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The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: Gilliam and the Art of the Reveal

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Terry Gilliam is, in my opinion, one of the great distinctive film directors of the latter part of the 20th century. Books have been written – literally – about his techniques and his rather unique style of filmmaking. I’m going to focus on one of my favorite films of his, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, to study Gilliam’s artful reveal shots.

A reveal shot is a shot where one or more visual element(s) are revealed to the viewer through either camera movement, movement in the mise-en-scène, or a combination of the two; the element(s) usually have some sort of significant relevance to the overall plot, as the reveal shot is usually regarded as a fairly powerful shot in a filmmaker’s arsenal.

Munchausen is a layered film, and Gilliam transitions between the different layers of story and relative reality in relatively unusual ways, which I posit is to maintain the tenuous separation between these layers.

One of my favorite reveal shots in the film comes in the first act on a literal stage. The Baron has decided to elucidate what he considers to be the “real” version of events involving himself, as he stands in the narrator’s position on the stage as the curtain is lifted to reveal a set of the Sultan’s Palace, with all the lack-of-depth that such a stage set would afford:

A-01

As he begins to narrate, “The Grand Turk” (the Sultan) – or at least, the actor playing the Sultan in the Salts’ stage production – is pushed out to center stage, as if to prepare to play out the action being narrated by the Baron.

A-02

Gilliam flips back to The Baron so that he can tell a (relatively) personal anecdote about being granted access to the Sultan’s harem.

A-03

We then flip to a side view – what we can only assume is, more or less, a POV shot from The Baron’s point of view. We see the stage hands and the rest of the cast, urging the actor playing the Sultan to move forward.

A-04

He then begins to move forward. Notice that, right now, we’re completely in the theater, and this character is the actor playing the Sultan.

A-05

We move forward a few frames, and we see that, rather than the front of the stage, we’re now seeing something that wasn’t there in the previous shots – guards. This is the image where he crosses what should be the threshold of the stage. To the left is the world of the theatre, to the right is … the palace.

A-06

Forward another second or so, and he has completely left the theater, and the character we see in front of us is no longer the actor playing the Sultan, but now is the Sultan.

A-07

Without any cutting during the transition, Gilliam has managed to transport us from one reality to another ; from one layer of film to another nested one. This didn’t require any special effects or camera tricks, but simply duplicating a small piece of the theater set (with lighting) adjacent to the edge of the palace set, allowing the juxtaposition of the two realities in a single seamless shot.

Another stylized reveal comes by way of a repeated shot, as part of three – more minor – reveal shots. When The Baron wins the wager with the Sultan, he’s told that he can have as much gold as “the strongest man can carry”. The treasurer opens a comically sized lock …

B-01

… to reveal what appears to be a few gold coins.

B-02

But which when we pull back …

B-03

… reveals a ridiculous pile of gold and treasure. The next shot shows a pile of treasure with a ladder.

B-04

We crane down…

B-05

… to reveal Albrecht holding everything on his shoulders.

B-06

Cut to the Baron, looking very smug. Note that this is the same shot used to show the subjective story about the Sultan’s harem from my earlier example, with the Baron appearing in roughly the same framing, but slightly more to the center of the frame. The Baron is front and center in this reality, as opposed to the off-kilter nature of the “real” world of the theater.

B-07

Then we repeat the earlier dolly-back shot to reveal exactly what the Baron and his minions have done with the Sultan’s treasure:

B-08

B-09

The framing and composition are the same, with the exception of Albrecht moving the treasure, which had been in the foreground in the previous shot, out of the comically small exit, and beating a hasty retreat.

In the interests of brevity, I’m breaking this post up into multiple parts, so that I can demonstrate more examples of the full range of reveal shots used by Gilliam in this film.

(All images are presented under fair use guidelines – all frame grabs are property of Columbia/Tristar, or any other entities who hold copyright on this film. They are presented for exclusively educational purposes.)

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