Of Harpies, Hydras, and Harryhausen
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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.

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.

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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