Full of Goodness:
The Animations of Terry Gilliam
Noell Wolfgram Evans) Throughout the history of animation many
artists have left their mark. Of this group, there are but a select
few whose work and style are recognized almost universally by
both the student of animation and the casual fan. Terry Gilliam
is one such artist. Now a respected and successful live action
director, in the 1970's Gilliam was creating revolutionary animations
for the comedy group Monty Python. How a boy from Minnesota turned
animation on its side while a member of an English comedy troupe
is a story that's, well, completely different.
was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1940. After an uneventful
childhood he found himself at Occidental College in California
studying physics. He soon switched to the art department but after
a run-in with a professor, he switched his major again and graduated
as a Political Scientist.
What - Me
At Occidental, in a quest to stretch his creativity, Gilliam joined
the staff of 'Fang', the college's literary magazine. Influenced
strongly by 'Mad Magazine' and 'Help!' (a national humor magazine),
he moved 'Fang' away from its literary roots and more towards the
visual arts while making comedy the focus of every issue.
of 'Help!', and one of the co-founders of 'Mad', was Harvey Kurtzman.
Gilliam was extremely influenced by the work that Kurtzman was
producing and, in an effort to be accepted by one of his idols,
he would routinely send copies of 'Fang' to Kurtzman in New York
City. Gilliam sent several issues, and finally one day he received
a response. Harvey's positive words danced around Gilliam's brain
planting the desire in him to meet the great master. So after
graduating, and with no real desire to put his degree to work,
Gilliam boarded a bus to New York to meet Harvey Kurtzman.
Let's Be Friends
Kurtzmen could not have been more surprised in the early 1960's
when this kid from California knocked on his door and said: 'Here
I am'. He also couldn't have been more relived. In a twist of fate
that seems to only happen in stories like this, the Assistant Editor
of 'Help!' was quitting and Kurtzman had been having a difficult
time filling the opening. With a great resume and precision timing,
Gilliam got the job.
Editor, Gilliam had the opportunity to work with a number of celebrities
in the creation of 'Help!'s' content. One of these pieces was
a photo-story about a man who lusted after a doll. The person
who played the part of the man was a British comedian named John
Cleese who was in New York performing.
In a Strange
Land Drawing Funny Pictures
worked at 'Help!' until the magazine wore down and then moved to
California before heading off to London with his then-girlfriend
in 1967. Gilliam entered London with enthusiasm and little else.
In his search for work, he contacted the only Englishman he knew,
John Cleese. Cleese passed on to him the name of Humphrey Barclay,
a television producer of a new children's program called 'Do Not
Adjust Your Set'. Gilliam eventually scored a meeting with Barclay
at which he presented some written sketches. Barclay enjoyed the
sketches so much that he not only bought them for the program, he
also hired Gilliam to be a member of the writing staff; a staff
that included, among others, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael
it turns out, was an amateur cartoonist and when he discovered
Gilliam's drawing skills, he had him create some short animated
pieces for the show. These black and white animations show a distinct
Gilliam sensibility in the content but the style and delivery
were still very much works in progress. While the films may have
been 'unpolished' they most definitely were impactful:
the show included a new feature, some really clever animated
cartoons done by Terry Gilliam. These cartoons were as good
as you would get at any hour on television. The equal of
- A review of 'Do Not Adjust Your set' by Stanley Reynolds
for The Times, April 8, 1969.
'Do Not Adjust
Your Set' turned out to be a critical and cultural hit. Barclay
tried to work off of the magic of this show in creating his next
series: 'We Have Ways of Making You Laugh'. Airing for one season
in 1968, the show was a combination comedy sketch/talk show. Gilliam
hired to sit in on the talk show portion and draw real-time caricatures
of the guests.
A guest on
one episode was a popular British DJ who was known for his rapid-fire,
rhyming patter. As they began preparations for the show, one of
the technicians came foreword with an audio recording. For several
weeks he had been recording the DJ's radio show, he then edited
out everything except for the DJ's speeches splicing them together,
one after the next, to create a surreal monologue. Gilliam sensed
there was something in this strange bit of audio and he went to
Barclay with a desire to do something with it. It was decided
that Gilliam would produce an animation with the tape as the soundtrack.
There was though, very little money and nearly no time to do this
in. Because of these restraints Gilliam was forced to work with
found materials, mainly previously produced imagery. He took images
from magazines and old photographs, cut them up and stop-motion
animated them. The result was a surreal stream of consciousness
film that was the real start of the 'Gilliam style'.
was born half out of necessity and half out of inspiration. When
he was living in New York, he had the opportunity to see 'Death
Breath' (1964, Stan van der Beek). This simple, short, stop-motion
animation featured Richard Nixon, in photographic form, trying
to talk with a foot in his mouth. The simplistic surrealness of
it made a significant impact on Gilliam.
Gilliam's Top Ten Animated Films:
Pinocchio - 1940
Red Hot Riding Hood - 1943
The Mascot - 1934
Out of the Inkwell - 1938
Death Breath - 1964
Les Jeux des Agnes - 1964
Dimensions of Dialogue - 1982
Street of Crocodiles - 1986
KinckKnack - 1989
South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut - 1999
In 1969, Eric
Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin (who had all worked with Gilliam)
began talking to John Cleese and Graham Chapman about doing something
as a group. Because of his unique talents, Gilliam was brought
in and with that, Monty Python was born. Soon after 'Monty Python's
Flying Circus' assaulted British television.
main role was that of the group's animator, creating buffers for
the sketches as well as the show's opening credits. (One of these
images, that of a massive foot descending from the sky, squashing
what ever happens to be below it has become one of the defining
images of the group.)
He was again
hampered by the constraints of time but he used his deadlines
to focus his vision. He would attend the first sets of writing
meetings each week to get a full sense of what the subject of
the shows sketches would pertain to. Then he would go lock himself
in his room and animate, re-emerging on the day that the show
was to be filmed with completed animations in hand.
animated shorts that Gilliam created are organic pieces, moving
along with a twisted purpose. The actions of the animation may
appear outrageous to the viewer but the objects performing these
actions do them in a logical and completely realized (for them)
way. This only renders them even more absurd. Each object and
action are unrelated and yet related to the animation preceding
it through some sort of (often-incidental) link. An item in one
scene (say a car) will play a background part and then open up
to be the lead for the next scene. He often creates fully realized
stop motion colleges full of images that may seem unrelated to
each other but are in fact part of a larger action.
If you really
watch a Gilliam animation, you'll pick up the incredible detail
he layers his frames with. This detail helps tie all of the pieces
together while providing a richness to each individual segment.
This detail also helps to visually sell the joke and makes the
action seem that much more absurd. When you're viewing Donald
Duck, you prepare yourself for a certain reaction because of the
unreality of the situation. When you view a criminal standing
in a darkened alleyway (in animation), you're not sure how to
prepare yourself because of the reality of the images. You're
thrown even further when the criminal jumps in front of an innocent
man and demands that he raise his arms. After a moment, the man
raises his left arm, than his right one, than another left and
another right and another left and so on and on. And as the arms
keep raising, your emotions go from unease to humor as the absurdity
of the situation goes on. This is the genius of Gilliam, being
able to take a situation and play it in a number of ways before
taking it in a completely unexpected direction.
of Gilliam's animations is that they often focus on the macabre.
He underpins his animations with a dark undertone (using skulls,
monsters, etc.) to provide the viewer a sense of uneasiness and
to heighten the disorientation that the animation may invoke.
The actions of theses (macabre) films still elicit a smile but
it's a smile tinged with nervousness.
of Gilliam's use of the macabre can be found in one episode where
a live action actor visits the 'Home for the Sever Over-Actor'.
Behind one door he finds four Gilliam animated figures dressed
as Shakespearean actors reciting 'To be or not to be.' As they
chant this over and over, they proceed to open their heads, remove
their skulls and give the speech to them. Then they remove their
heads, place the skulls on their shoulders and speak from skull
'The job of an animator is to inject humanity into the bits
and bytes of pixels.' - Terry Gilliam
5, 1974 the last of 45 episodes of 'Monty Python' aired. The group
was not out of work for long though as that same year they created
their first original feature film 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'.
For fans of Gilliams' animations, this was a good/bad situation.
Good because Gilliam contributed several animated sequencesto
the film (including some inspired appearances
by God, which are both reverential and absurd), bad because he
also was co-director of the film.It's not to say that his direction
was poor, rather it's that this first foray into live action direction
sparked his creativity in a completely new way. (Holy Grail was
not Gilliam's first foray into film though, in 1969 he created
the opening animated title sequence for the forgettable Vincent
Price film 'Cry of the Banshee')
'Will we see any more animation out of you?'
'Nope. That was another guy. Same name, different guy.'
- On-line interview of Terry Gilliam on the CrankyCritic Web
continued to animate as a member of Monty Python right up through
their final original film together, 1983's 'Monty Python's Meaning
of Life'. At the same time, he also got more heavily into live
action direction (with films like 'Jabberwocky' (1977) and 'Time
of Life', the members of Monty Python, drifted off to pursue their
separate interests. For Gilliam, this meant moving completely
into the live action world. Although he was no longer animating,
he never completely left the field. In 1978 he authored the book
'Animations of Mortality' which featured artwork, sketches and
text all looking into the mind of an animator. In 1996 the book
was turned into an interactive CD-ROM complete with several new
Gilliam produced and inspired images. This actually wasn't Gilliam's
first experience in the interactive world. In 1994, he co-produced
(and created new material for) the CD-ROM, 'Monty Python's Complete
Waste of Time'.
In the history
of film and television, there have been few people who have been
able to work effectively in two distinct mediums and be influential
in both. Terry Gilliam is the rare individual who has left distinct
contributions in two diverse areas (animation and live action
films). While we may lament Gilliam's decision to stop animating,
we also must be thankful for the work he produced. His ability
to take the images of normal, everyday things and make them act
in the most surprising and outrageous ways has not only entertained
us, but also shown what the medium of animation is truly capable
Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has
written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced.
He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with
his wife and daughter.
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