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(by 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.
Terry Gilliam 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.
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.
The editor 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.
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.
As Assistant 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.
Gilliam 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 Palin.
Barclay, as 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:
'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'.
This 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.
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.
Gilliam's 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.
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.
Another mark 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.
An example 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 to head.
'The job of an animator is to inject humanity into the bits and bytes of pixels.' - Terry Gilliam
On December 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')
Gilliam 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 Bandits' (1981).)
After 'Meaning 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
Noell Wolfgram 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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