Myths and Monsters in Motion
I went to see the re-make (or alternate adaptation?) of Clash of the Titans the other weekend. The film is enjoyable in its own right, with a decent script, a solid cast, and good direction by Louis Leterrier (who did a great job with 2008's The Incredible Hulk, in my opinion). However, because of its name and virtually identical approach to the ancient Greek myth of Perseus, it inevitably invites comparisons to the 1981 Clash of the Titans film, the last film where stop motion special effects legend Ray Harryhausen created the mythic monsters. This post isn't a review that compares the movies; instead, it is a reflection on the stop motion style of special effects in the context of modern movie making technology that uses Clash of the Titans as a central example. Read on . . .
To put it simply, the mythic monsters in the 1981 movie were created by using stop motion animation techniques, while the monsters in the 2010 movie were created by using CGI animation techniques. I've read many complaints over the years regarding how Hollywood is becoming--or already is--overreliant on CGI effects, thus creating over-produced but creatively bankrupt films. Indeed, recent reviews of many recent big-budget films are littered with the accusation that such films are more like video games than actual films. While I think that such an accusation is just as unoriginal as many of the films about which they are complaining, there is a kernel of truth to it, even if the critics themselves are unaware of it--that is, CGI techniques are used to create video games and film effects, whereas stop motion animation is the unique creation of cinema. This statement may not mean much on its surface, but the cinematic aesthetics that it evokes are worthy of careful consideration.
This is not to say that creating detailed special effects inside of a computer is a simple task, or that impressive technological power can outperform even the most polished artistic talent in terms of aesthetic impact. Nevertheless, when watching the latest Titans movie, there was something more ephemeral, less tangible than the ones created by Harryhausen in the 1981 version (particularly the demon creatures that the underworld god Hades divides into in a few parts of the film, creatures which move so fast that they amount to little more than large, dark blurs with wings). If I had to summarize it in a sentence, it is as if many of the 2010 CGI monsters moved too smoothly, too fluidly to be convincing, whereas the 1981 stop motion monsters had enough wealth of detail in their appearances and dimensons to compensate for their less-than-realistic motion.
By the same token, I've seen some comments that compare both versions of Titans and regard the effects of the 1981 version as "hokey", "kitsch", or "cheesy". The suggestion behind these comments is that stop motion filmmaking is a technology that is obsolete and meant to be replaced, as opposed to a form of artistic expression and cinematic storytelling. This is somewhat similar to Disney's announcement not too long ago that they were going to completely stop doing hand-drawn animated feature films and instead produce only CGI animated feature films. Subsequently, there were many hand-drawn animation fans cheering at Disney's change of heart over this decision and its resultant release of The Princess and the Frog; sadly, I have yet to hear many critics and film fans wondering where the new generation of stop motion masters such as Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien have gone.
Yes, stop motion animation hasn't completely disappeared from cinema: Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox are both great examples of stop-motion animation at work. But what made the work of O'Brien and Harryhausen worthy of extra merit were the extra lengths they went to integrate their artistry into live-action film. Everything from the stop motion models' designs (from their general appearance to the detailed modeling of their 'skins'), to their surrounding miniature sets, to their lighting and photography had to be meticulously planned and executed so that they could be intergrated into the live action film footage as seamlessly as possible (the swordfighting skeleton scene from Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts comes immediately to mind). When the extra care was given to this kind of special effect, the craftsmanship behind the work could clearly be seen in every frame of the film. Sure, the monsters in the 1981 version of Titans don't move as fluidly as their 2010 counterparts, yet Harryhausen's creations still generate an awe of their own if for no other reason than that they were all done by hand, not by machine.
Then again, even when stop motion animation in live-action films was in its (supposed) heyday in the 1950s and 60s, it still didn't acheive the support or appreciation that it deserved--even in situations where stop-motion animation would've be a more effective aesthetic choice. For example, for as much as I enjoyed George Pal's 1953 version of War of the Worlds, I can only wonder how amazing Ray Harryhausen's version would've been. Likewise, while Them! (1954) is clearly the superior "big bug" movie it does not diminish the work that Willis O'Brien did in The Black Scorpion (1957), which raises the question of how much more could've been done visually in Them! had the giant insects been created in stop motion and not life-sized puppets. That's not to say that stop motion animation is always perfect--for every one Beast from 20,000 Fathoms there are dozens of Crater Lake Monsters. Like any other artistic medium, it is only as good as artist who uses it.
The good news is that there are some signs--at least among the low-budget filmmaking community--that stop-motion is not completely being scrapped in favor of CGI. For example, stop-motion animation was used to brillant effect in low-budget indie film The Call of Cthulhu (2005), one of the best H.P. Lovecraft adaptations I've ever seen. Regardless, I'm hoping that after all that it has contributed to horror, fantasy and science ficiton films, stop motion animation won't be unfairly relegated to obsolence in the minds of moviegoers.
For your additional reading pleasure, check out these informative stop motion sites:
- The Official Ray Harryhausen Website, which is maintained by The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation is devoted to preserving Harryhausen's work, including his original stop motion puppets.
- The Seventh Voyage, a very detailed Harryhausen tribute site.
- Stop Motion Works, a site that specializes in stop motion animation history, news and technology.
- The Art of Stop Motion Animation, a site that was published in conjunction of a traveling museum exhibit of the same name.