Why Ray Harryhausen Matters: How the Effects Legend Influenced LOTR and Wes Anderson - VRGyani News and Media


Friday, August 27, 2021

Why Ray Harryhausen Matters: How the Effects Legend Influenced LOTR and Wes Anderson

Is it even appropriate to speak of “special” effects anymore? Monsters and creatures, cities of the past and future in any style of design, planetary and intergalactic vistas, wild weather, people and objects scaled to gargantuan or diminutive size – in the booming fields of fantasy, science fiction, and comic book film and TV, effects are all over the place. Digital technology has made achieving the otherworldly, magical, and larger-than-life easy enough that even a student film or a well-produced web series with scant resources can (sometimes) manage something presentable.

But the filmmakers who ushered in the modern blockbuster and digital revolution came of age in a different time. Even today’s crop of directors and producers, children of the 80s and 90s, knew of a pre- (or at least proto-) digital age. As recently as the 2000s, spectacle films took a backseat in numbers to midbudget movies, and for most of cinema history, any such movie produced at quality was a rarity. (A situation, frankly, I’ve begun to feel is preferable to today’s market – nothing takes the edge off the fantastic like seeing it all the time. But that’s a topic for another day.) Any sort of visual effect was expensive and time-consuming, the result of hard labor in a variety of physical, chemical, or optical techniques. Achieving something worth the effort was an uphill battle, and many films that ostensibly featured spectacular creatures or settings would settle for off-camera suspense or descriptive dialogue. Still, there were filmmakers who persevered in the effects field, and for a generation of youngsters, there was one name in that crowd that stood out: Ray Harryhausen.

Harryhausen’s was never exactly a household name, perhaps, but he was known and renowned for the many strange beings and bizarre places he brought to life in a decades-long career in genre films. Set on his life’s course by King Kong (1933) at a young age, Harryhausen improved on what came before him and innovated new techniques, and the results inspired others to take the next step in special effects. Yet Harryhausen’s philosophy about special effects, and movies, would set him at odds with what most filmmakers try to achieve today.

Harryhausen’s medium of choice was stop-motion animation. It was among the best options for creating fantastic beasts in live action features in the pre-digital age. Other techniques available – costumed performers, puppets (and later animatronics), costumed animals, or cel animation – might have advantages over stop-motion (often economic), but they had significant drawbacks as well. Articulated make-up may let a talented actor bring a tragic werewolf or a talking chimpanzee of the future to life, but when on a tight budget, it’s easier to have pullover masks and full-body suits that allow no emoting. Human beings can only portray the movements of so many animals convincingly, to say nothing of fantasy creatures and monsters. Puppets have limited ability to emote as well, with the added challenge of hiding the operators and their tools. Animals are notoriously fickle performers. And while a fully-animated cel film can achieve anything that the animator can draw – indeed, many cartoonists revel in their medium’s ability to do what live action couldn’t – it isn’t the best tool for live action special effects if the goal is to have as seamless an integration as possible into footage of real people, places, and things.

That’s much less of a worry with stop-motion animation. The animated figure is a real thing, a puppet with an armature skeleton inside. The puppet can only move in ways the armature is built for, giving it limitations and a sense of anatomy sometimes missing in other forms of animation, but the armature can be built to replicate the movements of anything. Properly weighted, the puppet can stand on its own without rods or strings, at least long enough for a shot. It can be placed in a miniature set replicating the location of the live action scene it’s meant to be in, or it can be placed in front of a rear projection screen and lit to match the conditions in the projected footage. And the face of a stop-motion puppet can be articulated and manipulated frame by frame, allowing for a level of expression not possible with masks or traditional puppets.

All this adds up to a technique that could provide the most convincing effects possible in the early days of cinema – when done well. Animation at a standard frame rate requires 24 frames for one second of footage, and any mistakes can result in footage that moves too fast, or plays choppy, or fails to create a sense of natural movement. Animation of any kind that attempts to recreate real animals (or fantasy creatures derived from them) without understanding their behavior and physiology can’t portray them successfully. Poor design can be off-putting to an audience and make expression nearly impossible. And in the pre-digital age, combining effects with live action could turn into a technical nightmare.

Ray Harryhausen followed in the footsteps of stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien, the man behind the effects of King Kong. O’Brien’s work with Kong stunned audiences of the time, but his efforts to develop follow-up projects were constantly frustrated. Part of the dilemma came down to expense: a King Kong puppet by itself might not be all that much, but miniature sets for Kong to move around in carried price tags that quickly added up. And the process of combining the stop-motion footage with live action convincingly was also marred by the techniques O’Brien had to work with. He could either optically composite the two pieces of film, which could degrade the quality of both and generate a black matte line, or he could project the live action footage into a portion of the miniature set, in which case the stop-motion would be significantly sharper in the final image.

Harryhausen devised a new way of integrating his stop-motion into the live action. Instead of building elaborate miniature sets, he placed his puppets in minimal sets, sometimes accentuated with matte paintings. A rear screen projection was set up behind the puppet, and a plane of glass was set between the puppet and the camera. Part of the glass would be painted black, masking that area from exposure on the film. Harryhausen would then project previously filmed live action one frame at a time as he animated his puppets in the same manner. This created the background (the projected footage) and middle ground (the puppet) elements of the shot. The film was then rewound in the camera, the glass plane swapped out for another with the previously blacked area clear and vice versa, and the action was re-photographed. The newly exposed area, a portion of the live action element, became the foreground of the shot. The stop-motion was essentially sandwiched between elements of the live action plate. Harryhausen used additional planes of diffuse glass to soften the lighting on his puppets, the better to integrate them into the projected footage.

To mask off areas of footage in combining elements wasn’t an invention of Harryhausen’s, but he did apply it to stop-motion effects work, and he adapted it to work in Technicolor and widescreen. The process, in true Hollywood fashion, was given a catchy name for marketing purposes: Dynamation. The name appears on a string of nine fantasy and science-fiction films beginning in 1958 with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and ending in 1981 with Clash of the Titans, with effects services done for One Million Years B.C. (1966) in the midst. Harryhausen’s name never appears on his own productions as writer or director, but the films only existed because of him. He originated the concepts, contributed to the scripts, and directed all the design work. The movies were designed around his effects, and they were the de facto stars. It often shows; the parts are often greater than the whole in Harryhausen’s films. Many of the actors are stiff and forgettable, and the myths and tales adapted could be flattened into bullet points punctuated by Harryhausen’s effects sequences, which he executed alone over months of labor per film.

At their best, though, the Dynamation films of Ray Harryhausen are great entertainment – colorful, not too serious, and full of spectacle. And they were state-of-the-art in their day. No one else was even trying to put hydras and griffins on screen, and other efforts at depicting centaurs, Pegasus, and giant animals managed results like Harryhausen’s. With multi-year gaps between films and nothing comparable on offer, each picture could be a mini event, eagerly anticipated by fans. Among those fans included such notable future directors as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Terry Gilliam, Peter Lord, John Landis, Guillermo del Toro, and Tim Burton.

The Lord of the Rings is my ‘Ray Harryhausen movie,’” Peter Jackson once said. “Without that lifelong love of his wonderous images and storytelling it would never have been made – not by me at least.” George Lucas said much the same upon Harryhausen’s death. John Landis wrote Harryhausen a glowing tribute in the Guardian for his 90th birthday, Guillermo del Toro called him a “true pioneer,” and Tim Burton interviewed Harryhausen and named his film The Golden Voyage of Sinbad as among the five seminal pictures that influenced his career.

Burton has shown that influence by his continued appreciation for stop-motion animation. He’s produced or directed (or both) three films done entirely in the medium, and he’s used the technique for special effects on multiple occasions. Other filmmakers taken with Harryhausen in their youth have favored successor techniques, first with mechanical and then digital effects. Advances in special effects have often been made in the pursuit of greater realism; indeed, Harryhausen’s own Dynamation tried to achieve a more realistic merger of effects with live action. In that capacity, there was still room for improvement. The diffuse glass may have helped lessen the contrast between live action projections and stop-motion, but the puppets were always sharper. Lighting and color didn’t always match. And stop-motion, by its frame-by-frame nature, lacks the motion blur that people and objects filmed regularly would have. It would be silly to deny that modern digital technology can avoid these issues. Even later stop-motion, in films like Dragonslayer (1981) or the TV documentary Dinosaur! (1985) achieved greater photorealism than Harryhausen.

But photorealism wasn’t necessarily Harryhausen’s goal. “I think it’s quite remarkable how they can create a three-dimensional image so convincingly,” he once said of digital technology. “But our pictures were always fairy tales, dream-like things, and stop-motion adds to that, I think.”

This is a paradox of special effects. Digital technology can (sometimes) achieve greater photorealism, but there’s nothing physically there. Stop-motion and other practical effects can (sometimes) struggle to be convincingly realistic, but they are real objects. James Cameron once dismissed such a distinction between the practical and digital, telling Keanu Reeves in the documentary Side By Side (2012), “When was it ever real?” He was specifically referring to film stock vs. digital cameras, but the attitude extends into effects. Anyone who’s attempted both sorts of visual effects, however, even at the level of amateur enthusiast or student filmmaker, could tell you about the significant differences between the two – not just in the finished product, but in the type of work involved. It doesn’t diminish the skill and labor of digital artists to say that there is a difference between hard work done at a computer and hard work done bent over a miniature set with a physical puppet and a camera. That sort of craftsmanship can be a worthy end unto itself. And eschewing near-perfect photorealism for a deliberately fantastic effect is a valid artistic vision. Filmmakers like Burton and Wes Anderson have pursued that vision, but for all the spectacle films currently flooding the market, it’s hard to think of any major productions that embrace a certain level of artifice and craftsmanship. Photorealism is the name of the game, and that has its own tradeoffs. “If you try and make a fantasy too real, you bring it down to a mundane level,” said Harryhausen. “I never felt that was the final aim, to make everything too real in a fantasy film. It’s a dream.”

KEEP READING: 'Godzilla vs. Kong': What You Can Learn by Only Watching the Monsters' Faces

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