Twelve Monkeys: A Dystopian Trip through Time

By Pizzello, Stephen | American Cinematographer, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Twelve Monkeys: A Dystopian Trip through Time


Pizzello, Stephen, American Cinematographer


Cinematographer Roger Pratt, BSC helps director Terry Gilliam create a visionary mix of science-fiction, adventure and romance.

Cinematographer Roger Pratt's association with director Terry Gilliam began, appropriately enough, during a hunt for the Holy Grail.

In Pratt's case, the grail in question was a 14mm lens, which had been left behind when the infamous Monty Python comedy troupe trekked off to a mountainside location to film the hilarious Bridge of Death sequence for their 1975 feature Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), a rollicking, low-budget lampooning of the King Arthur legend. Destined to be a cult classic, Holy Grail was co-directed by Python's eccentric pair of Terrys, Messrs. Jones and Gilliam. The latter's fiendishly surreal cartoon creations had added an extra dollop of dementia to the troupe's loony, much-beloved television series (earning him a British Academy Award for graphics in 1969), and Gilliam had also contributed his acting, writing and animating skills to the Python group's 1972 film debut, And Now for Something Completely Different.

Before crossing the Bridge of Death, however, Gilliam would need a helping hand from Pratt, then an enterprising clapper/loader. Apprised of the missing wide-angle lens, Pratt took it upon himself to defy the daunting terrain and ensure its retrieval; the journey would prove to be a momentous turning point in Pratt's nascent career. Recalls Gilliam, "We were filming the Bridge sequence up on a mountain, at a place called Glen Cove. We were about a mile and a half from the road; to get to it, you had to descend down the mountainside, cross a river and go up the other side. When he found out that the lens was missing, Roger disappeared and was back with it in something like 10 minutes! I thought to myself, "This is an extraordinary character/ We've been buddies ever since."

"Terry thought that I had somehow magicked up the lens," Pratt offers with a chuckle. "He considered it a kind of supernatural event."

In fact, Pratt's feat could be construed as the film industry equivalent of alchemy, spurring his transformation from an eager assistant into a highly respected director of photography. The first reward for his misty mountain hop was a Grail cameo in which he is identified as the film's beleaguered Clapper Boy; years later, his friendship with Gilliam would lead to enviable gigs as cinematographer on the director's most successful pictures, Brazil (1985) and The Fisher King (1991), and as director of second-unit photography on the fantasy epic The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989). Pratt's resume also includes collaborations with Tim Burton (Batman), Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa), Kenneth Branagh (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) and Richard Attenborough (Shadowlands).

From Midlands

to Movies

For Pratt, such assignments are the culmination of a longtime love of the cinema. Raised in Leicester, in the English Midlands, his interest in movies was sparked by his father, a priest who frequently showed religious films at his parish. To the youthful Pratt, however, a career in motion pictures seemed remote at best. "seeing those images on the screen gave me a complete thrill, and I began thinking seriously about pursuing movies as a vocation," he says. "But being in the middle of England, nobody knew what to suggest as a course of action. It was only when I'd been to college that I decided to go to the London Film School. The people there were divided into two basic types: most people wanted to be directors, and the rest of us shot their films for them. Very early on I decided I didn't want to direct; I wanted to be involved in the camera side of it. But I still did a number of assignments with sound and editing just to get the experience."

After graduating, Pratt found that he needed to gain entry into the union, so he obtained a job at a film laboratory, where he spent several years resurrecting black-andwhite movies and old nitrate films for foreign television.

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