I want to write a bit about what inspires me about the film but also about some illusions that I lost towards the end of working on it.
When I was a student our animation teacher Hans Bacher gave me VHS copies of 3 documentaries about Dick Williams and the Thief. I was very taken by the combination of stylized characters and full dazzeling animation. Dick is very good at selling himself on TV, contagious in his enthusiasm. When he talked about making the best animated film ever I believed every word, especially since he always backed it up with amazing clips from the film. I had never thought it possible that I might get a chance to work on it, but when Dietmar and I went job hunting in London, Oscar Grillo and Eric Goldberg both advised us that we should submit our reel at Dick's studio. They were just about to start hiring and Dick offered both of us a job as assistant animators. We soon became animators and worked on the film for more than 2 years, full of enthusiasm, lots of 70 hour weeks. When Dick gave us the job he showed us around and introduced us to Roy. Dick explained that their approach to making the Thief was a bit like amateur film making, like a student who might do everything , wearing many hats. He showed us a scene he was working on. He didn't have an assistant and pointed out that he was doing every drawing himself on ones. I'm pretty sure it was this one:
Roy later told me about times when Ken Harris was about to arrive for his seasonal stay in London and having been busy on commercials Dick sometimes had not prepared any work for him. In a hurry they would whip out BG and character layouts for the Thief character. Dick would just say "Let's make him climb up the mountain..." and that would keep Ken busy for a while. These sequences were intended as comic relief and not really the main part of the film. Dick considered the Thief animation Ken's best work and fell in love with these sequences. They are still what I like best about the film, but this approach of putting secondary parts of the film through animation before the main story was taken care off is also a bit like amateur film making. As an animation student you are sometimes so impatient to start animating that you might neglect to work out the overall story of your film properly.
Another problem with the Thief is that sometimes his scenes are more compelling to watch than the scenes for the main story. Andreas mentioned before that in 1990 John Patrick Shanley, the screenwriter of Moonstruck was brought in by Jake Eberts to rewrite the script. He had to work around all the animation that had been finished already. Dick was not prepared to give up any of the animation jewels that Ken had given him over the years. A pretty thankless job. We all got to read the different script revisions. I didn't have any experience with reading scripts and wasn't too worried when I wasn't exactly blown away by what I read.
A further problem of the film at this stage might have been that in order to get the financing they had agreed to a budget that was basically too low. Dick probably spent too much time on some secondary shots before focusing on the important acting scenes and did his fair share of revisions. It's pretty common though on most feature films that a certain amount of work gets redone in order to get it right. I think for the small size of the crew the studio was pretty efficient and we cranked out an amazing amount of work.
As we keep on discussing scenes of the film you might be surprised at how many scenes were actually done in those final 2+ years. 25 years in the making can be a little misleading. However we didn't meet our footage quotas and deadlines and Warners forced Dick to fill in the gaps between the finished parts of the film with storyboards. There was a big screening at Piccadilly Circus and for the first time we saw the story in one piece. I was bitterly disappointed by the storytelling. I guess I was still expecting somehow that the whole film would live up to the promises made in sequences like the War Machine. Video copies of this version later circulated in the animation world as the "work print". The versions that were finally released were not improvements. In my opinion they made things far worse.
Dick approached each scene as a piece of art and some sequences like the War Machine indeed seem to be part of a masterpiece. I do consider Dick a genius for many reasons but I don't think the film as a whole would have been a masterpiece or even commercially successful if it had been finished the way Dick had boarded it out. Dick had promised to deliver a blockbuster. In retrospect it's easy to conclude that we would have gotten a better film if it had been finished Dick's way, but at the time Warners would not have been content with an eccentric film that appealed only to a small audience.
If you have seen Garrett's Recobbled Cut and compare it with the released versions you'll see the difference. Keep in mind that Garrett in order to make it more watchable to a general audience used some footage that was not animated under Dick's direction. While based on Dick's boards these scenes were done on smaller fields and the animators were paid by the foot, much different conditions. There has been a screening of this fan edit here in San Francisco and quite a few people have told me how much they liked it.
After many years my disappointments with the film have mellowed out and I have a rather nostalgic view on it now and appreciate the good parts on their own. I hope my ramblings make some sense and will now keep on celebrating the good parts of the Thief in future posts. I'm also curious about your opinions.