Stop-Motion Animation

With a screaming Fay Wray in his grip, King Kong climbs the Empire State Building. At the top, Kong's expressive face seems to register human emotion; we think we can tell what he feels--all this due to a successful use of the special photographic process called stop-motion. This film technique (also known as stop-action photography) involves the slight manipulation of inanimate objects or models between successive photographs of a scene proceeding frame by frame. When the frames are consecutively projected, usually at the standard speed of 24 frames per second in film (25 in television), the models seem to be moving with continuous motion. A single minute of action traditionally can take several days to film.

Willis O'Brien (1886-1962) experimented with special effects using figurines in short trick films in the 1910s. He created the special effects in the first feature-length film to exploit the animation technique, The Lost World (1925), which, based on the Arthur Conan Doyle adventure, sported a stop-motion pterodon, an allosaur, and a brontosaur who rampages through London and destroys Tower Bridge. O'Brien perfected the technique in King Kong (1933), again using miniature rubber models of dinosaurs and the famous gorilla, and is praised for the personality with which he imbues his creations: Kong's facial expressiveness, for example. O'Brien animated model gorillas again in Son of Kong (1933), and in Mighty Joe Young (1949) for which he received the Academy Award for special effects. The stop-motion technique became identified with dinosaur "exploitation" films such as O'Brien's The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), and The Giant Behemoth (1959).

Ray Harryhausen (b. 1920), a protégé of Willis O'Brien, has brought breathtaking technical advancement to the use of stop-motion, despite the critical consensus that his work shows less of the humanizing qualities achieved by his mentor. After seeing King Kong at the age of 13, Harryhausen experimented in his parents' garage with model animation and honed his craft with a proposed 16-millimeter epic, Evolution [Disney's Fantasia (1940) covered the ground in cartoon form], a WWII training film concerned with bridge building, George Pal's Puppetoons in the 1940s, and his own series of Mother Goose stories. O'Brien, to whom Harryhausen had shown his work, hired him as his assistant on Mighty Joe Young (1949), after which Harryhausen headed special effects on numerous film projects: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), in which the live action is combined through rear projection with the animated model, without the use of costly glass paintings as in previous dinosaur adventure films; Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), showing a stop-motion destruction of Washington, DC; The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), with its memorable Cyclops and its hyped "Dynamation"--the blending of live action with stop-motion animation, in color--a term coined to distinguish this type of animation from cartoons; Jason and the Argonauts (1963)--the scene of seven animated skeletons battling three men took over four months to shoot; One Million Years B.C. (1966), a remake of the 1940 One Million B.C., this time without the questionable use of live reptiles; The Valley of Gwangi (1969), an earlier ill-fated project by O'Brien involving cowboys and dinosaurs; and Clash of the Titans (1981), featuring a reptilian Medusa with 200 joints to position during the animation.

Stop-motion animation has been widely used in television, most notably during the 1960s in productions of children's programs such as Art Clokey's Gumby and Davey and Goliath, and in Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and The Little Drummer Boy (1968). Advertisements using the technique have unleashed Speedy, the Alka-Seltzer kid, and the California Raisins.

Although computer animation seems to be replacing stop-motion animation, even in dinosaur films, recently Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) has effectively employed the nervous excitement characteristic of the stop-motion medium.

Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Pullman, Washington

Aliens, Dragons, Monsters & Me, videocassette, Midwich Entertainment Inc., 1990; Ray Harryhausen, Film Fantasy Scrapbook (NY: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1972); Denis Gifford, A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (London: Hamlyn Pub. Group, Ltd., 1973).