ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.11 - FEBRUARY 2000
Of Harpies, Hydras, and Harryhausen
(continued from page 1)
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 even longer before I understood the secrets of his art. I could have sworn that the movie had been filmed on some incredible island known only to the filmmakers where gods threw unworldly tantrums and magic was as common as carpentry. There was no way I could know that Harryhausen was 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 dating back to the earliest days of animation.
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 result of the clumsiness and unpredictability of these early machines than the 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 these films, 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 creations of 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 adventure together 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.
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.
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