First! is meant to explore the first known/available work of an artist we all know and love. For this first(!) entry, we’re looking at Terry Gilliam’s troika of animated short films, Storytime.
“The Christmas Card” is apparently the oldest film of the bunch, made for the proto-Python show, Do Not Adjust You Set, while “Don The Cockroach” and “Albert Einstein” aired 3-4 years later on The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine.
To hear Gilliam tell it, this style—using cut-outs from magazines and books—was developed because it was the quickest, cheapest and easiest way to tell the stories he wanted to tell. Watching those shorts now, you get the sense that, while everything had to have been finely tuned in the writing/storyboarding process, the ease of the animation allowed Gilliam’s brain to work in its usual way, free-associating and fucking off to the next idea as soon as the last began to bore him. So while these are rough sketches in almost every sense, they’re very pure to the way we’d see Gilliam’s brain work as a Python and beyond. His work as a feature, live-action director got away from the meta-storytelling of “Don The Cockroach,” but the bureaucratic daisy-chain of Brazil‘s Tuttle/Buttle fuck up is there in the long line of people connected to Don’s killer. And the opening shot of Life of Brian (directed by Terry Jones, but co-written by Gilliam) is almost a direct recreation of a moment from The Christmas Card, only without the joke.
Luckily, we also have this 15-minute-long clip of Gilliam explaining his process, the mechanics of which are secondary to being able to see first-hand how twitchy and impatient he was at this age. His eye is exceptional and drawn to great faces and landscapes, but like his shorts he’s tossing these photo references aside almost as soon as he’s picked them up. It’s fascinating to see the man who tried to get a hamster wheel to spin in the background of a scene in Twelve Monkeys say things like, “the wheels on the pram are already round, so they don’t have to spin.”
If there’s a bittersweet element to watching these shorts and Gilliam’s process, it’s that he’s so often been stymied by the lack of funding for his films and seen his creative output decreased dramatically as a result. Part of me wishes he’d just make his Don Quixote film like this, exercising whatever creative urge he’s had to tell that story for however many years (decades?) now. Nothing about Gilliam’s animated work feels creatively hindered in scope or imagination, even at this early stage and it’s a little sad that we lost this side of him over the years.