JURASSIC PARK AND THE DEATH OF STOP-MOTION ANIMATION
by Rod Bennett
Jurassic Park has killed the art of stop-motion animation.
With one mighty computer-generated blow Steven Spielberg's dinosaur epic has brought down the venerable special effects art form pioneered by Willis O'Brien, has left the world wondering how it ever could have sat through King Kong or Mighty Joe Young, has repudiated, negated, and positively invalidated the entire career of the technique's grand master Ray Harryhausen. Jurassic Park's mighty Tyrannosaur has bellowed out his arrival... and current stop-motion practitioners Jim Danforth, Dave Allen, Phil Tippet, & company are jumping out of windows, like so many Wall Streeters on Black Tuesday. In short, stop-motion is as obsolete as gaslight, as dead as Caesar, as washed up, cast down, done in, and played out as anything ever has been.
Or so runs the new Hollywood "wisdom." The truth, as is often the case, is a little more subtle.
Of course, there's no doubt at all that the new "full-motion" dinosaur scenes in Jurassic Park are stunning. Almost literally stunning. And there's very little doubt that they have ushered in a new era of special effects magnificence. These computer generated images are simply the most vivid and convincing depictions of imaginary creatures that have ever appeared in any medium. For realism and authenticity -- but more importantly for drama and impact -- the dino-scenes in Jurassic Park are as far above those in Valley of Gwangi (1969) and One Million Years B.C. (1966) as those films are above The Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1917). And I say these things as a great fan of all three of those films and as a great fan of the stop-motion process in general.
In fact, I would classify myself as a huge and even undiscriminating fan of stop-motion animation. Like most other members of that ancient & royal unofficial order -- The Mystic Knights of the "I-saw-Sinbad/King Kong/all those skeletons-and-I-haven't-been-the-same-since" Guild -- I am deeply and madly and sentimentally in love with the stuff. I'm irrational about it. I like it when it's smooth (as it is in Danforth's When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and in practically all of Ray Harryhausen's work) and I like it when it's jerky (as it is in Danforth's Jack the Giant Killer and in practically all of Willis O'Brien's work). I like it when it adds to a good movie (as it does in King Kong) or when it's the only good thing in a bad movie (as it is in Flesh Gordon or Crater Lake Monster). I'm just a sucker for all of it; I like stop-motion, go-motion, Fantascope, "Three-dimensional Animation," Dynamation, Super-Dynamation, Claymation and just about every other kind of Mation. I even like Filmation's old "Land of the Lost" TV show. So when I say that Jurassic Park has made all of it obsolete, I say it as a friend, in the gentlest possible tones. I have come to praise stop-motion animation, not to bury it... but in all honesty I can't really say that a reverent little eulogy would be completely out of order at this point. Ray Harryhausen is still a genius. King Kong is still one of the five best movies ever made. Fifteen-year-olds will still stumble across afterschool showings of Sinbad and then save up their yard-mowing money for a second-hand movie camera with a trip-frame mechanism. All these things are still true... but the future belongs to the offspring of Jurassic Park.
The virtues of stop-motion animation (to those of us who think it has any) have always been so plain, so up-front, that any defense of them seems superfluous. Of all special effects techniques this one always seemed to come closest to pure creation, to most nearly justify the title "movie magic." "You start from nothing" says Harryhausen, "and you are creating an object you hope to convince somebody is alive." Before Star Wars and the age of Industrial Light & Magic, stop-motion animation already had just that glittering high-tech sparkle. No stage hands in baggy rubber suits, no alligators with fins glued on, no hand puppets or marionettes; stop-motion seemed to go straight from the designer's mind and onto film with an almost Krell-like freedom from physical instrumentalities. And what physical process was involved seemed only to add to the mystique; one man, armed only with a jointed toy and a watchmaker's patience, goes into a dark room for a month and emerges with a writhing, raging monster twenty feet high. It really did seem like magic. But another distinct part of the appeal for us fans was that these magicians weren't flamboyant characters at all. No, they had just the opposite appeal; they were tinkerers, technicians... quiet, no-nonsense, "let's go downstairs to the shop and work this out" kind of guys. While other monster movie fans doted on flashy stories about iconoclastic writer/directors battling studio bosses for their "vision" or interviews with narcissistic actors ruminating on the sexual meaning behind the Dracula mythos, we stop-motion buffs were falling in love with a group of guys who seemed more like pipe-smoking next-door neighbors with fantastically well-organized workbenches in the garage... who just happen to bring monsters to life there rather than fixing lawn mowers. We met Willis O'Brien, the canny Irishman who discovered stop-motion photography while trying to devise a way to bring to life the little clay athletes he liked to sculpt (boxing remained O'Bie's first love 'til the day he died). We came to love "Uncle" Ray Harryhausen... whom God surely fashioned to be a clockmaker or a fix-it man... the most prosaic and stolid personality I've ever met, who nevertheless has pulled down from the sky some of the most poetic and startling images ever put on film. We met Pete Peterson, the blue-collar genius who surely would have been one of the giants of all time if his life hadn't been cut tragically short by a cruel illness. And we discovered young Jim Danforth, the clean-cut California kid, the Bruce Brown of special effects artists, who may just be the best animator of the bunch. Yep, to become a stop-motion fan was to join a fraternity of "regular guys" whose art was accomplished with shirtsleeves rolled up. But art it was, of a particularly clean and cerebral variety (if we fans had a fault it was pride... stop-motion monsters were clearly the most intellectual kind) and we loved it and the men who made it.
But there was always a great mystery in the lives of us stop-motion fanatics. If stop-motion is so obviously the thinking man's method for putting the fantastic on the screen, how come more people -- even thinking men -- don't use it? With this question we come to the trouble with stop-motion animation. The trouble with stop-motion animation -- the reason the process has never quite been completely accepted by the Hollywood money men or even by the special effects community -- is that evokes an odd or even weird response from audiences; people either love stop-motion or they loathe it. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground. Actually it's even worse than that. The fact is that when presented with a stop-motion fantasy scene, any given individual will have one of two standard reactions; your given individual will either be whisked away on a magic carpet of wonder... or he or she will give the whole thing up in disgust as they watch the moving-picture illusion itself breaking down in front of their eyes. It's strange, it's maddening, it's inexplicable, but it's a fact.
I've watched it happen. I have been present in a room where a videotape of Jason and the Argonauts was being presented to 8 or 10 ordinary, picked-at-random type folks. Now I personally think that Jason and the Argonauts ought to fly with any but the very thickest "let's watch Home Alone 2 again" sort of crowd. Jason is exciting, it's thought-provoking, it's beautifully acted, cleverly scripted, well directed, and the stop-motion effects are just the greatest; they absolutely sparkle -- both technically and conceptually. In fact, Jason is probably the best all around stop-motion film - by "all around" I mean that it's the strongest in all departments, the best one to show to stop-motion skeptics (King Kong is a better movie but the animation's not as accomplished). And I'm here to report that at this particular showing an audience split itself right in half. About forty minutes into the picture the first (and to many of us the best) stop-motion sequence in the show begins. The giant bronze god Talos ominously turns his colossal head towards us and then, accompanied by the tortured wail of tons of twisting bronze, he steps down from his pedestal to pursue us; stop-motion fans have always gone to pieces. My "test audience" took sides; half of them began to "ooh and ahh"; the magic carpet ride had begun. The other half began to snicker and hoot and make cracks about how far special effects have come -- like they were watching an old Flash Gordon serial or something.
Well of course, my first instinctive reaction to hearing this sort of ridicule flung so carelessly at something I dearly love was a strong (but manfully resisted) urge to grab up some handfuls of hair and start knocking a few heads together. And I still say that Jason and the Argonauts is such a manifest work of art that even if you don't like it you ought to respect it. But this confusing experience -- the discovery of "the incredible two-headed audience" -- made a much deeper impression on me than that. The very existence of such a radically mixed audience reaction sets one to looking for a few answers.
Of course, at least part of this problem is caused by the strobing effect inherent in the stop-motion process and I used to think that animators could bring everyone into the fold by working harder to smooth it out. I've ended up wondering whether "smooth" stop-motion is even worth bothering about; the people who hate the process hate it no matter how smooth it is and those of us who like it like it whether it's smooth or not. The actual problem seems to be something much more fundamental. For example; In 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Harryhausen's Cyclops strides out of his cave and the animation fan says "Wow!" Certainly he is aware of the strobing effect (Harryhausen recalls that it gave Kong and the Skull Island dinosaurs a certain "mystic quality") but he doesn't seem to mind it in the least. The stop-motion admirer is immediately caught up in the fantasy and swept away. But when the stop-motion "non-fan" watches the very same Cyclops come roaring out of the very same cave he apparently sees nothing but strobing. Or, at any rate, the strobing is so up-front as to be the primary thing he notices; drama, staging, creature design... every supposed advantage of stop-motion is lost behind this flickering curtain of optical illusion. Every single second the Cyclops is on-screen he is roaring out his unreality -- the non-fan can tell he's not looking at ordinary live action (if you ask him what it is he doesn't like, the phrase "you can tell.." is often the best he can do) and he seems unable to get around this fact. For the non-fan, the fact that "you can tell" is a frame-by-frame give away that the animal being depicted is not real; it's "fake"- "phony" - "fakey-looking."
Now, although we fans have always thrown up our hands in frustration when encountering this attitude and ended up mocking the non-fan's preference for Godzilla-style rubber suits or attributing it to simple lunk-headedness, I think a careful examination of his actual reaction to stop-motion reveals the existence of something more like... like color-blindness or something. I know it sounds weird, but it almost seems as if some people can "see" stop-motion animation and some people can't. I've actually begun to suspect that something physiological might be the cause of this split; that maybe persistence-of-vision works differently in different people or that the rods & cones on people's retinas are spaced differently or something. Whether this is actually the case, or which of these two groups are the "color-blinded" ones is a question I will leave to greater minds than mine. But certainly the non-fan's unwillingness to accept a stop-motion scene certainly is not simply a lack of imagination or intelligence. Yes, Dino de Laurentiis didn't want "those little puppets" in his monster movie (the 1976 King Kong), but then neither did Steven Spielberg (who recently listed Gorgo and Godzilla as his favorite dinosaur movies)... which brings us back to Jurassic Park.
Steven Spielberg's antipathy to stop-motion (or even go-motion) is apparently so great that when he first accepted the Jurassic Park project he actually intended to try to do the entire film with full-size robots. And remember: this is the same man who vividly recalls nearly losing his mind (and his fledgling director's career) trying to make full-size robots do anything at all for Jaws, the 1975 shark adventure -- much less the vast and vigorous array of action described in Michael Crichton's dinosaur thriller. The director still hates the way his Jaws robots look (remember Michael J. Fox's quip in Spielberg's Back to the Future-Part 2?... "The shark still looks fake."). And yet Jurassic Park was going to be done full-scale. Now that is a man with a powerful problem when it comes to the "little puppets."
To those of us who love stop-motion animation Jurassic Park was obviously a stop (or "Go") motion project from the word go. The very idea of trying to build a giant mechanical Tyrannosaur when traditional Harryhausen-style artistry is perfectly suitable, perfectly available, and perfectly wonderful just seems misguided and irrational and almost stubbornly stupid. (Or used to seem so anyway... Stan Winston's incredible Jurassic T-Rex is enough to make us take back some of the curses we heaped upon de Laurentiis for his laughable King Kong robot. Some of them.) This single fact alone expresses the trouble I've been describing better than any example I know: stop-motion fans invent movies to put animated monsters into and Spielberg & Co. find stop-motion strobing such a stumbling block that any live-action movie monster (Godzilla? Gorgo?) is better than any animated movie monster.
So for better or for worse, whether you like this process in a fantasy film or hate it, this is the problem with stop-motion animation... a large portion of the potential audience for such a film (even imaginative people who normally like unusual pictures and ought to eat this kind of thing up) seem to be put off or even alienated by this technique. One might even say they seem immune to it. There's no point in saying that they oughtn't to be because apparently they can't help it. And a film that features major special effects scenes that large percentages of people are immune to will necessarily go into the fight for box-office dollars with one hand tied behind it's back.
We stop-motion fans used to say that producers had a "prejudice" against the technique. Maybe some of them did, but businessmen can't really afford too many prejudices. If there really exists a large and lucrative market for stop-motion films you can bet that any producer who has some sort of personal prejudice against the process will find, shall we say, the moral resources to overcome it. It's taken me a long time but I now believe the truth of the matter is that stop-motion animation has always been and remains something of a "cult" phenomenon.
Has Jurassic Park thrown Jim Danforth and Dave Allen out of work? I believe they themselves would tell you that they are already "out-of-work" when it comes to stop-motion animation and, in a sense, they always have been. Well, perhaps that's overstating the case but I believe I can safely say that no one has ever built what is normally called a long and successful career entirely upon stop-motion animation. In the last ten or twelve years -- say, since Danforth assisted Harryhausen with Clash of the Titans -- the number of true "stop-motion pictures" released (that is, pictures with extensive stop-motion set pieces as opposed to films with a few quick cuts like Dreamscape and The Terminator) could be counted on two hands. Both Jim Danforth and Dave Allen make their living doing (and beautifully I might add) other types of special effects; matte paintings, miniatures, pyrotechnics, and high-speed photography. For the most part, stop-motion is not a career but a cherished private devotion for these men. These wonderful artists carefully treasure up the most marvelous and elaborate dreams for stop-motion films (projects like The Primevals and Time Gate) but they do it largely at their own expense and almost never get to see them completed. And this is something of a tradition. If I'm not mistaken the founder of the stop-motion feast -- the great Willis H. O'Brien -- released, between 1925 and 1962, exactly five stop-motion features... in 37 years. An account of Mr. O'Brien's career (including as it does tantalizing titles like Valley of the Mist, War Eagles, Gwangi and at least a half-dozen other unrealized dream projects) makes for sour and depressing reading. His disciple Ray Harryhausen fared much better -- 16 films in 33 years -- but this was largely because he was able to become a producer himself (with the help of his friend Charles Schneer) and thus was able to cut the "skeptical businessman" out of the loop. And of those 16 films I believe four of them were hits. The point here is that stop-motion animation has supported -- sort of -- the careers of about six guys since 1925; a staggering thought to those of us who have entertained dreams of making stop-motion films some day. And it's hard not to think that perhaps we were struggling to scale a higher and more treacherous peak than even we realized. If our sort of feelings about this kind of picture were at all widespread; if ordinary people saw in stop-motion what we see in it -- nothing less than the possibility of almost pure creation for the screen -- then stop-motion films would be as plentiful as slasher movies or (a happier example) as Westerns were in the 1950's. But obviously most people do not feel this way.
It's true that David Allen seems to have successfully cultivated something of an on-going relationship with Charles & Albert Band and their direct-to-video FULL MOON/MOONBEAM line. His work for them includes fine effects for Robot Jox, the Puppet Master horror series, and many others; a major set piece in Full Moon's Doctor Mordrid features a marvelous old-style dinosaur battle -- with a unique twist -- which is, in conception and execution, worthy of Harryhausen. But even a die-hard veteran like Allen now seems a little shy about the time-honored technique; the effects in the recent video movie Prehysteria (a stop-motion project if there ever was one) were accomplished by David Allen Productions... mainly with rod puppets. And so it seems as if Hollywood's longstanding dubiousness about stop-motion as a crowd-pleasing way to bring the fantastic to life seems to be turning from a trend into a truism -- a process which seems likely to continue and even accelerate in the wake of Jurassic Park.
I guess what I'm saying is that while it may be true that Jurassic Park has killed stop-motion animation (and again, I say this as a great and sentimental friend of the process) it didn't really take much killing.
And so -- now that I've largely admitted the claims of the new "stop-motion is dead" crowd, I come back around to my own personal doubts about this supposed death.
The Benedict Arnold in this tall-tale... a murder mystery about the assassination of an art form... is (former?) stop-motion animator Phil Tippett. Phil is a fine artist whose work for the screen goes back to the memorable monsters on Han Solo's chessboard in Star Wars. Since then Phil's career has encompassed the extensive stop-motion work in The Empire Strikes Back, a spectacular home-made "Bambi-with-Dinosaurs" called Prehistoric Beast, and includes the invention of the breakthrough ( but now probably defunct) "Go-motion" process used prominently in 1982's Dragonslayer and in George Lucas' Tolkien-style fantasy Willow. When pre-production on Jurassic Park began in earnest early in 1991 Steven Spielberg was forced to reluctantly admit that, as impressive as Winston's animatronic T-Rex work was becoming, the picture was still going to have to rely on at least a few traditional animated cuts. Tippett was brought onto the picture to provide these and made, as the production moved ahead, extensive preparations for the making of a never-to-be-completed "go-motion" version of Jurassic Park. Thus did destiny pick Captain Phil Tippett to be the man on watch when the great and mighty stop-motion ship struck its fated iceberg.
Deep into the production of Jurassic Park, Dennis Muren (a seven times Academy AwardŽ winner for his work with Industrial Light & Magic) surprised himself and everyone else on Jurassic Park by presenting Steven Spielberg with unexpected T-Rex shots completed by computer animators Mark Dippe and Steve Williams which surpassed his and everyone elses' wildest dreams. Originally, computer animation had been considered only as a way to accomplish the elaborate Gallimimus herding scene in which the large number of animals in each shot would have made puppet animation extremely difficult. But when Spielberg saw a fully rendered and completely believable computer-generated Tyrannosaur walking around in broad daylight and not a strobe in sight he rashly and immediately made the decision to abandon the scheduled Tippett animation altogether in favor of Muren's technique. Spielberg later described the unveiling of these tests; "None of us expected that ILM would make the next quantum leap in computer graphics -- at least not in time for this picture... But there it was... a living, breathing dinosaur, more real than anything Harryhausen or Phil Tippett had ever done in their careers. At the showing, Phil groaned and pretty much declared himself extinct."
Yes, the stop-motion animator is extinct... as dead as the dinosaurs.
But just as in the story of Jurassic Park, where dinosaurs prove that the reports of their extinction were greatly exaggerated, Phil Tippett was about to prove something about the so-called death of stop-motion animation.
The trouble with computer animation in the past was always a certain mechanical, coldly precise quality. The animated objects moved but they didn't live. Dennis Muren (who, by the way, is a long time friend of stop-motion -- he began his career back in the 60's collaborating with Dave Allen and Jim Danforth on the now somewhat legendary stop-motion movie Raiders of the Stone Ring) wisely opted to keep Phil Tippett on Jurassic Park as a "dinosaur supervisor." He correctly reasoned that a stop-motion animator's long hands-on experience in learning frame-by-frame how an animal moves a nd how to put the spark of life into an inanimate fabrication might help to overcome CG animation's traditional problem with living creatures. "I thought it was important that we keep Phil involved in the project" said Muren, "to provide direction and guidance to our [computer] animators, many of whom did not really understand what a performance was... It took some convincing, because Phil did not feel at all comfortable with computers, but I managed to persuade him that his talents were indispensable."
Well, as it turns out, Phil Tippett did stay on Jurassic Park and as the hugely complex and perhaps overly ambitious effort progressed, his presence turned out to be anything but a mere sentimental gesture. He began by organizing classes for the fledgling computer animators, classes very similar to those Walt Disney conducted for his artists working on Pinnochio and Bambi, He took them on field trips to zoos and wild animal parks so that they could step out of the rather abstract world of computers for an afternoon and experience what animals really are and how they really look. He got them up out of their chairs and made them actually move with mimes and dancers. But he ended up making what I believe to have been the single most significant innovation in the successful bringing-to-life of Jurassic Park's totally digital dinosaurs... and really, in bringing computer animation truly to life for the first time. In time-honored stop-motion style he breathed the breath of life into Spielberg's nonexistent wonders by bringing the creatures off the keyboard and taking matters firmly in hand. He designed what became known as the DID -- or Dinosaur Input Device -- and in so doing pulled off one of the more splendid ironies in movie history.
The DID looks for all the world exactly like an old-fashioned ball & socket stop-motion armature -- straight off Willis O'Brien's tabletop. The difference is that the DID is not designed to be photographed. The joints are equipped with little encoders which allow any movement of the armature to be precisely recorded and exactly communicated to the digital "model" of the dinosaur which exists inside the computer. But the armature itself is manipulated the old-fashioned way... by hand. In this way the "hands-off" mathematical process of computer animation was given the immediacy and intimacy enjoyed by the traditional stop-motion animator. Phil Tippett and his crew (all stop-motion veterans like Tom St. Amand) took Jurassic Park's dinosaurs into their fingers and animated them just as surely as Ray Harryhausen did his Cyclops. Only this time the image was free from the limits of what can be done in foam rubber and latex on a photographed model. In a sense, the DID allowed Industrial Light & Magic's admittedly sophisticated animation computers to be linked directly to the most advanced super-computer in the known universe... the human mind.
So. What's the bottom line? What really happened there at ILM the day that stop-motion died? It's odd, it's paradoxical, but it's perfectly and undeniably true that Industrial Light & Magic killed stop-motion by (1) deciding to turn the whole project over to a stop-motion animator (2) letting him build ball & socket dinosaur armatures and then (3) letting him animate them. As you will see in a moment, I don't mean to minimize the efforts of Jurassic Park's computer wizards in any way. But the plain truth of this whole matter is that most of the "full-motion" CG animation in Jurassic Park IS stop-motion animation... it's just photographed in a different way. The computer has not put Willis O'Brien out of business; it never can because animation is an art not a craft. The only person a computer can ever put out of business is the craftsman... an honorable profession but one whose main qualification is patience. And computers are singularly gifted with patience. If anyone has been put out of business it is Marcel Delgado -- who, God rest his soul, is long past caring.
Yes, I know that the DID is probably a temporary stage in the history of computer animation; in fact, by the end of the Jurassic Park shoot the computer animators were finishing vivid, life-like scenes without it. But even so, these men are stop-motion animators. Yes, their ball & socket skeletons existed only on a CRT and yes, they moved them (one frame at a time) with a mouse instead of with their fingers. But the real animation (as opposed to the physical actions we misleadingly call animation) was going on where it always does... in exactly the same way it always has... in their heads. In the mind of an artist. That is where animation happens. That is where life comes from... from life. Never, in all the universe, have we ever found it to come from anywhere else.
So who gives a damn whether a man actually wrestles with a physical puppet anymore? We've found a new way to do the old job. Now everyone can, or should, be able to see what we stop-motion fans saw all along. And make no mistake; it is the old job. Every audience that applauds Jurassic Park is cheering for Willis O'Brien, for Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth, and all the rest. These men were not sold out to any particular technical process. They were pursuing that old dream. What they were after -- what kept them up all night under those hot lights swearing at a rubber & hair mannakin -- was that magic, ellusive, god-like dream... pure creation. To be able to think a thrilling thought and then send that thought winging non-stop (or perhaps with a brief lay-over as a beautiful pre-production rendering) into the minds of a receptive audience. That's a dream a man can devote a life to. That is what animation really is... whether your tool is a supercomputer, a rubber doll, or just a pencil.
What Jurassic Park has really done is to throw open to everyone the door which opened for some of us in 1925 with Willis O'Brien's Lost World. Because they have overcome the one technical rock of offense that kept the masses from seeing the breakthrough nearly 75 years ago, the creators of Jurassic Park have reaped what the did not sow, there in the summer of 1993. The theater exits opened. The audiences came out exhilerated. Their minds raced ahead into the future at the speed of thought. "If a movie can show that," they realized, "a movie can show anything." Pure creation. We old-fashioned stop-motion types smile -- a little bemusedly, a little patiently -- but we smile and are gratified. They understand. Now they can see it. We won't have to say "But can't you see?" anymore. They do see... and are astounded. The look on their faces is exactly the same one 13 year old Ray Harryhausen wore back in 1933, when he stepped, blinking in the California sun, out of Graumann's Chinese Theater after his first encounter with the mighty King Kong.
You see, Harryhausen and O'Bie, poor old Pete Peterson and the rest -- far from being old-fashioned, out-of-date, antiquated... were just a little ahead of their time.
Stop-motion is dead; long live stop-motion.