Terry Gilliam Says the Rest of ‘Monty Python’ Didn’t Know What He Was Doing With the Animations Until Airtime

Gilliam told the Annecy Animation Festival that the rest of Monty Python was jealous of his creative freedom
Terry Gilliam Says the Rest of ‘Monty Python’ Didn’t Know What He Was Doing With the Animations Until Airtime

Terry Gilliam says he had more independence during the making of the many Monty Python projects than any of his colleagues — it’s only fitting that complete creative freedom belonged to the only American of the bunch.

The aesthetic of Monty Python is unmistakable and inimitable, and that’s largely thanks to the early animation efforts of the group’s most visual member. On Monty Python’s Flying Circus and in their various films, most notably Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the tone-setting intros and cheeky transitions that became a pivotal part of the Monty Python experience are simultaneously classic, dated, delirious and brilliant, and they were all the doing of one man with no creative oversight. 

Gilliam, Monty Python’s most accomplished director, enjoyed open skies and unlimited potential to work with the very rudimentary animation tools at his disposal during his time with the iconic absurdist comedy troupe — imagine what he could do with the digital tools at every animator’s disposal today.

Unfortunately, Gilliam says that he has no interest in reviving his animation career, but at the Annecy Animation Festival in France this past weekend, he requested that one of the event’s attendees help him out with his next (and possibly final) feature film, The Carnival at the End of Days. Gilliam received the Honorary Cristal award at the festival, and during his acceptance speech, he revealed some interesting tidbits about his animation work with Monty Python, most importantly that he didn’t have to clear any of his cutaways, transitions or intro sequences with any other Monty Python members before airtime. 

If John Cleese ever wanted to give Gilliam any notes, Cleese probably would have had to answer his questions three.

“I had reached the point where I really was tired of animation, because I really felt there was a lot of things I wanted to do that I couldn’t do in that style,” Gilliam said of his decision to leave his signature cartoons behind when he began to branch off from Python projects with his solo work half a century ago, describing his animation style as “cheap and nasty.”

Gilliam heavily utilized paper cutouts in his animation because of its cost-effectiveness and ease of use, clipping images of Richard Nixon and Renaissance paintings to create the art style that is so identifiably Python today. “It was just a product of … not of any creative decision,” Gilliam explained. “It was, ‘What can I do with £400 in two weeks?’ I could start cutting things out, that’s all I could do.” 

But as far as creative decisions went, Gilliam claims he was completely free to do whatever interested him in the screentime the group put aside for his animations on their TV show and in the films. “John and Graham wrote together, Mike and Terry wrote together, Eric wrote on his own, and I did my stuff on my own, and we would all gather with a lot of this material that we had been working on,” Gilliam said of Monty Python’s creative process. “It was a very democratic operation about what stays in, what we lose.”

“I was in the most privileged position because basically once we had decided to get rid of all the punch lines, we didn’t have necessarily ends and beginnings to sketches,” Gilliam explained of his animated transition scenes that were the glue that held each chaotic Python project together. “So a sketch would go to that point, and we said, ‘Let’s stop there because that bit isn’t working,’ so it would stop, and they would say, ‘Gilliam takes over from there and gets us to there.’ And that’s how it worked.”

“They didn’t know what I was doing until the day of the show,” Gilliam said of his collaborators’ complete ignorance of the animation department, slyly adding, “So I had the most freedom of all of the group, and they’ve never forgiven me for that.”


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