Why Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion effects were more real than CGI
The death of stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen raises questions about the future of special effects, writes Ethan Gilsdorf. In the good old days, it did not take so much to trick the eye.
"There comes a point where people will reject digital effects and want movies where we actually did something in real space, and real time.”
That's a quote from a film director perhaps the least likely to decry computer-generated special effects: Peter Jackson. Interviewed for the 2011 documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, Jackson said, essentially, that as digital special effects in movies become increasingly advanced, we'll crave the real even more. Real, as in "real" fake -- physical puppets of gorillas and T-Rexes, Medusas and animated statues, not ones made from pixels. Real, as in physical models manipulated by hand and filmed one frame at a time, not rendered in some fancy computer program.
But Jackson's comment about a movie being something that happens "in real space, and real time" feels surprising, if not ironic. The director most known for creating miniature models and sets (and so-called giant miniatures, or "bigatures") for The Lord of the Rings, and seamlessly mixing them with digital trolls and elves, later turned away from the "real" miniatures he used in that trilogy. In his last film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Jackson finally and fully embraced digital effects. It's a film in which nary a miniature or puppet exists.
Now, the death on May 7 of stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen poignantly brings these issues of real and fake, analog and digital, info focus. Harryhausen's passing represents the end of an era. It closes a crucial chapter in special effects history. It's also a kind of turning point in film technology. From here on out, it's too late to return to the analog.
If you don't know who Harryhausen was, you've probably seen his work. The master animator is best known for breathing life into giant, writhing serpents, sword-wielding skeletons, and marauding dinosaurs in such fantasy adventure and monster movies as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Mysterious Island (1961), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and Clash of the Titans (1981). Harryhausen was an innovator, and in many ways the father of the modern special effects craft and industry.
Harryhausen's trademark action sequences featuring animated model figurines -- always pictured interacting with, or more often, fighting with human foes, or crushing them, or biting them in half or flying away with them -- might seem clunky and old-fashioned when measured by today's standards. But in their day, the effects Harryhausen pioneered were cutting-edge. He painstakingly filmed his "creatures" frame by frame. The process was exhausting: The 4 minute, 37-second skeleton and human fight sequence from Jason and the Argonauts reportedly took four and a half months to photograph and Harryhausen had to readjust and film around 184,800 movements of the puppets.
Then, using his patented "Dynamation" technique, those skeletons and serpents could interact on screen with actors in a remarkable realistic way. The Dynamation process combined foreground and background footage by photographing miniatures in front of a rear-projection screen. Sometimes, he shot sequences through a partially-masked glass pane. Live footage would later be superimposed on the masked portion of the frame, and voila, the creature or creatures seemed to exist in the midst of "real" human-scaled action, or even appear to move in front of and behind "live" elements. Harryausen also carefully controlled lighting and color balance to make sure the image quality of his animated sequences matched the quality of the live action. His effects were more convincing than the standard use of optical printing and mattes. This was before green screen, folks.
The magic was unlike what anyone had ever seen before.
The fantasies his stop-motion artistry enabled inspired not only Peter Jackson, but George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro and countless other filmmakers. Even if the success of their films -- particularly the trailblazing CGI dinosaurs Spielberg employed in Jurassic Park (1993) -- ended stop-motion animation forever. That said, Jurassic Park incorporated its fair share of animatronic dinosaur heads and giant talons, which may explain why that movie still stands up so well today.
(Harryhausen may have even inspired Dungeons & Dragons. A great article at toplessrobot.com makes the convincing case that the creators of D&D were influenced by Harryhausen's animated skeletons, giant rocs and hydras.)
Harryhausen's passing represents the end of an era. It closes a crucial chapter in special effects history. It's also a kind of turning point in film technology. From here on out, it's too late to return to the analog.
This summer, in films such as World War Z, After Earth and Star Trek Into Darkness, viewers will be again assaulted with all manner of space battles, snarling creatures, armies of zombies, dazzling cityscapes, armadas of spaceships and strange lands stretching to some mythical horizon -- all created with a digital pen in a digital special effects program. If Harryhausen were alive and working in the industry today, he might be making giant robot movies like Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim coming later this summer, or movies involving swarms of goblins and orcs like Peter Jackson's.
But he's not. Times have changed. And not necessarily for the better. The death of Ray Harryhausen represents the end of "real" special effects, and the end of the "real" in fantasy. That is a huge loss for American cinema.
What exactly is lost when we lose the rubber puppet or the Styrofoam model? It's not a question of artistry. Digital effects take incredible talent. Rather, the substance of the matter is related to what Jackson says, this sense of "real space, and real time." To me, the issue is realism vs. gravity. How real can these pixels feel? Can they truly have heft or presence? I would argue, no -- no matter how perfect the texture, rendering, shadow, and digital lens flare (as J.J. Abrams is clearly in love with in movies such as Star Trek Into Darkness) mixed and layered into an FX sequence's cocktail of CG imagery.
Sure, the effects look good, but they're not necessarily more "real" looking than the effects Harryhausen created. As Harryhausen himself said in a 2006 interview: "There’s a strange quality in stop-motion photography, like in King Kong, that adds to the fantasy. If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.”
Indeed, his effects seem to work especially well for creating that sense of something to be conjured, some fantastical beast awakening. How would Talos, a man made of bronze, or a winged mythical harpy look and move if it came to life? Maybe a little jerky, a little stuttered, a little shaky, the same effect stop-motion creates.
But perhaps the debate about digital vs. analog effects balances on the fulcrum of taste. And the age and era one hails from. I, like many children of the 1970s, grew up worshipping Harryhausen. I was raised on Saturday afternoon monster movie shows such as Creature Double Feature. Those slightly awkwardly animated beasts were real. To my eye, no matter how lifelike it may become, CG still has an eerie, weightless, plastic quality. The better these special effects get, the weirder they look.
Star Wars was the first harbinger of change in FX, and the first true effects movie that was a popular hit, ushering in the era of the genre blockbuster. But even that 1977 film was made, largely, with stop-motion animation -- albeit computer-controlled stop-motion animation. Those were real plastic models of X-Wings and TIE Fighters dogfighting through the Death Star's tunnels. That 3-D chess match between R2-D2 and Chewbacca was made to look holographic, but it was filmed using Harryhausenesque rubber puppets. The ships, like the Millennium Falcon, had heft, and the light and shadow cast upon them looked right, because they were real. As longtime Industrial Light and Magic technician Paul Huston has said, all those "mechanical systems, plumbing, landing gear, laser blasters, vents, injectors, ducts, fuel tanks" were made of plastic. Some were "scratch-built and some were scavenged from plastic model kits."
The palpability of the real. I lament and mourn the scale model. I'd rather have a foam and plaster (or toothpick and duct tape) Rivendell or Tatooine, instead of one built brick-by-brick from pixels. The chicken-wire and plaster ruins of the Star Wars sets in Tunisia still exist. They have a presence. They leave behind a gravity that the digital can never attain.
Above all we have become spoiled. In Harryhausen's day, it did not take much to trick the eye into believing a film protagonist was being attacked by a giant bee or one-eyed giant centaur cyclops. Today, we are more discerning. We expect greater verisimilitude. Like addicts, we want more spectacular eye candy. And Hollywood, the eager dealer, delivers.
For the moment, we can tell the difference between computer-generated imagery and real live action photography. But as ILM's Huston himself admitted, the end is nigh. "As research continues and solutions and awareness develop," he said, "CG will become indistinguishable from actual photography." Movies such as Avatar, Transformers and Inception and keep pushing the boundaries, making the day that comes true arrive sooner.
But Ray Harryhausen's work endures. It contains gravity. Somewhere, there is a 10-inch-high seven-headed hydra, or ape, or octopus, or Kraken, or one of the seven skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts. And, to my mind, in my mind's eye, that monster feels as if it could still tremble, and walk, and come alive.
This illustrated flowchart makes it easy to pick an evening out with the Bard.
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