May 3rd, 2012
02:19 PM ET
It's hard to think of today's action-packed blockbusters or fantasy/science-fiction films being made without computer-generated visual effects.
Can you imagine Andy Serkis performing as Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" franchise without a rendered mask that mirrors his facial expression?
As marvelous as the technology is, many of us remember a time when the creatures that existed only in our imaginations came alive on film after hours of painstakingly building and molding them ... by hand.
Stop-motion model animators make their creations appear to move on their own by photographing every small, gradual change they make to the position or action. When you play all the frames together, voila: Viewers will see a living, kicking and talking being.
One master of stop-motion model animation is Ray Harryhausen, a producer and special effects creator whose latest book, "Ray Harryhausen's Fantasy Scrapbook: Models, Artwork and Memories from 65 Years of Filmmaking," was released May 1. Harryhausen's fingers are behind epic movies like "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" (1958), "Jason and the Argonauts" (1963) and "Clash of the Titans" (1981).
Although the "Fantasy Scrapbook," co-written with film historian Tony Dalton, is sort of a complement to his other books on animation, this book stands out because it includes most of Harryhausen's old sketches and models, which he had stored in his garage. There are pages and pages documenting details of his projects, even unrealized ones, and photographs of the models in their skeletal forms.
Of course, stop-motion animation existed before Harryhausen and had been used in movies like "The Lost World" (1925). The art really made its breakthrough in "King Kong" (1933), in which the giant gorilla-like monster seemed to realistically interact with humans.
But Harryhausen's technique, which he termed "dynamation," made the entire process easier and more inexpensive. He employed a method involving split screens so that the model could seem better engaged with the live-action scenes and actors.
Audiences in 1963 were blown away by this naturalness in "Jason and the Argonauts," especially when they saw Jason and his men fight off the children of Hydra, seven skeleton warriors. The famous sword battle has become a fan favorite and is considered by many to be Harryhausen's finest work:
The complicated maneuvers, the coordination and the skilled swordfighting the skeletons display is definitely something to be in awe of. The "Fantasy Scrapbook" includes behind-the-scenes images that show actor Todd Armstrong fighting stuntmen in place of skeletons, which would be added into the scene.
Creations like these certainly made Harryhausen, who will turn 92 in June, a name to be known among special effects creators. Ken Ralston (the Academy Award-winning special effects designer behind the "Star Wars" franchise), Peter Jackson, John Landis and many others have stated that Harryhausen has had a tremendous effect on their work and paid homage with a video on his 90th birthday.
Thankfully, stop-motion animation is not a completely dead art. You still see it often as claymation in critically acclaimed movies and series like "Wallace & Gromit," "Flushed Away" and "Chicken Run." Henry Selick's films like "Coraline" and Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" do it slightly differently, using puppets and miniature sets.
None of these, however, involve interaction with live-action scenes, something Harryhausen hopes will experience a revival soon. He added in an e-mail to CNN that computer-generated animation is an important tool and believes it will not fully erase the older form that inspired it.
"Stop-motion is a medium that welcomes fantasy, hence the number of recent productions," Harryhausen said. "As yet, though, there seem to be no productions that are utilizing model stop-motion and live actors. But that will, I think, re-emerge. It is only a matter of time."
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