Revisiting Cinefex (38): Terry Gilliam

Cinefex 38Ready to be enchanted? Then take a look at the front cover of Cinefex #38, which shows the fanciful hero of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) dancing an aerial waltz with the goddess Venus. The two figures are half-scale miniatures, though at a glance you’d swear they were alive. The chap on the back cover is alive – he’s actor Jonathan Pryce performing as Sam Lowry in the dystopian masterpiece Brazil (1985). Pryce is wearing metal armour and sporting gigantic wings, but I defy you to spot the wires holding him aloft. The third movie featured in this issue is Time Bandits (1981), which can only mean that all 68 pages are devoted entirely to the work of one man: Terry Gilliam.

  • The Adventures of Terry Gilliam (article by Paul M. Sammon and Don Shay)

Just occasionally, a filmmaker comes along who’s so committed to visual effects he sets up his own company to produce them. George Lucas did it in 1975 with Industrial Light and Magic. James Cameron did it in 1993 with Digital Domain (with a little help from Scott Ross and Stan Winston). Across the pond in the UK, in 1976, Terry Gilliam joined forces with Kent Houston to form Peerless Camera Company.

Gilliam’s interest in Peerless surely explains why Cinefex publisher Don Shay decided to devote a whole issue not to a visual effects practitioner, but to the work of a single film director (I believe it’s the only time in the journal’s long history this has been done). Reading the article, the decision makes perfect sense, as it rapidly becomes clear that once Terry Gilliam shouts ‘Action!’ the line between live action and visual effects gets decidedly blurred.

Time Bandits

After a glut of articles centred on the visual effects houses of California, it makes a change to visit the United Kingdom (well, I’m a Brit – I would say that). Right away, Kent Houston makes a point of describing how the optical equipment at Peerless differs from that in the USA: ‘In England, we tend … to use an underneath aerial image system on our animation stands.’ Add Terry Gilliam into the mix (a film director who, in the case of Time Bandits, actually animated his own title sequence – and you just know we’re going to be in for a quirky ride.

rc38tbWhile Houston’s commentary provides valuable technical insight into the making of Time Bandits, it’s Gilliam’s voice that really brings this article to life. He talks in broad terms about the film’s genesis and production, and in detail about the specifics of some of the key visual effects shots. Anecdotes abound, including Gilliam’s memories of filming a horse in a wardrobe, and his bemused discovery that the art department had built a full-scale galleon to match his rough clay maquette precisely.

His own harshest critic, Gilliam is equally ready to talk about the good and the bad. Describing the scene in which Strutter executes an epic rope swing in order to gain a handhold on a distant ledge (filmed in reverse using a six-inch miniature figure), he says, ‘The effect is quite extraordinary. I still watch it now and could swear that a real person is … grabbing that rock.’ But he’s unable to hide his dislike of a live action/matte painting composite in which the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness towers behind a shattered magical barrier: ‘Something is very wrong with [the shot] … Whatever the reason, it drives me crazy.’

It’s common to find such candidness in the Cinefex archives. I don’t know if it’s a measure of a certain humility in the industry as a whole, or the skill of the interviewers. Probably it’s a little of both. If you’ve ever seen Gilliam interviewed, however, you’ll know he’s more candid than most. For example:

A lot of the Time Bandits effects were done … manually and simply. Personally, I think films have tried to mechanize and computerize special effects too much. As a director, I have no patience for the ILM style of effects work … I prefer just to get some good men off-camera doing their little tricks so I can direct everything right there on the set.

When I first saw Time Bandits in the cinema, at the age of sixteen, Gilliam’s ‘manual and simple’ approach blew me away. Clash of the Titans was out the same year, and I remember wishing Ray Harryhausen had exchanged some of his stop-frame animation for a little Gilliamesque grittiness. And, much as I was in love with the dazzling illusions of ILM, I was charmed by the grounded fairy-tale magic conjured up by Peerless for Time Bandits. Suddenly what I wanted was more Gilliam. Four years later, I got it.


Authors Sammon and Shay are obviously Gilliam fans, with their enthusiasm for his work radiating from the text. Their enjoyment continues as they explore the Orwellian world of Brazil, a near-future fable replete with stunning imagery and dripping with black humour.

rc38bzThe making of Brazil is as extraordinary a story as the one that ended up on the screen. Take the dream scenes in which Sam Lowry, dressed as a fanciful knight, swoops through magic-hour skies in search of his true love. Speaking of Richard Conway’s bold decision to create the sequences using models, Gilliam confesses, ‘I never thought it would work,’ before concluding that, ‘I was delighted with the results.’

To achieve the shots, Conway built everything in miniature … even a massive skyscape filled with cotton clouds. ‘Some of [the clouds] were fifteen to sixteen feet high,’ he says. ‘The final set was about eighty feet long and forty feet deep … just a mass of piano wires stretched tight from side to side with all these clouds suspended on them. It was a stunning thing to be among them.’

Delays in setting up the miniatures gave Gilliam the opportunity to direct the flying sequences himself (given that hands-on attitude of his, one might almost imagine he orchestrated things that way). ‘It was a nightmare to work on,’ he says, describing the vagaries of high-speed photography and the unpredictability of the miniature figures. Thousands of feet of film were shot, much of it unusable because a supporting wire became momentarily visible on a critical frame – no digital wire removal back then.

Between them, Gilliam and special effects supervisor George Gibbs guide us through Brazil’s many and varied environments and effects, from a robotic ID-checking machine to a terrorist explosion in a historic building made entirely of glass (not surprisingly, that one gave the pyrotechnics crew a few headaches). Robert de Niro pops up, replicated as both a five-inch puppet and a man made entirely of paper. We learn how Jim Broadbent stretched Katherine Helmond’s face like rubber and how Gibbs prevented Bob Hoskins from an unpleasant drowning accident when his sealed pressure suit had to fill up with raw sewage (it wasn’t real sewage by the way but ‘a mixture of paint and peat’ complete with ‘little stools’).

Once again, Gilliam serves up a feast of quotable quotes, including this one about his management style:

I try to break down the interdepartmental barriers … so everybody was messing around in everybody else’s territory – which I think is a good thing.

I lapped up Brazil when I saw it in London on its first release in 1985. At the time, British films had a reputation for being staid and stuffy – if you wanted thrills you had to turn to Hollywood. Yet here was Gilliam, throwing something new and strange and funny and grand and heartbreaking on to the screen, a movie full of the kind of English oddness that doesn’t always travel well but which, in the case of Brazil, scored a direct hit. (And before you point out that Terry Gilliam was born in Minneapolis, let me point out that if there’s one thing this director ain’t, it’s Hollywood.)

And still there was more to come …

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

For the third film in this loosely-conceived trilogy, economic reasons took Gilliam to the Cinecitta Studios in Rome. ‘I was assured by [producer] Schuhly that it would be thirty to forty percent cheaper to film in Italy,’ he says. ‘This turned out to be an opium dream.’

rc38bmMore dreamlike than even its two predecessors, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was a hugely ambitious undertaking. Gilliam tells us the difficulties of adapting the material, balancing his respect for the original stories with his own desire to create something new. The respect is evident in the make-up designed for lead actor John Neville, for which ‘Maggie Weston meticulously recreated an early 18th century engraving of the Baron … by Gustav Dore.’

Problems at Cinecitta eventually sent the Munchausen crew scurrying back to the UK’s Pinewood Studios where, you guessed it, Gilliam personally headed up the team filming the effects sequences. Yet again it’s a tale of monumental miniatures (a scruffy hot-air balloon ‘that was more than seventy feet tall and weighed nearly eight tons’), clever contraptions (a mechanical dummy on a trolley creating the illusion of a man running at around seventy miles an hour) and traditional tricks (matte paintings and rigs and … oh, you name it; in fact, I’m pretty sure a kitchen sink is mentioned at some point).

Gilliam’s imagination and ingenuity are in full force, both with the images he creates and his ability to deal with seemingly insurmountable problems (where a Gilliam production goes, trouble frequently follows). Needing an entire miniature city but with no money left in the budget, he ‘reverted to what he is familiar with  – flat cutouts.’ For a luscious shot of a moonlit ocean draining to leave a ship stranded on a beach, his team devised a simple but subtle trick to filter the water from its trough through the very sand that would ultimately be exposed.

By this stage in his career, Gilliam had come round to the idea of using computers and bluescreens from time to time. The former were employed to puppeteer the half-scale flying/dancing figures that feature on this issue’s cover, while the latter enable him to detach the heads from actors Robin Williams and Valnetina Cortese and fly them around the stage. If you’re looking for every trick in the book, it’s right here.

Also here is Gilliam himself, front and centre. I honestly don’t believe he sees a difference between visual or special effects and the rest of the filmmaking process. It’s all just making movies. Critics might point to his films and say that’s why they don’t always succeed (meaning they don’t always make money). My angle’s different. I say it’s what makes Terry Gilliam one of the truly great directors, period. His vision is both uncompromising and uncompromised by preconceptions of how a thing should be done. If he sometimes falls short, it’s only because he’s brave enough to leap so far.

As for Gilliam himself, how better to wave him off than with a quote from near the end of the article:

I don’t much like analyzing my own work. Let the critics explore the motifs and hidden meanings … All I will say is that my trilogy culminates in a very personal victory – and that is the triumph of the imagination.

The pictures

Fine though this article is, if you’re looking for behind-the-scenes shots of Time Bandits you’ll be disappointed – all we have are frame blow-ups from some of the key effects sequences. The most interesting of these is the shot Gilliam hates so much: the one that shows Kevin and the bandits staring through a hole in reality at the ominous Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. It’s a striking image but I have to agree with Gilliam – there’s something about that’s just a little off.

The Brazil section has more to offer, both in the form of stills and backstage photos. My favourite picture shows Gilliam making final adjustments to the arms of the brick-man who’s clutching at Sam Lowry’s ankles to stop him taking flight in his winged armour. For these shots, Lowry was played by a child actor in order to cheat the scale. The juxtaposition of a precariously-balanced Gilliam, a  giant masonry limb and a miniature knight in armour has a bizarreness quotient worthy of the final film.

The section on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is sumptuous, boasting as it does pictures of make-up and miniatures, gimbals and a three-headed gryphon. A highlight among many highlights is a photo of Richard Conway’s half-scale dancing figures poised amid a stage full of cotton clouds. A wonderful shot of a movie wonderland. Just like a Terry Gilliam film, this one’s real magic.

Coming soon

Between pages fourteen and fifteen of this issue, printed on the advertising insert, is a full-page teaser for the forthcoming of Cinefex, which is devoted to the new James Cameron film The Abyss. Here’s what it says:

Cinefex is the only film journal that has been given unrestricted access to this top secret super-production. Our coverage – culled fom set visits and more than two dozen interviews – will fill the next issue from cover to cover! Don’t wait for it to be sold out at the stands as our Aliens issue was. Subscribe today … and save!

Phew! With a build-up like that, I can hardly wait to revisit what must surely be one of my favourite issues of this journal of cinematic illusions. Can you?

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

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