Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ray Harryhausen

This falls under the category of inspiration. When I was a kid I watched a lot of movies. The movies I liked best were the ones that featured special effects by Ray Harryhausen.

In the days before computer generated special effects, everything had to be done by hand. Spaceships and fantastic cities had to be made, either as miniature models or full sized sets. Strange creatures were either realized by an actor wearing a costume, or the way Ray Harryhausen did it which was through stop-motion animation. Stop-motion animation is similar to the animation that you see in cartoons, such as "101 Dalmations" or "Cinderella," only instead of using a series of slightly different drawings filmed in sequence to create the illusion of movement, in stop-motion animation you are moving a solid three dimensional object.

Ray would create miniature set pieces which he made to match the full sized sets used by actors. He'd position these sets in front of a small movie screen on which a single frame of the already filmed scenes from the full size sets so that the two blended seamlessly together. Then, he would take a miniature creature, skeleton, or dinosaur and position it so that it appeared to be interacting with the live action actor projected on the screen. He'd then photograph this new combination using one frame of movie film. He'd then advance the film projected on the screen one more frame, carefully adjust the position and pose of the miniature creature very slightly and photograph that new pose with a single frame of movie film. After hours of work and twenty four of these actions had been repeated he'd have exactly one second of film. Of course for a feature length movie of about ninety minutes in length, Ray had to create many, many minutes of animation, each minute equalling sixty of those seconds of work, or 1440 single frames, or adjustments for each minute of film.

His work required a lot of patience, and he also had to keep in mind what the entire action of the creature would look like projected at normal speed in the finished movie, so that it appeared not only natural, but as a living, breathing creature with its own distinct personality when people later watched the movie. If he made a mistake, such as bumping the miniature, or knocking over the creature, he'd have to start all over.

For me, his movies were, and still are, complete magic. When I was a kid, there was very little written about how special effects in movies were made, and most of what was written was wildly inaccurate. It wouldn't be until "Star Wars (episode IV-A New Hope)" was released in 1977 that special effects secrets would suddenly get a lot of attention. As a kid, I understood that when I saw the Wolfman, or the Frankenstein monster I was really seeing an actor wearing incredible make-up, but Ray Harryhausen's creatures and dinosaurs were definitely not actors in costumes. They were something else entirely, but they seemed to be very real and very alive. I was even more impressed with them once I knew how they were created.

I did make some stop-motion animated films of my own beginning in junior high school, but never became a professional stop-motion animator. Even so, there are lessons I learned from the work of Ray Harryhausen that I've brought to my work in comics. The first thing I learned is that if you are going to tell stories using non-existent creatures in them, it's incredibly important to make them seem real. You need to convince the reader that these are living, breathing creatures with their own personalities and behaviors, that live in their own habitats and behave in a manner that suggests that they are interacting with their world in a believable way. Ray learned this from another stop-motion animator named Willis O'Brien who was responsible for the special effects in the original (and best) "King Kong" (1933). In "King Kong" there is a famous scene in which Kong fights an allosaurus. O'Brien could have just had the two creatures grapple with each other and still impressed people, but he went an extra step. Not only does Kong use wrestling and boxing moves to fight the dinosaur, but my favorite detail is the way the allosaurus swishes its tail back and forth when it's getting ready to pounce. O'Brien made his stop-motion puppets characters and actors, something Ray Harryhausen did as well. My favorite detail of Ray Harryhausen's is in "20 Million Miles to Earth" (1957).  It's a scene where someone turns on a light and disturbs the baby alien Ymir, who blinks and starts rubbing his eyes at the brightness of the light. This detail makes the Ymir seem even more like a living creature reacting with its environment.

The second thing I learned from Ray Harryhausen is that your work and your play don't have to be two different things. As a writer, or any kind of artist, your workday never really ends. Even if you are not actively writing, or drawing, or playing music, you are thinking about it, generating ideas, and reading, watching and encountering things that might inspire your next big idea. I write about the things that I enjoy when I'm not working, and enjoy the sorts of things I write about when I am.

Today is Ray Harryhausen's 90th Birthday. If you've never seen one of his movies then watching one is a great way to celebrate. I recommend "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" and "Jason and the Argonauts" most of all. While you're watching, pay special attention to the creatures in the movie and try to notice details about how Ray Harryhausen made them seem like they were alive and not just moving.

You can also see all of the different creatures that Ray Harryhausen has animated by going here. By clicking on the photos you can see brief bits of animation for each creature.

Here are some of Ray Harryhausen's other movies you might enjoy:

"Mysterious Island" (1961)
"First Men in the Moon" (1964)
"Mighty Joe Young" (1949)
"The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" (1953)
"One Million Years B.C." (1966)
"Clash of the Titans" (1981)
"The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" (1974)
"Earth Vs the Flying Saucers" (1956)

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