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A saga of obsession in ‘Persistence of Vision’

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Kevin Schreck Films presents a documentary directed, shot and edited by Kevin Schreck. No MPAA rating. Running time: 83 minutes. Screening at 6 p.m. Friday and 3:15 p.m. Saturday-Sunday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Updated: June 4, 2013 6:05AM

The misfortune of one filmmaker can be an opportunity for another. Richard Williams failed to finish “The Thief and the Cobbler,” a meticulously hand-animated saga based on Persian folklore, and Kevin Schreck succeeds at chronicling the three-decade debacle in his “Persistence of Vision.” If he fails to find a lesson, he lets us sample virtuoso sequences turned out by Williams and his over-worked London employees.

The 80-year-old animator did not talk on camera to the 24-year-old documentary-maker. Four segments made for British TV in 1966, 1970, 1972 and 1982 furnish the only footage of Williams. Schreck shot interviews with former employees.

In 1964, Williams began his project. In 1992, the completion bond company for Warner Bros. took possession of the incomplete film’s elements. Versions were later released with cuts, new scenes, different music and added dialogue. All without input from Williams. (A 1995 release retitled the feature “Arabian Knight.”)

“I’ve mastered this medium at last and I’m going to do a masterpiece, I hope — if I can ever finish,” Williams says in an old interview. He allows this was “a mammoth ego trip.”

Colleagues call him “obsessive,” “perfectionist” and “almost fanatical.” “He’s an absolute genius,” insists director Robert Zemeckis in a DVD extra for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988). For his contribution to that Hollywood hybrid of real actors and cartoon characters, Williams won a special achievement Oscar as its director of animation.

Schreck cannot imagine how Williams might have completed his epic. Assignments for animated TV commercials and credit sequences (“What’s New Pussycat?” and “The Pink Panther Strikes Again”) helped Williams pay for it all, as his film’s backers came and went.

Schreck details too little of the pre-CGI technique he so admires. “It looks like people died making it,” marvels an animator who worked for Williams between 1973 and 1974. “You’d look at it and go, ‘How did they do that?’”

Another animator with Williams in the early ’90s saw “The Thief and the Cobbler” as “an experimental piece ... a whole bunch of sequences searching for a plot, in the end, and there never was really going to be one.”

Siskel programmer Martin Rubin lists “Persistence of Vision” alongside the similarly themed docs “Burden of Dreams” and “Lost in La Mancha.” Those two better efforts benefitted from the cooperation of their directors: Werner Herzog and Terry Gilliam, respectively. Both documentaries could draw parallels between the mad quests of characters in the films and the filmmakers themselves. The story line of “The Thief and the Cobbler” lends itself to no such comparison.

Folly and failure, though, can still cue inquests into creativity and commerce. What “Persistence of Vision” lacks as media archaeology, it makes up with amazement.

Bill Stamets is a free-lance writer and reviewer.

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