Terry Gilliam’s Christmas card of 2011, as posted to his Facebook page.
Terry Gilliam moved to London in 1967 after having paid his dues on a cutting-edge satirical magazine in the United States called Help! that was run by former MAD honcho Harvey Kurtzman. Gilliam actually met John Cleese while at Help!, having created a fumetto (photographic cartoon) featuring the gangly Brit. While in London, Gilliam worked as an art director for London Life and eventually—famously—transitioned into doing cutout animations for TV shows.
As Gilliam described it to Paul Wardle in an interview included in the informative volume Terry Gilliam: Interviews, he was lucky to meet a TV producer with an acute eye for illustrating talent:
John [Cleese] had established himself in television, and he introduced me to a guy named Humphrey Barclay, who was a producer. What he was producing at the time was a show called Do Not Adjust Your Set, a children’s show that Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Eric Idle were writing and performing. The great thing was that Humphrey was an amateur cartoonist. What he liked more than the written material that I was offering him were my cartoons. So he took pity on me and bought a couple of my written sketches, and forced them on Mike, Terry, and Eric, much to their chagrin, because it was their show. Then this loud-mouthed loud-dressing American turns up and starts invading their pitch.
In The Pythons: Autobiography by the Pythons Gilliam described his strategy for the assignment—important because this may have been the initial spark for his method, which would become much more widely known and admired when his animations turned up as the transitional bits in the Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV shows as well as essential elements of all of the Python movies:
I went down to the Tate and they’ve got a huge collection of Victorian Christmas cards so I went through the collection and photocopied things and started moving them around. So the style just developed out of that rather than any planning being involved. I never analysed the stuff, I just did it the quickest, easiest way. And I could use images I really loved.
It’s astonishing how mature the style seems—almost fully formed, one might say. It’s difficult to detect any real difference between this animation, executed in 1968, and the many he did for Monty Python’s Flying Circus from 1969 to 1974.