A beautiful and yet truly painstaking form of animation is still going strong today. In the mainstream, many animators have moved steadily towards the preferred form of CGI leaving a small, creative niche for stop-motion to flourish. From Aardman to Tim Burton, the medium has produced some genuine classics. With Movies in Motion, we look at a chosen sequence of stop-motion to celebrate on the last Friday of every month.
It seems only fitting that we look at the work of a man who is known as the godfather of stop-motion and indeed special effects, Mr Ray Harryhausen. In his career, lasting over sixty years, Harryhausen created animation and characters for many great films becoming known as the man who made the monsters, (or creatures as he preferred to call them showing affection for his creations). For all his spectacular work in film there is one that is considered his greatest accomplishment, Jason and the Argonauts, (1963). Harryhausen created a number of sequences and creatures for the film, from Talos the giant iron Titan, the winged Harpies that torment blind prophet Phineas, the seven headed Hydra and most notably the skeleton fight sequence. So to begin our celebration we discuss Ray Harryhausen and his seven fearsome skeletons.
Ray Harryhausen notes his first and most prominent inspiration to be King Kong, (1933). The story of the giant misunderstood beast that terrorized New York began his journey into animation. The film, featuring the work of model animator Willis O’Brien, inspired the young Harryhausen to created his own shorts. After taking classes in graphic arts and sculpture he worked steadily in assistant roles on a number of smaller projects.
His first major job on a feature film would be with his idol O’Brien working on Mighty Joe Young, (1947). While O’Brien worked on solving the technical issues the film posed Harryhausen was left to do the majority of the animation. The film was a success and O’Brien won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects.
The first film where Harryhausen had complete control of technical effects was on the film, The Beast from 200.000 Fathoms, (1953). Although never credited as director Harryhausen was heavily involved in the concept, story, script, design, art and tone of all of his films. Once the story had been finalised Harryhausen would story-board his sequences then set out to accurately create his imagined scenes. It was with this film that Harryhausen developed the technique of splitting the background and foreground of live action films so that he could splice in his animated models. This allowed his creatures to interact with live action. The film was a box office success and meant Harryhausen was now in demand for his work.
The transition to colour posed new problems for Harryhausen’s technique which he experimented with to over come the colour balance shift. This lead to new progress in the field of stop-motion and of course another box office hit.
Harryhausen worked steadily as a visual effects supervisor on more films until he began work on a film that was based on the Greek myth of the Golden Fleece, Jason and the Argonaunts, (1963). The film retells the myth of Greek explorer Jason and his ship of Argonaunts. Jason, the son of murdered King Aristo, is destined to reclaim his fathers throne from his killer Pelias. To aid his quest he sails across the world to steal the Golden Fleece which will bring wealth and prosperity to the land it inhabits. Watched over by the Gods of Olympus his quest brings him into contact with great dangers to claim the unique treasure.
The skeleton sequence begins once Jason has slain the Hydra to steal the Fleece. King Aeëtes retrieves the teeth of the beast which when thrown to the grown vicious skeletons armed with sword and shields form. Seven in total attack Jason and his men in a truly breath taking scene.
Its in this short sequence that all of Harryhausens developments are clear. Before his work the model would have be added to the scene with no interaction which would drawn attention to the fact that the model was not present. Here Jasons men and the skeletons interact with brilliant precision. The swords collide, the kicks and pushes hit their targets and when a swords penetrates either Argonaunt or skeleton it looks and feels real.
As well as the interaction with the men the accuracy that the skeletons are sandwiched into the scene its self is key in creating its realistic feel. The skeletons acts as a single unit but never over lap or collide. When they give chase the pace and distance between them and the men never feels staged. The shots where Jason and his men climb upon the ruins to fight the skeletons demonstrate this best. The feet of each creature lands perfectly on its chosen path.
The sequence, that lasts under four minutes, took Harryhausen four months to complete. Working alone in his studio often through the night so the room temperature would not change its stands as a testament to his dedication and contribution to stop-motion and indeed film. The film celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year and has lost none of its charm. With all the advances in computer effects the scene is still hailed as one of the all time great action sequences.
Director Tim Burton paid homage to the scene in his 2006 video for The Killers song ‘Bones’. Even those super geeks over at Pixar showed their appreciation for Harryhausens work by using his name in a shot of Monsters Inc. As well as his name, the octopus in the Harryhausen restaurant only has six legs like the one in, It Came from Beneath the Sea, (1955). This was due to budget restrictions.
When news hit of the great mans death last year, tributes from across the film world poured in. Directors such as Tim Burton, Henry Selick, Nick Park, George Lucus, Steven Speilberg, Edgar Wright and many more gave thanks to the man that made them believe in monsters.
Harryhausen stated himself that his skeleton sequence was often his fans favourite but did he have a favourite amongst his creatures? The late great Harryhausen was quoted as saying, in true legend style,
"I could never tell you that, the other ones would get jealous."