Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

What Monty Python can teach the next generation of publishers

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 22, 2011

If Terry Gilliam were a 20-year-old nobody today, I have little doubt he would be all over the internet, with a Youtube, Audioboo and Tumblr account, creating mashups, animations, films and the like.

He’d be one of the many people creating shareable stuff, probably using music without permission…and probably getting some of it taken down by Youtube!

Instead, he was lucky enough to be part of Monty Python in the 1960s and 70s, creating their instantly recognisable cut-out animations. I stumbled across this video recently, where Terry appears on what looks like a brilliant 70s children’s art show on the BBC, the likes of which just aren’t made any more.

After a rather odd title sequence which offers to teach you “something to your advantage” he explains how he produces his animations – and there’s lots for the new generation of digital publishers to learn.

It’s all about the idea and the message

Very early on in the video, Terry says “the whole point of animation is to tell a story, tell a joke, express an idea. The technique itself doesn’t really matter, whatever works is the thing to use.”

Terry is not animating for animation’s sake, nor his own vanity. Each time, he has a story or a joke to tell, or an idea to share. The takeaway: make sure your own work, whether it is making a documentary, writing a blog or launching a podcast is more than just for the sake of it – you must have a meaning you want to express, somehow.

Everything is a remix

In a sequence that might shock many of us today, especially those versed in copyright,  Terry confesses – well, he really just states – to using whatever he can find to create is now famous collages. He steals from magazines, books, paintings-  literally whatever he can get his hands on. He says he loves old photographs because the faces are so expressive.

This is – I think – a wonderful attitude to have to creating content, and one that, luckily, enough amateur online publishers still have. Obviously, there are (often crossed) legal boundaries, but without their willingness to use other peoples’ content we wouldn’t have Newport State of Mind, these great Brian Cox spoofs, nor much of the expanded Star Wars expanded universe, now a big industry.

Use whatever you can

Terry uses felt-tip pens, sellotape and perspex to get the job done. Not very glamorous but it did the trick. He doesn’t invest in expensive paper, or professional ink he just uses what’s cheap. If you want to create multimedia stories – video, audio slideshows, photographs and the like – you don’t need to blow £2k on the priciest camera, when a Flipcam will do the job for you. People take extraordinary pictures with their iPhones too: Richard Koci Hernandez creates wonderful images on his phone.

Work quick

Wherever Terry could save time he did – even to the extent of replacing legs with wheels. In the surreal Monty Python universe that worked, but there are lessons for young publishers too: don’t fret about creating perfection. Instead create a quantity of work – the more you make, the better you become.

If so, create a platform or a vehicle which forces you to create content regularly. I’m currently collaborating with Dave Lee to launch a new video magazine later this year: it’s a platform which demands new stories on a regular basis – and I’m shooting and editing far more often because of it.

So there you go: even an old bit of BBC archive floating on Youtube holds lessons for new digital producers in the 21st century. Work fast, with whatever you can find, remix (within reason) and above all: do it to tell a story, make a point or express some kind of meaning.