Before the Monty Python boys created their landmark show that changed comedy forever, they worked on other shows. We've written about "Do Not Adjust Your Set" and "At Last, the 1948 Show" before (what remains of both series is available on DVD). The guys all got together and agreed that they wanted to do something very different with comedy. They had tired of the conventional structure of setup-punchline, setup-punchline. They liked the idea of creating a premise without having to wrap it up in a neat bow every time.
"Do Not Adjust Your Set" showcased Gilliam's trademark cut-out animation. Partially this was a method to save on time and budget, but mostly it was a quirky style Gilliam made his own. Traditional animation is more or less set in stone long before the animator snaps the movie camera's shutter on the first frame, but with cut-out animation you have room to improvise your "performance" while clicking away. You're not simply recording sequential drawings as in conventional animation. You toddle little paper figures around before the lens, inviting you to make impromptu tweaks. The process is almost musical that way.
The Pythons credit Gilliam's unhinged animations with inspiring the freewheeling creativity at the core of the Monty Python show, and also with providing them with a method of segueing between sketches. Again, the animation is a mix of the artistic and the totally practical. Maybe it's this pragmatic yet freewheeling approach that continues to inspire animators today. What is South Park, and practically every Flash animation you've seen, if not an outcropping of Gilliam's work from (gulp) 40 years ago?
This video clip features Gilliam on Bob Godfrey's "Do It Yourself Film Animation Show" in 1974. Gilliam talk you through the steps he takes to created his demented animations, but notes that it's all about the story. My favorite quote:
“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.”
You know who gets this idea? Young animators and filmmakers on YouTube. While I rue the absence of classic cartoons on broadcast TV, YouTube offers such an amazing and inspiring collection of animation styles. You used to have to wait until an animation festival his the local artsy movie house to get a load of so many new visual ideas. Yes, there's sure a LOT of junk out there, but creative visual artists do get that it doesn't matter whether you create your project with a camera phone, Flash, or a 16mm Bolex, your piece is going to stand or fall on its story.
We've seen Gilliam give voice to his warped imagination through animation, acting, filmmaking (I decided to go to film school after seeing his film "Brazil"). It matters less how he says it, it just matters that he has something to say.
A side note: sadly I can't imagine a presentation as simple as this video clip on broadcast TV today. The "lesson" would be so dumbed down as to be useless, the segment would be 3 minutes at the most, and the "personality-driven" hosts would keep interrupting. When will today's TV producers realize that frenzied panic is not the best way to tell every story?