Original version posted October 24, 2012 on Geek la Femme
I ran across something on the internet the other day that made my inner geek weep and want to strangle people. I went on Youtube looking for a clip from a 1950s movie called The 7th Voyage of Sinbad starring Kerwin Mathews. I wanted to show my friends an awesome fight between a dragon and a cyclops, courtesy of the stop-motion animation genius Ray Harryhausen:
As you can see, I found the clip, but then I made the mistake of looking at the comments below the video. There were a few supporters (“very nice animation for it’s time.” and “i remember watching this movie when i was a kid”), but most were morons (“Old movie my hate” and “Oooh and the featured video for this is a pair of nice boobs”). The comment that sparked this tirade may be a sarcastic troll or someone being serious; I can’t tell: “this is great adobe flash animation. the monsters aren’t that real looking but the guy and girl are so life-like. good job to whoever made this.”
First and foremost, this is not flash animation. I do not know who could possibly mistake flash animation for stop-motion animation:
I realized that there is an entire generation of people growing up unable to conceive of animation done outside a computer. Don’t get me wrong, I am highly impressed by animators, even if the animation itself turns out to be very crude. People who have the time, patience, and skill to take something inherently immobile like a drawing or a sculpture and make it move gets a lot of color-me-impressed points. However, I admit that traditional hand-drawn animation like old-style Disney or Miyazaki and stop-motion animation impresses me much more. The time, skills, and enduring patience required for such feats are unparalleled.
Ray Harryhausen is pretty much the god of stop-motion animation. He created and animated monsters for dozens of 1950s films. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Jason and the Argonaunts. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Twenty Million Miles to Earth. The Valley of Gwangi. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Clash of the Titans. Earth Versus the Flying Saucers. Are they stellar examples of story-telling and character development? No, but they certainly showcase an impressive array of special effects… special effects that can still hold their own. Even if those effects look a little cheesy by today’s psychedelic CGI standards, they are still very impressive because there was no such thing as CGI when they were made. Everything had to be done by hand.
Consider this: movies were originally shot on film. Real, physical, tangible film. A role of film had little frames that were individual pictures. A movie is basically a series of still images individually photographed and strung together at such a high speed that the human eye interprets it as movement. Now, each second of film requires 24 frames. That means a 90-minute film (5,400 seconds) is comprised of 129,600 individual pictures. Again, when the film is played back, it moves fast enough that you can’t see each individual frame. Filming live action is simple enough because you just set up the camera and let it roll. But with special effects involving monsters or flying saucers, you had to get creative. Your only options were to dress someone up in a costume (which limits the kinds of monsters you can do and generally looks cheesy) or you use stop-motion animation.
So how do you get something that is basically a model, be it of a space ship or a dragon, and get it to move? And not just move, but move in a way that looks realistic?
Very, very slowly.
The animator would have to make minute adjustments to the models. Any movement had to be photographed frame by frame. Every tail-twitch, every wing-flap, every blink, every footstep had to be carefully choreographed and photographed individually. The fight between the dragon and the cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is one minute and thirty-five seconds long. That’s 95 seconds and 2,280 frames. That means that Ray Harryhausen had to make at least 2,280 adjustments for each movement. Adjust, step back, photograph, adjust, step back, photograph, almost three thousand times. With two monsters and multiple movements going on in that fight, you can just imagine how intense and time consuming this process was. And if you screwed up, you had to start all over again.
Then if you add in human actors, the process gets even more interesting because there’s blue screen and split screen and exact timing on the choreography… well, just watch this fight and try to tell me your brain isn’t exploding from imagining how long this took to animate:
In short, don’t diss old movies just because the special effects look cheesy. Remember how limited the options of filmmakers were at that time, and what they managed to accomplish with the tools they had. I’ll take Harryhausen’s skeleton fight over the new Jason and the Argonauts any day.
“Taro vs. Cyclops” uploaded by InfernoRodan on Youtube
“Jason and the Argonauts (1963) DVD Skeleton Fight” uploaded by James Mcashan on MetaCafe