Below is an review of Terry Gilliam's animations and ultimately an argument as to whether is can be classed as art.
‘We were so determined to be original all the time, but our audience seemed to want the same thing again and again.’ (Terry Gilliam)
It was the late 80's, and well past my bedtime when I first saw the work of Terry Gilliam. I cannot remember a lot about watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus, much of it was over my head, although I vividly recall the animated sequences; the absurdity of the compositions singeing an impression of an alternative that could be achieved using the same techniques as used in children’s television programmes. Although I’ve always looked upon it as almost a sub-form of animation when compared to other forms of animation, such as the works of the Disney Studios, as a way to convey ideas and views simply, there is no parallel.
‘Creating nothing out of somethings’…
One of the most impressive qualities in Gilliam’s work is his ability to attach apparently unrelated items together in a way that doesn’t at first glance look wrong. Often it is only when each item is indevidualy scrutinised that the implausibility of the scene become more obvious. An immediate comparison would be with Rene Magritte, his The Empire of Lights could almost be the work of Gilliam. Magritte, however, wasn’t an influence of Gilliam until very late.
Unlike most animators, Gilliams work was filmed on thirty-inch field, to eliminate shadows (the larger the components are, the smaller the shadows appear). This is about as large as economically viable, it enables components as large as A4, and at the same time keeping the clarity of the smaller images. On a daily basis a small rephotographics shop on Regent street would get deliveries of papers, each with specifications for photocopying. The were reaped from a variety of sources, one such from Gilliams book Animations of Mortality is comprised of a figure from what looks like a religious woodcut, some ventilation tubes and an upward view from the inside of a courtyard, lengthened by reducing in size and placing on top of the other. A little airbrushing masks the join. ‘As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and umbrella on a dissecting table’ wrote the notorious Lautréamont, suggesting an idea of familiar and perhaps unsuspicious objects meeting of their own accord, an idea not uncommon in Gilliam’s work
Once Upon a time…
In 1968, the audiences of Britain were exposed to a phenomenon in the world of television: a glimpse into the surprising, bizarre and often disturbing psyche of a foreign freelance cartoonist. The by-products of this man’s astonishing mind would later become synonymous with the show deemed the ‘first successful attempt at visual goonery’ (The Observer 26/10/69).
Gilliam’s work comprises of beautiful collages of completely unrelated objects interacting with each other in surprising ways. These menageries are a gestalt of cut-outs from old photographs, newspaper clips, original artwork and, of course, famous paintings. Non-linear (and completely daft) story lines characterise his work. His inspiration comes from several different sources, and he describes his style as ‘incredibly eclectic’. Often using classical paintings as the raw materials, they would have been photocopied into greyscale, coloured with an airbrush and then dissected. ‘I only started off with the paintings of famous artists because everybody knew them and understood them; and then I turned them into something stupid.’(Terry Gilliam)
The advance of technology apparently intimidates Gilliam and the machines found in his work are hardly progressed past the level found during the industrial revolution. Even in the introduction sequence of Monty Python's Flying Circus machines can be found, such as the one that replaces the unfortunate victims body with that of a chickens. The apprehension shown towards the microchip and its brethren is consistent with his general distrust of science. Things occurring because they are theorised to do so, as opposed to the actual ‘seeing’ of things happening, are where the root of the problem lies. ‘I love things from the industrial revolution because I can understand gears and pulleys, cars and wheels. I don’t get the electronic revolution because I can’t get my hands on it.’ (Terry Gilliam)
Aside from the obviously bizarre imagery the are a few images which crop with a surprising regularity. Filing cabinets can be found, added almost subconsciously. Carnival men are used to introduce new themes and toward his later work television makes an appearance, albeit with a sinister motive. ‘I think television is this awful mirror that we all look into every day, but it distorts the reflection and I hate it. It trivialises life.’ (Terry Gilliam 1995). Lastly and unquestionably, his greatest trademark is the foot . Ending the title sequence and appearing in countless others, the foot has practically become the epitome of ‘Python'. Incidentally, ‘the foot’ is pinched from a cherub in Agnolo Bronzino’s An Allegory (Venus, Cupid, Time and Folly) (viewable on a past Smirnoff poster).
Amongst his favourite artists, the Spanish painter, Francisco de Goya fascinated him the most. He was drawn by the fact Goya painted about the tragedies of war. In his work was pain and anguish, although at the same time, humanity and light-heartedness. A more obvious influence was Bosch, with his surrealistic and often satirical paintings and marked preference for medieval topics. The notable similarities between Bosch’s later work and Gilliam’s is the showing more than can conventionally be seen. Unrelated though interconnected and totally inconceivable subjects populate the pictures, seeming perfectly at home. Gilliam regards another 16th century surrealist Brueghel, generally regarded as the greatest Flemish painter of that era, as an important influence. Even when painting the peasants (which he was fond of doing) his work shows an immense imagination and minute detail. Clear connections can be drawn between the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte, with insane, yet initially rational-looking subject matters. Empire of Lights, while apparently reasonable to view at first, soon (after a little thought) becomes obviously impossible. Dadaist Max Ernst also was drawn on for inspiration in Gilliam’s work. Here Everything is Floating, by Ernst, could almost be Gilliam’s own handiwork it is that similar in it’s composition. Gilliam admits that the innards of things have always fascinated him, whether mechanical or biological: seeing and showing things beyond the surface.
As well as drawing inspiration from other artists, Gilliam inspired a new generation of animators. Peter Lord and Dave Sproxton accredit Terry Gilliam with giving them inspiration. Better known as the creators of Morph, they say that Gilliam, along with Ray HarryHausen provided a standard to work to.
Gilliam’s characters are easily recognisable, whether original drawings or salvaged photographs. The common trait, identifiable in both, is the cheerful palette. Because of the high percentage of photographs used, the colours are forced to be brighter. The reason is that the original photos are black-and-white, these are coloured through use of an airbrush, watercolours and pen. Using darker colours would result in a loss of definition, and as a result quality. Gilliam uses pastel colours in the expansive backgrounds, blending colours to create gradiated backdrops. The pastel shades also prevent distraction from the bolder characters.
It is not only the colouring that distinguishes Gilliam’s characters, more often that not, his creations can be recognised though the insane appearance or situation of his characters. There is just as much visual humour in his work as there is in the actual story. Mr Gumby, the red-faced old man with the knotted handkerchief on his head, raises a smile on anyone who has seen Monty Python, just through appearance.
The Pression d’Art Mark 1…
‘Animate’ is Latin for ‘breath life into’. As Gilliam’s work comprised of many bits of paper, a process of animation needing isolation from an active environment. Normal picture animation utilises registry pegs to ensure continuity while Gilliam’s technique is more akin to Ladislaw Starewicsz (also Ladislas Starevich) and Willis O’Brien (creator of King Kong) despite the 2d aspect of his work. The process by which the illusion of movement is achieved is called stop-motion animation. The trouble in using stop motion animation is that rogue shadows can destroy hours of work. In the same way that the timed exposure footage of flowers in a field shows the shadows pivot around the plant, shadows can change on frames taken over time, causing an inconsistency that can make the film look like it is occurring under a dodgy neon light .
In his book, Animations of Mortality, Gilliam claims to use an especially designed camera by the name of the Pression d’Art Mark 1 in order to eliminate shadows. Built while the accounts man was in hospital, it stands taller than nineteen badgers and completely consumes the subject while regulating the film. Nowadays, films using cut-out animation can, with relative ease, be achieved using a computer to regulate frame exposure. With the advent of the digital video camera, entire sequences can be film, compiled and edited with a frame rate of up to 25 frames per second. From studying his work, Gilliam appears to use a frame rate of about 10 frames per second (which, incidentally is the average frame rate for 8mm cinecams). The duration of his animations would also imply that the sequences were filmed on the relatively short Super 8 and the later processed onto video for the audio track. Not only would this be more technically feasible, it would also get around any PAL/NTSC conversions needed (for when he was in America) if it were recorded on video. So, it would seem that the Pression d’Art Mark 1 was a cleverly disguised cinecam.
The early animations include little speech and had a less than less than compliant with the soundtrack. Even the title sequence is out of sync with the music. This is because with animation, inclusion of well-timed speech requires a ‘dope sheet’, which is always time consuming to produce. The most common technique to get good lip-sync, the sound must be recorded first, often it was supplied by the other members of the Monty Python team. After that, the speech pattern is analysed and drawn up against a time-line (the dope sheet), so that the animator knows when to move the mouth. Due to time restraints and the fact that while following the storyboard, he could ‘discover things and change it’, Gilliam didn’t use a dope sheet , instead he would overshoot scenes so there would be room to edit the pictures around the words which would be recorded later.
But is it Art?...
Accepting that existing artworks and designs are eligible to create new works of art (such as Andy Warhol used the soup cans), the validity of animation being deemed as art can still be called into question. What would you call the primary source? Seeing as the video is the medium then the original scenes from which it was composed can only be seen in the same light as the paint from which paintings are composed. Conversely, without any actual one work, the artwork must be accepted to exist in millions of places at once, immediately drawing it away from more traditional artforms such as painting or sculpture.
Although it is not quite on it’s own, the much more widely accepted computer art is in a similar situation. Despite not existing in a single location, it’s existence cannot be denied, so the only reasonable question is ‘What criteria must something follow to earn the title of ‘art’?’
Without delving into the question too deeply, the obvious answers include, ‘something that intentionally provokes an emotional response’ and ‘something that conveys a message about the artist’. I personally feel that these two things are the most important, both being as vitally important as the other.
Like other respected artists, Terry Gilliam endows his work with both of these. The absurdity of some of it forces an emotion, albeit it may be one of enjoyment or contempt, it is impossible to view it with complete indifference. As described above, Gilliam’s opinions are highlighted in his work, with the apprehension of beurocracy and the symbolic battles (such as with the censors) affecting the work. In conclusion, I feel that the work can only be classed as art as it clearly has the merits and underlying motifs behind it.
Now On Show (or Still Interested?)…
Despite the age of the animation
s, an original composition (a scene with the giant cat from And Now For Something Completely Different) is on display at The Museum of the Moving Image
, in London. Terry Gilliam ahs also published a book about his craft, called Animations of Mortality, first published 1978. During the course of his life, Gilliam has written and directed various films, his latest is the critically acclaimed adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson
’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
. In many respects, Gilliam and Thompson have a lot in common, mainly their quest for something better. Getting ‘caught in a nightmare of reality’ was the reason that Gilliam left the US for Europe. Fear and Loathing was deemed a book impossible to film, though even Thompson was impressed by the adaptation. The film is a seamless merging of Gilliam’s warped visionary imagination and stunning graphic effects, and is on video now.