I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Terry Gilliam: A Real Cut-Up

by Kristen Bialik
June 20, 2013

Terry Gilliam, the Hollywood system ne’er-do-well, is known in alternative circles as the man behind Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or as the imagination responsible for dreaming up Time Bandits and Brazil. Most prominently, though, Terry Gilliam is the Minnesotan exported to the Monty Python comedy troupe. As a puppeteer of paper, Gilliam first joined the Monty Python troupe first as an animator, and later as a full member. It was Gilliam’s surreal, cut-and-paste animations that came to define the troupe’s style. With bulbous, large-chinned characters and Victorian era photographs, Gilliam filled with spaces in between the live-action comedy sketches with zany, senseless dream worlds.

Joining master animator Bob Godfrey on his BBC1 Do-It-Yourself Animation Show, Gilliam taught Brits all around England how to make home movies by desecrating Christmas cards and pasting titties on photos of police officers. Now that’s an education! Instilling artistic freedom and damn-all-conformity attitudes at an early age! They get this, and across the pond we just get The Joy of Painting. It’s hard to imagine such a show existing now, even though Godfrey’s Do-It-Yourself Animation Show was hugely influential, inspiring and enlightening a generation of kids who went on to become the next big animators. Wallace & Gromit animator Nick Park, director of the Pixar’s short Geri’s Game Jan Pinkava , and Richard Bazley, an animator on The Iron Giant, Hercules, and Pocahontas, all grew up in England, eating up the animation tips and tricks that Godfrey and his guests divulged. When Gilliam came on the show in 1974, he opened the segment with this thought: “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.”

What worked for Gilliam was cutout animation, using scraps from magazines, vintage photographs, and portraits. “Any old rubbish,” as he would say, and cut it up, airbrush it, combine it, and let it speak. While Gilliam encourages any technique, any form of animation so long as it allows the creator to express himself freely, cutout animation is, for Giliam, perfect.

Gilliam once said, “To be deemed to be OK, to be part of the culture, that's the kiss of death. When I'm pushing against something it helps me define what I believe. I've always been led to see what's beyond, what's round the corner. The world tries to say that this is what it is, and don't go any further, because out there are monsters. But I want to see what they are.”

Gilliam has for a long time been openly critical of the Hollywood system, annoyed by the inevitable clash between the money-minded and the creatives. Movies, for Gilliam, are about taking risks, exciting people, challenging the world’s very idea of the world. Red tape, bureaucracy, and interfering people with spreadsheets and no vision are scourges that true Gilliam protagonists fight, however they can, against. Gilliam’s animated prologue for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life features a mutiny against a consumerist corporation. Brazil’s protagonist, the dreaming Sam Lowry, fights against the dystopian, bureaucratic hell he lives in with the only weapon he has – his imagination. As in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Time Bandits, imagination is the highest of cardinal virtues, the very stuff of an independent life.

Cutout animation is, likewise, its own form of rebellion armed and soldiered by an uninhibited mind. By taking artifacts of a consumer culture, like magazines and advertisements, and subverting them, Gilliam creates an art form that is truly counter-culture. By openly expressing himself with the very materials that promote a blind acceptance of “this world” and what it has to offer, Gilliam pushes past that world and reshapes it. He faces the monsters, you could say.

The animated Gilliam world is one of prams eating people, giant feet stomping out of a surreal and painted air, rodeo cowboys riding in on human hands, and (what dream world would be without them?) more than a few pairs of boobs. Animation has always been, at least in part, about drawing in your own world, rejecting a clear depiction of reality in favor of something more fanciful, more distorted, or even more critical. And who wouldn’t color himself into that world, where ideas are as free as human-hand birds squawking across an airbrushed sky? And when we feel, as Gilliam suggested, that we must stay within the safe predictability of reality as we know it, we’ve got Gilliam to show us that the monsters are, if nothing else, hilarious.


Terry Gilliam on IMDB

Terry Gilliam interviews with BAFTA

Terry Gilliam on Senses of Cinema

Terry Gilliam’s Do It Yourself Animation Show on Cartoon Brew

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.