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Stop-motion filmmaking is an ornate, highly skilled medium that is fast being consigned to history’s bin. It’s best we pay homage to the true masters.
These days, sci-fi/fantasy/adventure movies of the epic blockbuster variety all rely heavily on computer-generated imagery, or CGI, to achieve their often spectacularly lavish special effects. Fabulous creatures, sleek starships, enormous ruined castles, all created using long and tedious processes of computer design and image rendering. The big studios can employ up to a hundred or more people in the special effects department alone, with each person responsible for a single thing – one person to just move the monster’s tail, another to do the face, another to do the legs and yet another for the arms. And there’s another bunch of people working on the monster behind the first one! Not to mention the teams of compositors adding the backgrounds, lighting people and camera operators. But how did they do it in the days before computers?
Monster movies have been with us virtually since the invention of motion pictures, and short of having some actor in a suit stomp around a miniature set, which admittedly does look a bit stupid by today’s standards, the other option was stop-motion animation – the movement of a model captured on film, frame-by-frame. Another long and tedious process, but in the hands of a master, it could look wonderful. Wallace and Gromit is a great example of modern stop-motion, and director Nick Park is obviously a fan of the old stop-motion movies, as are Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, James Cameron and Guillermo del Toro, just to name a few. Here’s Wallace and Gromit on the Moon:
But the big name in stop-motion adventure back in the 1930s was Willis O’Brien, who brought King Kong to life on screen in 1933 using a clever combination of live-action and stop-motion. Who could forget the giant gorilla climbing the Empire State Building bearing the terrified Fay Wray to the spire on top?
I guess watching it now it’s a little jerky, slightly comic and doesn’t compare with the CGI-driven exploding planets and frantic demon armies which are more common in films now, but at the time it was ground-breaking stuff and could’ve won O’Brien an Oscar for Technical Effects, but his refusal to accept it (on the grounds that if each of his team didn’t get one as well, he wouldn’t either) put him on the outs with Hollywood, and as a result he’s not as famous as he should be. By the time 1949 rolled around and O’Brien was working on Mighty Joe Young (another monkey movie), he had engaged an assistant and protegé, whose name was to be to the art of stop-motion what Heston Blumenthal’s is to the art of cookery – Ray Harryhausen.
Harryhausen had seen King Kong when he was a child and, greatly impressed at how the big ape moved, began making his own models and animating them in a small studio set-up in his parents’ garage. As I mentioned, stop-motion can take forever to do – moving a model slightly, taking a frame of film, moving the model again, taking another frame and so on, till the scene is finished. He developed a method of combining live-action with his animation which involved projecting a filmed background on a sheet of glass, in front of which was the animation table and another camera. The background was played one frame at a time, and Harryhausen would move his models accordingly, and with the other camera take shots also one frame at a time. Phew, that’s a lot of work. I’ve done it myself and it’s certainly no good for your lower back!
He would also black out certain parts of the glass, film a scene, rewind the camera and film it again, this time with the blacked-out area reversed so the finished film could, as would be seen in his later works, quite convincingly show, for example, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) destroying large parts of New York City, crushing cars and people en route. Probably Harryhausen’s most known movie, and my personal favourite, was Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and contains, in my opinion, the best ever stop-motion scene: the fighting skeletons. Poor old Jason and two of his mates become locked in mortal combat with seven skeletons, rising from the grave armed with swords and shields and with only bloody murder on their minds. Have a look at this. I think it’s brilliant (runs about five minutes):
This scene apparently took three months to complete. The actors rehearsed with sword-fighting stunt doubles to take the place of the skeletons, learning their positions and actions, much like learning a dance routine, so they could do it on film without the stunt people. Harryhausen then animated his seven skeletons to match the live action. One frame at a time. Have a think about the enormity of that when you watch the clip. For every second of film, there are 24 frames, which makes 1,440 frames per minute. Times that by five say, for the length of the clip, and then again by seven (there are seven skeletons to animate), and that gives us 50,400 separate movements! And here’s the even better thing, and one that puts Harryhausen high on a throne in the minds of Spielberg, Jackson et al – Harryhausen did it all by himself, with only one other person operating the camera! These days with digital cameras or even videotape, it’s easy to wind back and check if something worked, or purely just to keep track of what arm was moving where, and as mentioned before, the big studios now have huge teams of people to do that. But this guy did it all himself and kept track in his head. Amazing stuff.
His last film was the original Clash of the Titans (1981), which was also loosely based on Greek mythology and featured such names as Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith. But movies like Star Wars had hit the scene by then, and stop-motion was being overshadowed by new techniques, such as green screen and video overlay, as well as a prepubescent CGI, all of which prompted Harryhausen to retire gracefully. In later years he was awarded an Oscar and a BAFTA, as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in special effects, and his name won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
So next time you watch Jurassic Park and the scene where they rope a dinosaur, think about a young, wide-eyed Steven Spielberg back in 1969 sitting in the cinema watching Ray Harryhausen’s The Valley of Gwangi (which incidentally was inspired by an idea of Willis O’Brien’s years earlier), where cowboys in the old west discover a hidden valley full of living dinosaurs. Sound familiar?
Let’s finish with a clip of what I can only think was Spielberg’s inspiration: Gwangi!