Of Harpies, Hydras, and Harryhausen

by Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman

"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.
Films like the Sinbad series swept viewers into a fantasy world they had never seen before. © Animation Art Gallery London.

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. I babbled nonstop to my bemused father the entire way home, and that night I could not sleep. The next day in school was spent excitedly discussing 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 that the 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 of footage 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 illusions were achieved. So it was for me on that breathless afternoon in 1963.

1 | 2 | 3

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to