,” “abominable,” and “embarrassing.” And if the poor quality was not enough of an insult, Arabian Knight was panned by critics as a shoddy rehash of Aladdin.

THE HISTORY OF CINEMA is filled with the unfulfilled ambitions of artists great and small. Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons will never be seen in the way the filmmakers intended.

Yet with the internet came an age of cultural afterlife in which nothing is ever really forgotten. And unlike the lost footage of Greed or The Magnificent Ambersons, many of the building blocks for The Thief were available to anyone with the tools and desire to work with them.

Garrett Gilchrist was the person who decided to do so. A graduate of the University of Southern California’s film school, none of the several short films or full-length features he has produced have had wide releases. Since graduating in 2004, Gilchrist has supported himself as a writer for film trade publications and as an artist selling custom character portraits.

In 1998, Gilchrist was enchanted after reading about Williams’ work on The Thief. He amassed the released versions of The Princess and the Cobbler and Arabian Knight, as well as a poor-quality bootleg of Williams’ workprint for The Thief. Over the course of a single night, he watched all three. Despite their flaws, he was immediately taken with the work. “I realized I’d just watched what might be the greatest animated film I’d ever seen,” he says. “I knew I had to find out what had happened to it.”

After learning of the production’s history and seeing the bastardized versions of The Thief that had been released, Gilchrist decided he could do better. Several years later, he got to work. Using the bootleg VHS workprint, additional production materials and assorted international copies of the released versions of the film, Gilchrist completed the first iteration of The Thief and the Cobbler: Recobbled Cut in January 2006. His goal was to create a version of The Thief that stayed true to Richard Williams’ original vision. The DVDs of Arabian Knight and The Princess and the Cobbler were far from perfect source material, however. Gilchrist says both have terrible colours and poorly redubbed audio. “I’m pretty sure there’s some standing order on file to treat this film badly,” he says.

While working on the Recobbled Cut, Gilchrist began contacting those who had worked on The Thief under Williams to scrounge whatever surviving footage he could: rare sketches, bits of the original film stock, anything that went through the office would suffice. “Tracking down some of the film, some of the lost footage, was like detective work,” he says. Gilchrist even convinced Wessel-Therhorn to contribute new artwork for the unfinished opening credit sequence.

Gilchrist threw himself into the project—which he continuously updated and released for free online—with meticulous devotion. “There was always something more to edit, somebody else to call. I tried to keep it to a Friday thing, but sometimes I would spend weeks on just The Thief,” he says. In time, he became a walking encyclopedia of Williams’ life and work, though Williams himself remained silent despite Gilchrist’s attempts at contact.

The Recobbled Cut incorporates storyboards and pencil sketches in order to tell the story coherently. Gilchrist converted reels of old 35 millimetre film to high-definition digital files and edited together scenes from multiple sources. “Even if [the source] was bad, or pretty bad, I’ve used it,” he says. “I want you to be able to sit down and watch this movie.”

Gilchrist’s undertaking was enormous. His scrupulous restoration involved cleaning up individual frames using Adobe Photoshop. Some he merely touched up, removing dust or overly noticeable artefacts that came along with the imperfect conversion of the source material. Others frames required hours of work as he digitally balanced the colour, cleaned the image and removed pen markings or wear and tear from the original film strip. At twenty-four frames a second, that’s 1,440 frames for each minute of film. If each frame took him an average of one minute to restore, that would mean twenty-four hours of continuous work to produce a single minute of the movie.

Despite all of his efforts, including redrawing individual frames of The Thief and creating completely new ones for the Recobbled Cut, Gilchrist refuses to call himself an animator—the title that Williams was given after years of work. “I’m not delusional about my own skills,” he says. “I know the difference between me and an animator, because having worked on this film you know what good animation is.”

Years passed and Gilchrist kept working as a freelance writer and artist. But The Thief was never far away. In the summer of 2013, during his final push to finish his fourth iteration of the Recobbled Cut, Gilchrist ignored most of his commitments to the outside world. Instead, from his home in upstate New York, he worked at least eight hours a day on the film. In a post on his Facebook page that September, he asked his fans for monetary support since he had been eschewing paid work in favour of his passion project.

Why spend innumerable hours and energy on a film that is not even your own? For Gilchrist, it felt like a duty. “I always wanted to do this for the film,” he says. “I would say I wanted to do it for Dick. It was never about me and I think that was really important. It’s about doing this film justice.” The fourth and latest version of the Recobbled Cut was released online in September 2013, nearly eight years after Gilchrist began. Response to the project from Williams’ former staff has been positive. Lynette Charters saw an earlier version on YouTube after it was posted to a Facebook group for UK animators. “I think it gives [the film] back its integrity,” she says. “Now, if you want to see what he [Williams] wanted to do with it, you can do that. If you’re interested in the movie at all you don’t just have this awful joke to look at.”

Steven Evangelatos, who now runs his own animation studio in Vancouver, praises Gilchrist’s work but says he should be careful not to tread on Williams’ art. “As long as he treats it with respect, then there’s no problem with that,” Evangelatos says. “But people should never confuse what he’s doing with what Richard Williams was trying to do.”

After his studio was shut down, Williams retired to a small island off the coast of British Columbia. There, he wrote what became the authoritative text for animation, The Animator’s Survival Kit, and continued his lifelong devotion to drawing. He has mostly refused to talk about the troubled production of The Thief and the Cobbler. That is, until the day he agreed to dust off his original workprint and give the film the release it never had. 

RICHARD WILLIAMS IS NOT AS WELL-KNOWN as Walt Disney or Warner Bros.’ Chuck Jones, nor is he as recognizable as modern-day animators such as Pixar’s Brad Bird or Japanese Oscar-winner Hayao Miyazaki. Williams never finished the movie that was meant to define him.

Yet everyone in attendance at The Thief and the Cobbler’s workprint screening in December 2013 knew his name. The film was still missing dialogue and sound effects. Entire scenes were absent, having never made it to page before Williams lost control of the project. But the audience still roared with laughter at the nameless thief’s physical comedy; those with an artist’s eye murmured in awe while taking in the set pieces Williams fastidiously crafted.

In the audience, Gilchrist had mixed feelings. “I have to admit that watching the workprint made me appreciate my years of hard work on the Recobbled Cut,” Gilchrist later wrote on his website. “I found myself missing all the little touches I’d put in to make the film play better with an audience.”

Still, Gilchrist cheered along with the rest as Williams returned to the stage to a standing ovation. After Williams said a few brief words about his current untitled solo animated project—“no financier will ever, ever get near this one,” he said—the host asked him what he had learned in the decades since his version of The Thief was shut down. “I’m now able to do what I want to do,” Williams said. “Sometimes I’m working and somebody yells ‘Wow!’ and then I find it’s me. I want to master this goddamn medium and finally I have.”

Later that week, Gilchrist took to his website to update his fans on the status of the Recobbled Cut. It was time to move on, he said. “Oh, there’s plenty more that could be done,” he wrote. “I could easily, and happily, keep on working on this for ages, as Richard did. But there comes a time when you have to say, it’s good enough. No, not even good enough, but good. Excellent, actually. We had no official support and I did it for no other reason than I liked the film and wanted people to see it, and it seemed like the right thing to do. It’s a work of art and I don’t regret a single moment of it.”

For Gilchrist—like Williams—The Thief and the Cobbler was always a labour of love. It also allowed him to share his work—and Williams’ masterpiece—with the world. His postings about The Thief and the Cobbler have received more than 124,000 views. Clips of the final iteration of the Recobbled Cut have more than 150,000 views on YouTube, with previous editions racking up hundreds of thousands more. In a way, he achieved what Williams could not: a watchable version of The Thief and the Cobbler, widely beloved by animation enthusiasts. 

AS THE AUDIENCE HEADED FOR THE EXITS at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, a crowd of fans and former colleagues made their way to the front for a chance to chat with Williams. Gilchrist, with a DVD copy of the Recobbled Cut’s final iteration in hand, made his way through the throng of well-wishers. By the time he reached the front, the great animator was turning to leave. Gilchrist managed to grab Williams’ attention and shook his hand. He then told Williams about all the years he had spent restoring The Thief and the Cobbler and handed him the copy of the Recobbled Cut, which Williams graciously accepted.

As the crowd milled around them, Williams placed both hands on Gilchrist’s shoulders and looked him in the eye. Do your own stuff, Williams said. The story was as complete as it ever would be.