In the horizontal tracking shot that follows Prospero as he makes his way through the Island, the various figures behind the opening credits are based on their allegorical association with Water (as this is an adaptation of 'The Tempest'); Peter Greenaway has confirmed that there are actually 100 figures of Biblical, Mythological, Historical relevance. The theme is further explored in another short program made for TV by Greenaway called A Walk Through Prospero's Library (1991).
Prospero was John Gielgud's favorite stage role and he had attempted to mount a film of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" for decades, contacting Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman about directing and Welles and Albert Finney about playing Caliban. The version with Welles directing and playing Caliban was in preparation until the financial failure of Welles' and Gielgud's film of 'Falstaff (1966)' forced the project to fall through, where it laid dormant until Gielgud finally convinced Peter Greenaway to make this version.
Some of the 'animated' books include images from (or allusions to) Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies; specifically from his eleven-volume study 'Animal Locomotion (1885)', featuring his galloping horse, running bison, and studies of walking, jumping and throwing.