Brazil director Terry Gilliam turns 71-years-old today, and we thought it was just as good a time as any to take a look back at the filmmaker’s beginnings as an animator — a career that established Gilliam’s outrageous sense of humor and cut-out style, but has never taken a back seat to his live-action films amongst fans. Gilliam found his footing as a strip cartoonist for Help! magazine. He eventually made his way to children’s television before joining the legendary comedic troupe, Monty Python. With little money and time, the 12 Monkeys director found himself working intuitively, evoking the stream-of-conscious, surreal style he became known for. His ability to turn the mundane on its head using low-fi materials to invoke the unexpected was his trademark. “The whole point of animation to me is to tell a story, make a joke, express an idea. The technique itself doesn’t really matter. Whatever works is the thing to use. That’s why I use cut-out. It’s the quickest and easiest form of animation I know,” Gilliam once told viewers on Bob Godfrey’s Do-It-Yourself Animation Show in 1974. Past the break, take a walk through Gilliam’s history as an animator. Let us know your favorites below.
The Miracle of Flight
Although it looks like a Monty Python animation, 1974’s The Miracle of Flight was actually a side project of the director’s that detailed the twisted adventures of man seeking flight. When jumping off cliffs and flapping “wings” didn’t help, Gilliam posits that man sought the assistance of birds, and eventually became guinea pigs in the quest for air travel when a 1643 king pushed men off a tower to their deaths. By the advent of airplanes, man still couldn’t get it right. The animation presents one of many off-the-cuff absurdities that Gilliam became famous for.
This 1968 animation starts out just as its title suggests: like a children’s storytime. This reading roundup, however, revolves around a cockroach that runs amok in a house, a strange tale about Albert Einstein, and demented holiday cards that come to life — all loaded with tasteless visual puns. The ominous stomping foot that would later become a regular gag on Monty Python also makes an appearance.
Beware of the Elephants
Gilliam’s Beware of Elephants animation appeared on the late ’60s children’s television series, Do Not Adjust Your Set, where many of the Monty Python comedic troupe got their start. The animation’s stream-of-consciousness style won collaborator Terry Jones over, who encouraged Gilliam to use the same approach for the Flying Circus series.
Conrad Poohs and his Dancing Teeth
Gilliam started with the Monty Python crew in the late ’60s as the group’s animator. He created his signature innuendo-laden and crudely humorous animation sketches as buffers between skits and for the show’s opening. Working at a furious pace, Gilliam’s surrealist collages toyed with scale and strange assemblage, focusing heavily on Victorian-inspired imagery.
The Killer Cars
Also one of the great Monty Python sketches, Killer Cars hails from the “How To Recognize Different Parts of The Body” episode where homicidal cars devour people and a mutant cat is created to sort the whole thing out. A poke at the show’s low-budget production, narrator Eric Idle describes the animation as, “a scene of such spectacular proportions that it could never in your life be seen in a low-budget film like this.” He amusingly adds, “You’ll notice my mouth isn’t moving, either.”
Often using cut-outs of fine art/historical images, Gilliam created The Statue using Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David, as his inspiration. The director started college as a physics major, but eventually switched to fine art studies, later dropping his new major for a political science focus. Clearly, it had no bearing on his creativity.
Cry of the Banshee
Before stepping foot in the film world with the Python classic Holy Grail, Gilliam worked on the opening animated sequence for the 1970 Elizabethan horror film, Cry of the Banshee. Loosely based on an Edgar Allen Poe tale, Gordon Hessler’s movie found fright icon Vincent Price playing a nefarious Lord-cum-witchhunter. Oddly enough the movie also starred Stephen Rhea in his first feature role and James Bond villain Carl Rigg. Gilliam adds to the quirky mix with his illustrated animations that are off-kilter, but leave the potty humor at home.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
1974’s film Holy Grail gave Gilliam the opportunity to create several animated sequences — perhaps a solace from the battle he fought with co-director Terry Jones behind-the-scenes. Jones would eventually take over duties on future films, creating a point of contention between the two men who could never fully agree on a clear directing style for their comedic opus.
Life of Brian
Gilliam and Terry Jones famously feuded behind the camera during their first feature endeavor, Holy Grail. For Life of Brian, Jones handled directorial duties while Gilliam was in charge of the set design and contributed several animations — one of which opened the 1979 film about a man mistaken for the Messiah. Gilliam was displeased with Jones’ approach to the cinematography, however, later stating that his work was never given fair camera play.
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
Terry Jones’ 1983 film The Meaning of Life finds the Monty Python gang using a looser structure than the previous films, composed of comedic skits revolving around the various stages of life. This brief animation is an interlude in the “Death” portion of the movie, and shows a group of leaves “committing suicide.”