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Of Harpies, Hydras, and Harryhausen

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman reminisces about the incredible adventure Jason and the Argonauts took him on and the power of Ray Harryhausen and great storytelling.

"Awe-SOME!" shouted the lad in the red Pokémon cap. "That was way better than the first one! I wish they got to kick that Chicken Guy's butt!" "I'm gettin' the video game for Christmas!" crowed his pudgy young pal. "It's got Zurg and everybody in it!"

Toy Story 2 awes today's kids like Jason and the Argonauts did to kids of yesteryear. © Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Toy Story 2 awes today's kids like Jason and the Argonauts did to kids of yesteryear. © Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

I watched the boys race across the multiplex parking lot, a delighted smile on my face. For the past ninety minutes we had been enraptured by the evening's showing of Toy Story 2, and a casual observer would have found little difference between their twelve years and my forty-three... except, of course, for the memories. I could recall leaving a theater nearly thirty-five years ago no less excited and astounded, my heart still thumping from the incredible adventures of Jason and the Argonauts. Ibabbled nonstop to my bemused father the entire way home, and that night I could not sleep. The next day in school was spent excitedlydiscussing giant living statues, sword-wielding skeletons, and the hideous, seven-headed Hydra. Technology has made stellar leaps since then; for the two lads at the multiplex, the original Toy Story might as well have been Metropolis or City Lights. They had been thoroughly spoiled by the coolest CGI effects, the way grossest monsters, and the most awe-some animation that modern software could generate. I, on the other hand, could still appreciate those simpler times when the only way to make a toy move was through the artifice of stop-motion animation. The Challenge of Frame by Frame In a technical sense all animation is stop-motion, but the industry generally uses the term to describe a process that utilizes puppets or moveable models rather than painted cels or computer imaging. Typically, the creation is built around a flexible armature and is moved from one gradual pose to another, frame by frame, so thatthe illusion of motion is achieved. If this sounds simple, consider the following: in filming his stop-motion opus The Nightmare Before Christmas, director Tim Burton had to be satisfied with as few as thirteen seconds offootage per week due to the number of characters involved and the intricacies of their movements. Another consideration: few models, no matter how gargantuan they may appear in a finished film, are typically more than two or three feet high. The process of producing a full-grown dinosaur that interacts with tiny humans, another dinosaur, or a desperate military involves such visual tricks as static and traveling mattes, miniature sets and props, rear projection, and enough swivel joints, gears and wires to make an Indy 500 car look like a Tinkertoy. Those less skilled in this art may have their effects ruined by clumsy posing, shoddy matte work, blue screen "spill," poor modeling, or grainy background footage. In the hands of a master, however, the audience is left stunned and amazed with virtually no idea how these spectacular illusionswere achieved. So it was for me on that breathless afternoon in1963.

Ray Harryhausen was just another name on the screen that day; for all I knew he swept up the sets after filming. Decades would pass before I realized I had seen the work of a genius on the cutting edge of special effects technology, and it was evenlonger before I understood the secrets of his art. I could havesworn that the movie had been filmed on some incredible island known only to the filmmakers where gods threw unworldly tantrums and magicwas as common as carpentry. There was no way I could know that Harryhausenwas passionately struggling to refine what I, at age seven, considered absolute perfection. Another thing I didn't know: the malicious flying harpies tormenting blind old Phineas had progenitors datingback to the earliest days of animation.

Hundreds of books, lectures and documentaries have been done on the fascinating films of Willis O'Brien.

Hundreds of books, lectures and documentaries have been done on the fascinating films of Willis O'Brien.

The Earliest Animation

Almost from the moment motion-picture cameras came into existence, operators were aware of the tricks that could be created through frame-by-frame exposure. This knowledge may have been more the resultof the clumsiness and unpredictability of these early machines thanthe imaginations of the filmmakers, but the first "trickfilms"using stop-motion animation began to appear as early as the 1890s.Most of these were charming efforts in which everyday objects were made to move as if they were actually alive and sentient, and many an audience marveled at the sight of brooms sweeping floors on their own accord or spools of thread marching in formation. One of modern animation's founders, J. Stuart Blackton, produced a number of thesefilms, and in Russia the experimental filmmaker Wladislaw Starevicz expertly manipulated insects to perform actions that looked hauntingly human. It was one Willis O'Brien, however, that birthed the modern era of stop-motion through two novel accomplishments: O'Brien was the first successful stop-motion animator to deal with creationsof pure fantasy, and the first to navigate the difficulties of merging his magic with live-action backgrounds and actors. His unforgettable 1925 opus, The Lost World, brought man, dinosaur and adventuretogether in a thrilling display of special effects virtuosity; this is still a great film when viewed today in the age of CGI.

The First Great Master

O'Brien's success led to bigger, nay, monumental things. During the early thirties while working at RKO, O'Brien was tapped by producer Merian Cooper for a special project -- a movie about a mysterious island, intrepid explorers and a giant, feral ape. King Kong (1933) was a tour de force of stop-motion effects that helped launch the picture into legend. Virtually every important innovation that would be used in stop-motion over the next fifty years was in this film, and these illusions were carried out with astonishing proficiency. Kong's spectacular battle with a tyrannosaurus rex is three-and-a-half minutes of breathless action and a masterful lesson in stop-motion technique. Yet this seminal scene represents only one-third of all the animation cuts in the film; O'Brien tops himself repeatedly until his savage simian finally topples from the Empire State building. It would be a hard road for Willis O'Brien after King Kong. Although he would win an Oscar for his work on Mighty Joe Young in 1949, much of O'Brien's career was plagued by unscrupulous producers, personal tragedy and the burden of being the only craftsman on hackwork B-pictures involving giant monsters such as The Black Scorpion (1957) and The Giant Behemoth (1959). O'Brien died in 1962 but left behind a lasting legacy in the form of an artist who had been inspired by him.

Mighty Joe Young created a new famous ape to amaze audiences around the world. © Animation Art Gallery London.

Mighty Joe Young created a new famous ape to amaze audiences around the world. © Animation Art Gallery London.

Enter Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen spent much of his young life at the movies where he saw two films that fired his young imagination: The Lost World and King Kong. Harryhausen attended art school and later met a former employee of RKO who explained some of O'Brien's secrets to him. Harryhausen began to experiment, animate puppets, and follow the path of his idol. After a stint working with George Pal on his Puppetoons, Harryhausen made some stop-motion fairy tales and briefly tried his hand at animated television commercials. He took the big step of contacting Willis O'Brien in the early 1940s when O'Brien was in the employ of MGM. Their meeting went well, and after WWII ended O'Brien hired Harryhausen as an assistant for his new project, another team-up with Merian Cooper featuring a giant ape. Mighty Joe Young (1949) was Harryhausen's first big screen credit, and it was well deserved; under the master's eye, Harryhausen did some eighty-five percent of the animation sequences. As O'Brien's career began to decline, the disciple began to surpass the master.

Perhaps the most significant contribution that Harryhausen made to the art of stop-motion animation was the infusion of personality into his creations. While it is true that O'Brien was able to do this in a limited way, Harryhausen did for stop-motion animation what Norm Ferguson did for cel animation; his creatures, however surreal, displayed nuances of thought and action that transcended their artificial origins. A Harryhausen monster might, for example, quizzically tilt its head, ponder the situation, and take a hesitant step backwards before acting; only rarely did any of Harryhausen's beasts simply rampage across the screen. An excellent example occurs in 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), one of Harryhausen's most underrated efforts: startled by a light, the baby Venusian Ymir shields its face and rubs its eyes. Later in the film, the beast encounters a dog for the first time and flinches anxiously when it barks at him. In this, only his sixth film, Harryhausen not only demonstrated mastery of the illusions needed to integrate stop-motion into a live-action film, he also proved himself a preeminent figure in character animation. Still, the best was yet to come.

The Sinbad series still thrills viewers on video decades after it was first released in theaters. © Animation Art Gallery London.

The Sinbad series still thrills viewers on video decades after it was first released in theaters. © Animation Art Gallery London.

There were some good films made by Harryhausen before Jason and the Argonauts including one verifiable masterpiece, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). It was not until Jason, however, that Harryhausen arguably reached full maturity as an artist. Harryhausen himself (despite regrets about technical compromises and time constraints) has called Jason his most satisfying effort. Fans and historians may quibble as to whether this film is the crown jewel of Harryhausen's career, but one fact is incontestable: Jason is among the finest fantasy films ever produced, an unforgettable romp through Greek mythology worthy of Homer. I can still recall my astonishment in the theater that day. Even though I believed I was watching puppets of some sort, all I could think was: How did they do that!?! How did they build a model as big as Talos? (They didn't.) How did Talos pick up the Argo? (It was a miniature.) How could the harpy tear away a swatch of Phineas' robe? (Invisible wires and careful matte work.) How could all seven heads of the Hydra move at once without tangling the puppet's strings? (There were none; Harryhausen apparently tracked all the Hydra's movements himself without a written chart.) And how could a Hydra puppet be holding a full-sized Acastus in its tail? (Because Acastus was a puppet, too.)

And then, surpassing all else -- the scene where the Argonauts fight seven living skeletons born of the Hydra's teeth. From the moment the bony warriors burst up through the earth (courtesy of buried platforms raised one frame at a time) until Jason leads them over the edge of a cliff, I was transfixed -- too amazed at last to even question what I was seeing. Where were all the strings and how did the actors avoid being hopelessly snarled in them? Where did a puppet get the strength to drive a sword through a live actor? Who cared? By that point all I could do was gape in openmouthed wonderment and surrender to total fantasy.

Will Vinton Studios carries on the tradition of stop-motion animation with their television series The PJs. © Will Vinton Studios.

Will Vinton Studios carries on the tradition of stop-motion animation with their television series The PJs. © Will Vinton Studios.

The Technique Continues...

Today Ray Harryhausen is retired. He remains an avid supporter of stop-motion, refuting any suggestions that the technique has become antiquated. In a 1991 interview for Animato, Harryhausen expressed doubts that Jason and the Argonauts could have been done with computers. This may have been true in 1991, but probably less so today; the effects that Harryhausen masterfully rendered through stop-motion can indeed be replicated through CGI software and motion-capture technology. The beginning of the end was likely Jurassic Park (1994), in which stop-motion was used more for CGI modeling than for actual dinosaur effects. Through a gadget known as a DID (Digital Input Device), stop-motion dinosaurs were filmed and their movements fed into a computer; technicians did the rest. Still, Harryhausen need not fear; his beloved art is by no means dead. Stop-motion will continue to be used with DIDs in creating special effects, and films that cannot afford CGI or motion-capture will continue to rely on stop-motion techniques. Plus, we have the upcoming Aardman films like Chicken Run. The same goes for television: we are all looking forward to another season of The PJs. So it should be; stop-motion remains one of the most imaginative and entertaining forms of animation ever devised. When crafted by masters such as Willis O'Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth or Phil Tippett, stop-motion effects can be downright spectacular.

After I began writing this column, I went over to the local video palace and rented their copy of Jason and the Argonauts. I had not seen the film for many years. Before long Talos was staring balefully at me from his pedestal, ready to wreak vengeance for his stolen treasure, and it still gave me chills. The harpies were as cruel, the Hydra as creepy, and the skeletons as menacing as ever. How did they do that!?! This time I knew how, but what did that matter? As I became lost again in the surreal world of stop-motion adventure, my mind went back to those two excited boys at the multiplex and I smiled to myself. My generation may have had stop-motion while theirs had RenderMan, but we did have one thing in common: the good fortune to be thrilled by the best that animation had to offer, regardless of time or technique. One can only wonder what comes next. Animation World Magazine would like to give a special thanks to the Animation Art Gallery London for providing the Ray Harryhausen film images for this issue. Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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