Sunday, July 21, 2013

Before CGI: Stop-Motion Special Effects in Film

Dinosaurs, monsters, and robots, Oh my! 

Today, it is easy to take for granted all of the spectacular sights and fantastical creatures that appear on screen, largely due to the increasing efficiency and availability of computer animation. But prior to the 1990s, such special effects had to be done entirely by hand. There are several alternate options to CGI. Puppetry, which first originated in 3000 BC, involves manipulating inanimate objects to make them look alive in real time. Commonly described as 'mechanical puppets', animatronics were developed by Disney during the 1960s. They have brought characters such E.T., Jaws, and the Gremlins to life.

However, most special effects were created primarily through stop-motion. The technique has a long and interesting history, being used in film for over one hundred years. Unlike puppetry and animatronics, stop motion involves physically moving objects frame by frame for each shot. Therefore, it is a very time consuming process. (Fully stop-motion animated films take an average of five years to make!) Anything can be animated using stop motion animation, be it clay, wax, Legos, action figures, dolls, or even dead bugs.

Georges Melies: The Father of Special Effects

Early filmmakers were crazy. Crazy but ingenious. 

Not only did Georges Melies utilize stop-motion in his trick films, he also created illusions by using time-lapse photography, manipulating perspective, hand dying his films to create color, and by making outlandish costumes for his casts. Melies was passionate about bringing the unbelievable to life on the screen. Most of his films involve fantastical elements, be they Jules Vern inspired science fiction or elaborate period pieces. Melies created over 500 short films between 1896 to 1913. One of Melies's earliest works, "The Haunted Castle" (1896) is sometimes cited as the first horror film, although if was created to amuse people rather than to scare them. "The Vanishing Lady" (1896) is also notable. Its use of a hidden trap door made it appear that Melies 'disappeared' a young woman and replaced her with a skeleton. "The Astronomer's Dream" (1898) is perhaps the best known, and most surreal, of Melies's earlier shorts.  

Georges Melies's later work became increasingly more sophisticated. Rather than being a few minutes long and merely filmed magic tricks, they could be up to half an hour long and featured actual plotlines, a cinematic first. "A Trip to the Moon" (1902) is still commonly referenced and homaged today. The short was about a group of scientists who journey across space, land on the moon, and encounter some unfriendly aliens. Melies also met great success with "The Impossible Voyage" (1904), a similar Victorian space fantasy that featured a memorable sequence where a train, carried by balloons, gets swallowed by the sun.

Although some of his later work is now recognized for its importance by film historians (particularly "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" [1907] and "The Conquest of the Pole" [1912]), critics and audiences would soon begin to tire of Melies's films. They began to notice that much of his work tended to mill over the same material and Melies's filmmaking style was beginning to become outdated. Apparently, it never occurred to Melies that he could move the camera for close-ups or long shots. With the outbreak of WWI things became even more difficult. Melies fell into debt and was forced break his contact with Pathe in 1913, and many of his films were subsequently lost. Today, however, Georges Melies's creations are becoming recognized among the public again, particularly due to Ben Kingsley's portrayal of him in Hugo (2011).

Melies's most famous work, A Trip to the Moon (1902).

Willis H. O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen

Who knew audiences would go ape for a giant gorilla?

Arguably, the first person who really made stop-motion prominent in live-action film was Willis Harold O'Brien. O'Brien grew ranch-hand in Oakland, California and held several other odd jobs before realizing that his talent for sculpting could be used in the filmmaking process. Thomas Edison was so impressed with O'Brien's work and short films that he hired O'Brien to work for his studio. Willis O'Brien made his big break in 1925 when he brought dinosaurs to life in The Lost World. He awed audiences by utilizing split screen technology to make his tiny models appear gigantic in comparison to the actors on screen. The models themselves were made of clay modeled over wire amateurs and covered with rubber. King Kong (1933) is, without a doubt, is the most widely recognized of O'Brien's work. The titular character is impressive not only due to his imposing, powerful presence, but also because of his tragic end. In 1949, O'Brien created another another giant ape for the film Mighty Joe Young. O'Brein's efforts won him the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. The experience gained while making Mighty Joe Young helped train O'Brien's successor, Ray Harryhausen.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was Harryhausen's first solo effort. Like many 1950s sic-fi movies, the film reflected growing concerns over the use of nuclear technology. It is about a large prehistoric creature, the Rhedosaurus, that is awakened by bomb testing in the Arctic Circle and proceeds to wreck havoc in New York City. The Beast proved to be a huge international financial success. So much so, in fact, that it inspired many similar monster movies, particularly the Kaiju Craze in Japan. The creators of Godzilla (1954) were so impressed with Harryhausen's stop-motion effects that they considered using the same method themselves, but later opted for using an actor in a specialized suit due to budget concerns.

Ray Harryhausen popularized 'Godzilla' before there was a Godzilla.

Ray Harryhausen met even more recognition with his first color feature The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), which would later spawn spawn two sequels, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). By this point Harryhausen had branded his stop-motion as 'Dynamation' in order to distinguish his work from claymation and other studio productions. Sinbad was a huge undertaking for Harryhausen and his small crew. They spent a total of eleven months creating the various beings and monsters needed for the film. His animation on the cyclops, the belly dancing snake-woman, and the living skeleton remain highly admired by filmmakers today. Similarly, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) met much praise for Harryhausen's work, particularly for its extended fight sequence between three actors and seven armed skeletons. The Valley of Gwangi (1969) was a dinosaur themed film that Harryhausen inherited from O'Brien, who was never able to successfully complete the movie on his own. The last film Harryhausen worked on before retiring was The Clash of the Titans (1981) which in, many ways, was a throwback to his Sinbad films, but with a Greek mythology theme. In fact, the Medusa model used in the film was a reworking of his snake-woman figure made over twenty years earlier.

Quite possibly the most impressive stop motion scene ever filmed.

The Blockbuster Era of the 1980s 

Phil Tippett, special effects extraordinaire.

Following the footsteps of Ray Harryhausen, Phil Tippet caught the public's attention in 1977 when he created the stop-motion miniature chess match for Star Wars: A New Hope. Tippet continued to do special effects for the next two Star Wars films in the original trilogy, most notably animating the Imperial Walkers and the Tauntaun in The Empire Strikes Back and designing Jabba the Hut and the Rancor Pit Monster for Return of the Jedi. He subsequently received his first Academy Award nomination for bringing to life the menacing monsters in Dragon Slayer (1981). By 1983, Phil Tippet had trademarked his own brand of stop-motion as 'Go Motion' and his work remains a prominent influence on Industrial Light and Magic of Lucasfilm. Steven Spielberg admired Tippet's work so much that he hired him as the special effects consultant for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). The third Indiana Jones film, The Last Crusade (1989) featured a memorable stop motion sequence, where Walter Donovan drinks from the wrong cup of immortality and ages so rapidly that he turns to dust. Phil Tippett also provided stop-motion effects for Robocop (1987) and Willow (1988).

"He Chose Poorly." Indeed.

Outside of Phil Tippet and Lucasfilm, several other notable films featuring stop-motion sequences were made during the 1980s. The camp horror cult classic, The Evil Dead (1981), utilized stop-motion to create rotting corpses and various monsters, as did its 1987 sequel. Ghostbusters's (1984) Terror Dogs and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man were also brought to life this way. The end of The Terminator (1984) is forever embedded into the public's mind, where the battle damaged Terminator pursues Sarah Conner and Karl Reese in a factory. Likewise, stop-motion was used to great effect in Aliens (1986), Beetlejuice (1988), and Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (1988). 

One of the Terror Dog models (with a wire skeleton) used in Ghost Busters.

Is Stop Motion Still Relevant?

Although considered, no stop-motion was used in Jurassic Park.

In 1993, Spielberg asked Phil Tippett to create dinosaur models for Jurassic Park. A test video was made, but Spielberg later decided to drop the idea of using stop-motion in his film, favoring animatronics and CGI. Although Tippett was somewhat dismayed at first, (He reputability stated, "I've become extinct!" upon hearing the news), he adapted to the changing film industry by switching over CGI and continues to provide character designs for various extinct animals, mechanical monsters, and mythological creatures. Tippet has kept busy with his spare time, however, on a self-funded project entitled "Mad God", which harkens back to his earlier work.

Reflecting Tippet's fate and the dominance of CGI, recent live-action / stop-motion tend to be lower budget or independently produced. (One could also argue that stop-motion has also been generally avoided due to the horrific box office bomb, Monkeybone [2001].) Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer has directed several disturbing, but daringly unique movies that blend both puppetry and animation with live actors. His best known works are arguably Alice (1988), Faust (1994), and Lunacy (2005). Elf (2003) featured numerous stop-motion characters (a snowman, puffin, polar bear cub, and a narwhale) in homage to the old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials. Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) had undersea wildlife that was also stop-motion animated. The film fared better than Monkeybone, but wasn't exactly successful with audiences or critics either. Stop-motion is primarily used this days in parody shows such as Robot Chicken (2005- present), foreign films such as Kooky (2010), and has largely moved on to animated features.

Today, stop-motion is primarily found in smaller, independent live-action productions.