Monday, November 19, 2012

In praise of the long haul

I like to take my time
I mean that when I want to do a thing
I like to take my time and do it right.

--Fred Rogers

(Minor movie spoilers ahead, so get your butt to the theater and see Wreck-it Ralph before I wreck it for you.)

For many years my mom has observed that I have two speeds: Slow and Reverse.

This isn't a character trait of which I'm particularly proud.  I know that the rest of the world seems to move a lot faster than I can, and it's difficult or impossible to keep up.  I know that I've missed out on a number of very worthwhile opportunities because I took too much time to think them over and they passed me by, or I just decided I couldn't get up to speed fast enough to do them justice.  My father-in-law might even point out that in combat situations, hesitation can get you and your people killed, and he'd be right.  In a society that times itself by New York minutes, there are definitely problems with taking one's time.

And yet.

There are good things to be said about the extended creative process, and of the creations that come from this process.  I find myself mulling over the creative trajectories of two very different animated films, and they seem to provide as fitting an illustration as any for what I mean.

Once upon a time, back in the late 1980s at the beginning of what's now called the Disney Renaissance period, some guys in the animation department came up with the idea for a film tentatively titled High Score, about a video-game character who wants to be more than what he was programmed to be.  They kicked around the idea for a while before putting it on the back burner so they could focus on projects that were further along in development.  But the idea wasn't dead yet.  It resurfaced in the 1990s under the name Joe Jump, then again in the 2000s as Reboot Ralph, but it just wasn't coming together the way Disney hoped it would.  Finally they put Rich Moore on the project.  And after more than 20 years in and out of development, the finished product finally arrived in theaters on November 2, 2012.  Wreck-it Ralph has been doing great gobs of box-office and will probably make back its $165 million budget this coming weekend.

My personal opinion: this movie has good animation, first-rate voice acting, clever writing and near-perfect plotting.  Every point leads organically to every subsequent point: bad guy wants to be accepted, receives challenge to win a medal, goes out-of-game to find said medal, finds his way into futuristic first-person shooter where the baddies work like computer viruses, finds medal, blunders his way out of game with a virus in tow, crash-lands in candy-coated kart-racing game where the virus disappears, then loses medal to annoying little twitchy girl who needs it to fix her own problems with belonging and acceptance.  Meanwhile, since bad guy left, his own game appears to be malfunctioning; now everyone in that game is in peril, so good guy goes looking for bad guy to save his game, meets hot high-definition military woman, honeyglow ensues, and the two team up to save the arcade from viral peril.  And although there are good guys and bad guys, I haven't even mentioned the villain.  (And I won't.  Because even in spoilers I don't want to give that away.  Suffice to say I didn't see it coming although it's all there in hindsight, a mark of crackerjack writing.)

This movie could have sucked in half a dozen ways, but it doesn't.  It zigs when you expect it to zag.  It uses groaner-level puns in a way that's actually funny.  It doesn't use the conceit of video game characters as self-aware beings in a gimmicky way.  Even the music fits well with the premise.  It's almost seamless.  There's a reason why it's doing so well.

Now.  Think.  Projects like this don't come together quickly or easily; they require a lot of work and a lot of thought (and lots and lots of rough drafts, I'm sure of it).  How well do you suppose Wreck-it Ralph would have fared if Disney had decided to rush it through production too quickly for the sake of having a finished film they could roll out for, say, the 1996 holiday season?

It wouldn't look like this, that's for sure.

Now for the other story.

Back in 1964, an independent filmmaker named Richard Williams started laboring on the film he intended to be his masterwork: a story about the wise fool of Middle Eastern folklore, the Mullah Nasruddin.  This project, too, went through several name changes: The Amazing Nasruddin, The Majestic Fool, Nasruddin!, and then, after a slightly reworked script due to copyright issues, The Thief and the Cobbler.  The story was set in an unnamed but clearly Middle Eastern nation, in a place called the Golden City.  The look and feel of the film is a valentine to Islamic art and architecture, the character designs are drawn from a number of sources including classic silent film, the voice talent is star-studded, and the quality of the finished animation is spectacular, being all hand-drawn, animated "on ones" (that is, using all 24 frames per second for movement, as opposed to the standard 12 for animation) and moving in three dimensions without the use of CGI work.

Of course, as an independent labor of love, this project had to get its necessary millions from somewhere.  So for nearly 30 years Richard Williams took on other work to make the money to fund his magnum opus -- he animated TV commercials, specials, feature films (that's his animation work at the beginning of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, for instance) and anything else he could take on.  In the process his skill at animation grew.  After the success of Roger Rabbit, Williams started to catch the eye of big studios, including Warner Bros., who gave him a budget, geared him up for full production and put him on a deadline to finish his masterpiece.

The first deadline passed, and then the next.  Williams was behind schedule and over budget; he was no longer operating on his own timetable, which could make allowances for slow and methodical progress, but on the clock for people who couldn't afford to be patient with his methods.  Japanese investors to the film also panicked when the economic bubble burst in Japan.  In 1992 Williams lost control of his own film; it was given to another director, completely re-edited with multiple scenes lost, finished with cut-rate animation, made into a musical and briefly released to theaters under the title Arabian Knight.  It has since been released to home video under a number of names, including The Princess and the Cobbler.

Most people who have seen the fan-produced version of this movie, subtitled "The Recobbled Cut," agree that in its originally-intended form The Thief and the Cobbler would have been gorgeous. As it is, this legendary unfinished film has had a wide influence on other projects -- most notably the Disney film Aladdin, which lifts heavily from the film's overall look and character designs (many Disney animators worked with Williams on Roger Rabbit), and on the Tomm Moore film The Secret of Kells in its approach to character and set designs based on traditional regional art.

I recognize that in many ways Richard Williams shot himself in the foot.  He'd gotten used to years of working slowly on his masterpiece, but hadn't properly geared himself up to finish it.  But he also made the mistake of throwing in his lot with people who didn't (and frankly couldn't) see the project in the same light he did.  He was busy creating an animated artwork, while the studio saw only a cartoon product it could package and sell.  And the world is worse off for what the studio ended up doing to his creation.  (I know there are fans of the movie as it currently exists who read my blog, so humblest apologies if my opinion offends you.)

Here's the thing: I know there are opportunities I've missed, things I've let slip by.  There are plenty of people who recognize this as one of my personal failings.  But why does no one stop to think that it works both ways -- that (not to sound too cocky here) perhaps there are people who missed out on collaborating with me because they were in too much of a hurry to let me work at my own pace?

Just a thought.  And, as usual, one that took several hours to articulate.  But that's how I roll.

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