MONTY PYTHON IS ANIMATORS' DELIGHT
by Hans ten Cate, Tony Mines, Damian Sur, and Pete Collier
Tuesday, 14 December 2004

Sure you can re-enact a scene from Monty Python, all you need perhaps is a plastic raincoat and a stuffed parrot in a cage. Reworking a classic Monty Python scene using LEGOs or a computer generated alien takes dedication and an almost maniacal level of patience. Not surprisingly, there are a number of fans out there who have done this... painstakingly crafting their favorite Flying Circus or Holy Grail bit into an animated work. Luckily the Internet, the world's foremost digital showcase, makes it possible to share these digital creations so that other fans can enjoy how art begets art. Here are three animations based on the world of Monty Python, told in the words of their creators...

 

Holy Grail in LEGOs

Owners of the special anniversary edition DVD of Monty Python and the Holy Grail may already be familiar with a marvelous short animated film recreating a scene from Holy Grail entirely with LEGO toys. Tony Mines, of Spite Your Face Productions, explains the origins of this popular short film.

A sample scene from the Japanese LEGO models based on Holy Grail... the full set of photos are still on the web

The deal with the Python film started when either Terry Gilliam or John Goldstone (not sure which) found this great Japanese website where the guy had made a bunch of LEGO models of scenes from Holy Grail.

They saw that, and approached LEGO for the possibility of doing an animation in the same vein, for the Holy Grail DVD. At the time, Spite Your Face were already in negotiations with LEGO to do some other animations, and the project just fell into our hands. So basicaly, we scored the deal off the back of this Japanese guy's hard work.

The turnover on the project was very fast, with the coding date for the disk in less than a month. I dare not reveal quite how quickly we made the film, for fear that future clients may expect us to work that fast ever again - but suffice as to say that it was slightly less time than God took to make the earth.

The first stage in the process was deciding which scene from the film to recreate. There was a lot of discussion about it, but for us, the Camalot sequence was the only real option. The original film is very textural and visualy rich, but it's also essentialy a series of sketches and talking heads, not at all suited to dynamic animation - and that visceral quality is almost impossible to translate using smooth plastic blocks. All the 'action' scenes in Holy Grail operate on two basic principles, (a) that fake limbs are funny and (b) so is copious amounts of gore.

Download the movie
(choose low or high bandwidth)
python_lego_low.mov [6 MB]
python_lego_hi.mov [34 MB]
Visit the official website

Again, not something that works in plastic, or that LEGO would particularly allow. The Camalot sequence on the other hand, is not only lively, but has a logical beginning and end point that makes it work as a self contained movie.

We began to break down the sequence, watching it over and over, and turning it into a storyboard. We found to our delight that much of the original sequence consists of repeated footage or a return to the same three or four shots. This helped us in terms of budget and schedule because it meant we could make similar use of loops and repetition, though I really shouldn't be telling you this stuff.

We also began to break down the geography of the location, so as to build an accurate set. The DVD has a featurette about the original locations, which when we eventualy saw it, verified most of our assumptions about the geography. We even used the same trick of redressing the same 'alcove' to be two different parts of the room (one with the minstrels, one with the choir singers).

As well as the interior set, we also built a model of the castle exterior, which we filmed outside as an excuse to sit in the sun all afternoon. We actually carried said castle to the top of Tumbalum, a mountain in Wales that overlooks Caerleon - a village many believe to be the site of the 'real' Camalot. The footage, however, turned out to be rubbish - and the shot you see in our film is so manipulated that we needn't have bothered.

Finally we constructed 'likenesses' of the characters using a mix of existing lego-men parts, and hand-printed labels based on the tunics in the movie.

SYF get lots of mail from hard-core LEGO fans who want to know exactly which parts we used for the characters. We generally like to ignore those sort of questions, but some answers are provided in our on-site FAQ.

The animation process itself was relatively straightforward. A table with some models on it, a camera, and the painfully laborious process of moving tiny lego-men by infinitesimal increments, one frame at a time. The exception to this is a close-up shot of some lego-men's feet 'tap dancing'. This was filmed in live-action and involved removing the lego-men's legs, as they cannot inherently 'stomp' each foot independently.

Another thing we are often asked about is how we made the knights 'jump'. This, in most cases, was acheived by supporting the knights from behind, with the 'back wall' on the table and the camera pointing down. Most other 'aerial' objects are supported by blu-tack, and the swinging curtain is lined with poseable wire.

Beyond that, is none of your business.

The Python film was very enjoyable to work on, not least because we at SYF have grown up with the Python team as a huge influence. Through this film we got to work with the Pythons and put the Python name to one of our films, plus we got to meet Terry's Jones and Gilliam. For us it was one big plus. It's been downhill ever since!

For more misinformation visit:
www.spiteyourface.com
Tony Mines, Director Spite Your Face Productions Ltd.

 

Cheese Emporium Goes Sci Fi

A few years ago, an animator named Damian Surr posted a link on alt.fan.monty-python for fans to download a marvelous piece of animation he did of the Cheese Shop sketch as performed by two Douglas Adamsian characters generated entirely in CG. Damian intentionally had not watched the Cheese Shop sketch on TV, so his rendition features wonderfully fresh facial and body language, lending the sketch a new life.

Download the movie
cheese_emporium.mpeg [8 MB]
Visit Damian Surr's website

I'm always looking at ways to improve my animation. Before I did the Cheese Emporium sketch, I had only ever animated one small piece of lip sync (getting the character to speak to the words coming through the audio), and only really used characters one at a time in a scene.

I was on the look out for doing something that had lots of rich dialogue, and some strong character interaction. Finding a sound track that met the above requirements and was also funny would make the exercise more enjoyable to work on and the end result more fun to watch.

I had all of that in mind for a couple of weeks and kept my ears open for the perfect thing, then I listened to one of my Python CD's and found exactly what I wanted. There were several tracks I'd love to have done (the 'Argument sketch' springs to mind), but finally decided on the Cheese Emporium.

Luckily, I'd never seen the sketch on TV at that time. I'd only heard it on CD, so I didn't have any visuals in my mind to influence me. I could just use my imagination for the actual animation.

I always used to love catching Python stuff on TV when I was growing up. I just fit my sense of humour, or maybe it moulded it. Chicken or Egg? Who knows, it was all just very funny.

Life of Brian has to be one of the best films ever made, and that just looking at things as they are now. Imagine having the balls to make that film at the time that they did!

And the universe song in 'The Meaning of Life' (walking out of the fridge) is the only piece of footage that's ever had me sat at a video, with the pause and rewind buttons, for about an hour in order to write down all of the words (obviously, this is in the days before an internet search would give them all to you in a nano second).

The characters I used were great to work with too. They were designed for a different project by a group of friends I was working with at the time.

Unfortunately it was just a one off exercise unless some rich businessman wants to pay vast quantities of money for me to do more. I didn't even do the full sketch. I wanted to, but it was too big a task so I cut out my favourite minute.

I think it was about 6 weeks of pretty intensive work. I animated the faces first, and then put in all of the body movement. At the same time, Billy was modelling the outside of the shop that's seen at the start and I modelled the inside. The animation its self took the most time, but if the characters hadn't been finished already then it would have been 8 to 12 weeks I guess.

All done with 3D Studio MAX. I can't remember what I used to steal .. erm, borrow .. the audio from the CD. The visuals and audio were then put together using a program called Premier.

 

Isn't it Lovely to Have a Zenith

Pete Collier is a computer game designer in England who created this piece of animation for his final year at university. Imagine a meerkat singing Eric Idle's Penis Song...

Download the movie
penis_song.mov [8 MB]
Visit Pete Collier's website

I’ve just graduated from the University of Teesside in sunny Middlesbrough, with a First Class Degree in Computer Games Design, which mainly consisted of 3d animation work. Anyway the short end of a long stick is that I’m glad I’m finished and ‘Penis Song’ was an animation I did in my final year.

When I was finished, to be able to say “Have you seen my Penis Song” quite legitimately, to otherwise quite serious people would be worth the effort alone. It seemed a positively Pythonesque kind of thing to do...so I did it.

Monty Python actually lends itself very well to animation because it is so full of character. Eric has such a rhythmic, whimsical singing voice especially in ‘Penis Song’ that it was just begging to be animated. I’m sure Terry Gilliam must have felt the same.

The inspiration behind the character ‘Burt’ was from a wildlife documentary on BBC2 at about 3am in the morning on Meerkats. Meerkats have to be the single greatest creature going and ooze with personality. Hence Burt was born, a slightly mutated preposterously ugly Meerkat, but one all the same. He is sensitive about his ears so I wouldn’t mention it.

I’m a huge fan of the guys, not just the classic stuff, but the new as well. Michael’s audio books of his travels were simply excellent. His tales from around the Pacific Rim saved me in my last job from the treacherous boredom of creating a CG replication of a Turkish railway station. I was recently really enjoying Eric’s Greedy Ba$tard Diaries but now I have to wait till 2005 to read the rest bah!

‘Penis Song’ is the first in what I hope to be a volley of short ‘n’ quirky animated musical pieces. You know when you listen to a song and imagine, not Eric Idle singing it, but a small half Meerkat half big flappy eared green imp like creature. Well that’s kind of my angle…my next might be a frisky Gibbon wearing an all in one spandex jump suit singing ‘My Heart Will Go On’.

Although this all largely depends on whether I can stand (or sit) in front of this horrible lump of metal much longer and not instead go and pester Eric to join him on his next tour!

The animation itself took about just under 2 weeks. Creating Burt and setting him up for animation took about the same. From start to finish it took about 3 weeks. The weird thing is I’ve now listened to this song, about, say…3 billion times over and over again trying to get the animation just right and I still adore the song! Although having every conceivable name for a one eyed trouser snake engrained in your head, for nigh on a month, doesn’t do your mental health or indeed those living with you at the time, much good at all.

I used a 3d package called ‘Maya’. A lovely piece of software that many CG artists swear by, or indeed, at! For the unacquainted it’s the same package they use to create the majority of CG work for Lord of the Rings. But please don’t compare Burt to Gollum, he hates the two-faced git.

See also one of Pete's latest website creations: www.abstractreview.net.

 

Monty Meets South Park

Download the movie
friend_store.rm [2 MB]
See the official South Park website

For good measure I couldn't resist mentioning the fantastic South Park tribute to Monty Python, featuring the South Park characters re-enacting the Dead Parrot sketch, or the equivalent considering it is a Dead Kenny.

The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, developed a cartoon short honoring the comedy troupe's 30th anniversary. The cartoon aired 9 October 1999 on BBC television where it was part of a special called "It's the Monty Python Story."

With the permission of the Pythons and Comedy Central, Matt and Trey spun Monty Python's well-known "Dead Parrot" skit into a short entitled "The Dead Friend Sketch," starring South Park's Cartman as John Cleese, Kyle as Michael Palin and Kenny as the parrot.

"We would do anything for the Pythons," Parker and Stone said in a statement. "We would kill ourselves for them ... We hope this small piece of animation will suffice."

At the end of the cartoon, the BBC showed Parker and Stone in a small studio with Terry Gilliam’s actualy mother, Beatrice, hostage in a chair. They demanded that Gilliam direct an episode of South Park.