With a screaming Fay Wray in his grip, King Kong climbs the EmpireState Building. At the top, Kong’s expressive face seems to registerhuman emotion; we think we can tell what he feels–all this dueto a successful use of the special photographic process calledstop-motion. This film technique (also known as stop-action photography)involves the slight manipulation of inanimate objects or modelsbetween successive photographs of a scene proceeding frame byframe. When the frames are consecutively projected, usually atthe standard speed of 24 frames per second in film (25 in television),the models seem to be moving with continuous motion. A singleminute of action traditionally can take several days to film.
Willis O’Brien (1886-1962) experimented with special effects usingfigurines in short trick films in the 1910s. He created the specialeffects in the first feature-length film to exploit the animationtechnique, The Lost World (1925), which, based on the ArthurConan Doyle adventure, sported a stop-motion pterodon, an allosaur,and a brontosaur who rampages through London and destroys TowerBridge. O’Brien perfected the technique in King Kong (1933),again using miniature rubber models of dinosaurs and the famousgorilla, and is praised for the personality with which he imbueshis creations: Kong’s facial expressiveness, for example. O’Brienanimated model gorillas again in Son of Kong (1933), andin Mighty Joe Young (1949) for which he received the AcademyAward for special effects. The stop-motion technique became identifiedwith dinosaur “exploitation” films such as O’Brien’sThe Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), and The Giant Behemoth(1959).
Ray Harryhausen (b. 1920), a protégé of Willis O’Brien,has brought breathtaking technical advancement to the use of stop-motion,despite the critical consensus that his work shows less of thehumanizing qualities achieved by his mentor. After seeing KingKong at the age of 13, Harryhausen experimented in his parents’garage with model animation and honed his craft with a proposed16-millimeter epic, Evolution [Disney’s Fantasia(1940) covered the ground in cartoon form], a WWII training filmconcerned with bridge building, George Pal’s Puppetoonsin the 1940s, and his own series of Mother Goose stories. O’Brien,to whom Harryhausen had shown his work, hired him as his assistanton Mighty Joe Young (1949), after which Harryhausen headedspecial effects on numerous film projects: The Beast from 20,000Fathoms (1953), in which the live action is combined throughrear projection with the animated model, without the use of costlyglass paintings as in previous dinosaur adventure films; EarthVs. the Flying Saucers (1956), showing a stop-motion destructionof Washington, DC; The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), withits memorable Cyclops and its hyped “Dynamation”–theblending of live action with stop-motion animation, in color–aterm coined to distinguish this type of animation from cartoons;Jason and the Argonauts (1963)–the scene of seven animatedskeletons battling three men took over four months to shoot; OneMillion Years B.C. (1966), a remake of the 1940 One MillionB.C., this time without the questionable use of live reptiles;The Valley of Gwangi (1969), an earlier ill-fated projectby O’Brien involving cowboys and dinosaurs; and Clash of theTitans (1981), featuring a reptilian Medusa with 200 jointsto position during the animation.
Stop-motion animation has been widely used in television, mostnotably during the 1960s in productions of children’s programssuch as Art Clokey’s Gumby and Davey and Goliath,and in Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer(1964) and The Little Drummer Boy (1968). Advertisementsusing the technique have unleashed Speedy, the Alka-Seltzer kid,and the California Raisins.
Although computer animation seems to be replacing stop-motionanimation, even in dinosaur films, recently Tim Burton’s TheNightmare Before Christmas (1993) has effectively employedthe nervous excitement characteristic of the stop-motion medium.
Washington State University
Aliens, Dragons, Monsters & Me, videocassette, MidwichEntertainment Inc., 1990; Ray Harryhausen, Film Fantasy Scrapbook(NY: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1972); Denis Gifford, A PictorialHistory of Horror Movies (London: Hamlyn Pub. Group, Ltd.,1973).