Entering the Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam
With Terry Gilliam, of course, you expect something wildly imaginative, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus doesn't disappoint. You also expect controversy as well, and, with the tragic death of Heath Ledger nearly derailing the movie, it takes on a further level of surreal irony: Gilliam reconfigured his bizarre Faustian story about a traveling theater troupe in modern-day London and its magical portal of twisted imagination by casting Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law to represent different aspects of the character played by Ledger. It was serendipitous, indeed.
Not surprisingly, the elaborate visual effects from Peerless Camera have been drawn from Gilliam's boundless imagination, including inspiration from the likes of American Gothic painter Grant Wood (the dream landscape behind the Law on stilts sequence); Odd Nerdrum (for the cloudscapes); and, more broadly, Shaun Tan, Theodore Geisel and Maxfield Parrish. We go behind-the-scenes with John Paul Docherty of Peerless Camera and Richard Bain of Bain VFX, who were both visual effects supervisors.
Bill Desowitz: What was Gilliam's plan?
John Paul Docherty: What Terry wanted to do was have an entirely different look for each time anyone went inside the Imaginarium, effectively inside Parnassus' head. But he was very clear: he didn't want it to look photorealistic. It had to look like it could be a product of the imagination but still sufficiently believable that the audience wasn't thrown out of the movie. And in that way, we were more approaching Mary Poppins than anything coming out of Hollywood. And it had more in common with Dick Van Dyke and the dancing penguins than any photorealistic, Michael Bay-type film, which is quite a different thing. People haven't done that for quite a few years. So effectively we had to design like nine different movies and they had to be completely consistent and believable in the sense that people accepted them but was not real in any shape or form. Terry was absolutely adamant; the minute anything started looking real, he was all over us.
BD: What was the impact of Ledger's death?