still from Willis O'Brien's 1916 film, The Missing
Stop-motion (also referred to as stop-action)
photography was one of the first "special effects" techniques
ever invented. It is a form of animation and allows otherwise
lifeless objects to move and change. Much of the early use of
stop-motion in the cinema was to make models of dinosaurs apparently
gallop by themselves. Stop-motion continues to be used today
in commercials (like the singing California Raisins)
and children's fantasies like Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.
Movies and television work by displaying to the
viewer a series of pictures. Each picture is identical except
for the action that is changing in the scene. If the images
are flashed up fast enough (around ten a second) the brain will
see them as a single picture with moving elements. This effect
is known as persistence of vision. Motion pictures are
usually projected at 24 frames a second and video at 30 frames
a second (although this comes in the form of two interlaced
half frames every 60th of a second).
Motion picture cameras record by exposing frames
(24 a second) one after another so that movement, like a person
walking down a street, is captured. If the camera is pointed
at an inanimate object, like a vase on a table, and the frames
are exposed one at a time so that in between shots the vase
can be moved a fraction of an inch, then film when projected
back at normal speed, will show the vase apparently moving by
itself. The same can be done with elaborate jointed models on
miniature sets to give the impression that the models are alive
and walking around by themselves. In addition to models, clay
and drawings are often used with this technique. When drawings
are used it is generally referred to as cartoon animation.
One of the earliest shorts produced using stop-motion
was The Missing Link. Willis O'Brien, a pioneer
of stop-motion, completed this comedy in 1916. O'Brien went
on to later do the stop-motion for The
Lost World in 1925. His most well-known work was King
Harryhausen at work.
O'Brien's work inspired a new generation of stop-motion
artists including Ray Harryhausen (left). Harryhausen
worked on dozens of films animating everything from dinosaurs
and dragons to an army of sword-fighting human skeletons for
the film Jason and the Argonauts. Harryhausen was the
premier stop-motion animator of his day, and his name on the
film was every bit as important a draw as the lead actors.
Stop-motion photography requires long hours of
hard work to produce even a few seconds of film. A single error
can cause many days worth of material to be lost. For this reason,
the camera, set and models are carefully clamped down to eliminate
unexpected movement between shooting each frame. In King
Kong, much of the miniature foliage was actually made out
of metal to keep it rock steady.
The Kong crew ran into trouble while filming one
sequence when a live primrose plant, used in a jungle scene,
went into bloom one day during filming. Nobody noticed this
until the film was developed and viewed. In the background appeared
a perfect time-lapse sequence of a white flower opening. The
entire scene, a day's work, had to be re-shot.
The Kong crew also ran into trouble with the rabbit
fur that covered the eighteen-inch-high Kong model used in the
production. As the animators adjusted the Kong model in between
shooting frames, their hands disturbed the hair. The producers
of the film were appalled when these showed up as obvious ripples
on the head and shoulders of Kong during an important screening
for studio executives. Fortunately one of the VIPs cried out
in excitement, "Hey, Kong is mad! Look at him bristle!"
six-armed octopus from It Came From Beneath the Sea.
Since producing stop-motion sequences were so
labor intensive and expensive, animators often had to find unique
ways to cut costs during production. Ray Harryhausen, while
filming It Came From Beneath the Sea (right), the saga
of a giant irradiated octopus that ate San Fransico, was forced
to reduce the number of arms on the octopus model from eight
to six to help keep the picture on budget.
Harryhausen also came up with a split-screen process
that allowed the stop motion models to be placed in scenes with
real buildings and people. This lowered the costs of producion
and made the action seem more realistic. Harryhausen called
this process Dynamation.
Despite the careful work of artists, like Harryhausen,
stop-motion photography had some inherent limitations. One of
the most important is its inability to accurately represent
quick motion. When a man runs by a camera during traditional
filming, his movement is quick enough to cause a blur on each
frame. An animated dinosaur running by the camera will not blur
because each frame is a photograph of a still model. Our eyes
can perceive the difference and stop-motion dinosaurs which
are running will always seem to move in a staccato fashion.
George Lucas tried to solve this in Return
of the Jedi, through a method he called go-motion.
It involved filming a puppet at high speed. Because the action
was not stopped a proper blur was recorded, but since the monster
puppet was being photographed in real-time, it was limited in
the actions it could perform.
stop-motion skeletons challenge real actors in Jason
and the Argonauts.
Computer animation has now replaced stop-motion
in almost every application where the film maker is trying to
create a realistic effect. In computer animation the model is
constructed within the memory of the computer. This allows the
model to be more versatile and detailed. The computer can also
blur frames to simulate movement and it is easy to go back and
make changes in the middle of a scene, something that was impossible
with the older stop-motion method. Computer animation is so
effective that in the film Jurassic Park it is impossible
to tell the full-sized dinosaur puppets from the computer-generated
Stop-motion isn't completely gone, however. Sometimes
film-makers prefer it because of the special style it gives
the picture. Two recent successful productions, The Nightmare
Before Christmas, and James and the Giant Peach,
were filmed almost entirely using this technique.
Next Stop on Dinosaur Safari
Copyright Lee Krystek
1996. All Rights Reserved.