Stop Motion and Hollywood

 Stop Motion and Hollywood

Part 1: Golden Age Hollywood

Part 1: Golden Age Hollywood

Welcome to Part 1 of a series that will be looking at stop motion, special effects, camera technique, film manipulation, the ‘Blue/Green Screen’ development, animated film, and Claymation. Some of it will be review, some technical, but mostly the goal is to inform. There are great men that have faded into obscurity, but remain titans of inspiration to the filmmakers of today. Hopefully this series will introduce artists to love, and add some fun factoids about those you know already.

This week, we’ll be looking at the Live Action works from the great lineage of Willis H O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, and Jim Danforth. These three artists created some of the most iconic moments in cinematic history beginning in 1915 through to 1995. Their work set the blueprint for how films are still made today introducing split screens, matte paintings, claymation, and green screen techniques.

Willis H O’Brien and Live Action Animation

Every conversation about effects in film must start with a nod to the amazing Willis H O’Brien. While layer effects had been in use since 1898, O’Brien rose it to a higher level and dominated the box office culture. His blending of animation into live action and astounding clay movement blew away audiences in the early 1900’s. He was the original blockbuster fantasy movie maker, with his visual mastery taking over the more character and situation based films of early Hollywood.

The Lost World (1925)

The Lost World was O’Brien’s first major success, and the first major theatrical film with animation of this type. A lot of the work was made in a private studio, and they would use a clever marketing ploy to promote discussion. They released small clips of the animation but not where it came from, leading papers to talk of this ‘undiscovered world’ being secretly filmed. Also, because I find this hilarious…

The dinosaur miniatures were donated to the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. After many years the rubber models began to sulphurize and disintegrate. They were stored away and inadvertently sealed between the walls of the facility when a new wing was added.

Lost World would go on to drive the culture of cinema tracing all the way down to the blockbuster of this year, Jurassic World. The attention to detail and painstaking work may have always lived in the niche of short film, but O’Brien changed the game.

King Kong (1933)

After Lost World, O’Brien would animate one of the most widely known cultural figures of all time in King Kong. The filming would take over 8 months with actors having to hold positions for hours at a time to let the animators stage the scene properly. It was a technical marvel at the time, with O’Brien involved with forwarding the technology of integrated animation.

Whether you count the fascination with the ‘Jungle’ themes of early Hollywood and Colonial Europe or not, King Kong defined the genre. With countless remakes, adaptations, and references, the film has a staying power that cannot be denied. A lot of this is directly from O’Brien’s brilliant battle scenes and stunning Empire Shot that continue to be iconic even 80 years later.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane stands as one of the ‘greatest ever films’ for good reason, and a large portion of this comes from the amazing team behind the special effects. The cinematography, design, staging, and effects silently hold the film up as an example of mastery in everything in service to story.

Orson Welles was meticulous in every aspect, and when looking to make impossible shots possible, he turned to O’Brien. Using his practical effects and matte film style to draw out shots that are a signature of the film.


The most notable among these is the ‘Deep Focus’ shots. These were used to give the whole film a unique look and feel that would set the standard for every film after it. A game changing use of style.

O’Brien would black out a section of the camera and film two scenes on a single film reel. These had been used previously, dating back to the 1898 film Four Heads Are Better Than One, and has a long history that leads right into current day Green Screen effects.

The most famous of these scenes is probably the following. O’Brien mixed the film exposure and led into the deep focus shot. The glass and medicine are filmed first, blacking out everything else, then refilmed with that section covered and our actors in a new stage scene. Forcibly changing how the audience were able to focus on a shot.

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

Mighty Joe Young came out in 1949, and the film was a monstrous undertaking with special effects taking over 14 months to complete. Most of this was done by the young Ray Harryhausen based on O’Brien’s design and storyboard.

The integration of live action and animation reached a smoothness that later Harryhausen films would make their signature. This was a continuation of the Citizen Kane technique, where they would black out certain sections of the shot and use marked sticks or people to mark the acting location. O’Brien would also make a lot of use of split-screen effects that made the movements seem in tune. These impressive feats earned O’Brien the Academy Award for Special Effects.

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

O’Brien would work on effects for another classic film in Mad World. By this point, a lot of his innovations in the 30’s and 40’s had been equaled or surpassed by technology, but when it came to practical effects O’Brien was the name to call. His signature Fire Escape scene, used a similar technique along with miniatures and stop motion.

Animated Shorts

O’Brien’s animated short, Tulips Shall Grow, was nominated for an Oscar in 1943. One of the best examples of an ‘in-world’ animation that bordered on claymation. This also began O’Brien’s training of his most famous student Ray Harryhausen, who worked on Mighty Joe Young as well.

Ray Harryhausen would also make a stream of short animations, including what is known as the ‘Harryhausen’s 6 Fairy Tales’. A collection of his animated shorts including Rabbit and the Hare which was made after his death.

Ray Harryhausen and ‘Dynamation’

Following the success of Mighty Joe Young, Ray ‘HH’ Harryhausen went on to make his signature style that would be called Dynamation. From the mid-50’s and through the 80’s, HH dazzled audiences with his life-like animation.

In 1953, HH would begin his stream of big budget film work. It began with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and then 1955’s It Came From Beneath the Sea. Then he branched out from monsters in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles To Earth

He would continue to make and work in various Sci-Fi films throughout his career, but often was limited to a scene or two. In 1969, HH would release his final and by far the most difficult dinosaur film with The Valley of Gwangi

The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1958)

High fantasy is where HH really hit his stride. The Sinbad film would be the first to be branded under his ‘Dynamation’ style. The interactive use of his creations changed the idea of animation in film. No longer were clever cuts and background film used to connect the actors to the creatures. WIth HH’s new techniques, the action felt visceral and living in a way that was another big change to audience expectations.

The film has endless fantastic scenes, notably an interactive snake dancing scene, the famous first skeleton battle, and a battle between a cyclops and a dragon! The latter battle scene took 3 weeks to complete and features a 3 foot long animated dragon. A fitting nod to O’Brien’s King Kong battle scene.

Jason and the Argonauts.(1963)

Jason and the Argonauts is one of the most widely known of the HH style films. His practical work to translate his creations to film would be used in basically every film afterwards. A semi-digital continuation of what he invented continues today with the full motion capture CGI effects.

The film would re-create the famous skeleton fight from 7th Voyage and feature one of the most impressive badass moments of stop motion to this day, TALOS! The mixture of background film, split shot, and moveable floor would create a fluidity to the action that holds it as one of the most inspirational moments in cinema history. Many directors like Spielberg and Lucas, along with animators like Tippette, would reference this as a major influence in their later works.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

The return of Sinbad would see some backlash due to the story going into a more campy direction, but the film would continue to drive forward the ability of practical effects mixing with animated.

The most impressive shot in the film would be the glorious fight with a 6 armed Kali. In order to create the effect, 2-3 men were used in a stilt system to swing the weapons and create a baseline for the actors to react too. Later, HH would insert the Kali into the film and animate based on the actions of the actors. A frame by frame process that required weeks of work.

Clash of the Titans (1981)

One of the last examples of a live action stop motion of this kind, coming in well past the age of newer tech featured in Star Wars and other films. While the style had been dated by that era, HH’s skill in directing the shots and designing physical effects were top notch.

The film would also team HH up with another of the greatest name in animated live action, Jim Danforth. Danforth had continued O’Brien’s styles of lifelike movement over integration and was brought in to make some of the scenes. Danforth’s work can be seen in the Kracken, two-headed wolf, and most of the Pegasus scenes. HH handled the tense interactive scene with Medusa.

Jim Danforth’s Sci-Fi and Puppetry

Jim Danforth is a prolific animator that grew out of the ideals of both O’Brien and Harryhausen. While his early films would use their fantasy settings and often copy the two men’s work, his shift into Sci-Fi was groundbreaking.

Danforth began his career working on The Time Machine, and a knock-off film of Harryhausen’s Sinbad film called Jack the Giant Killer. The latter film would bring 4 of the main actors from the 7th Voyage of Sinbad film, and had to make changes to avoid a lawsuit.

He would work on The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm that would lose out to Lawrence of Arabia at the Oscars that year for special effects. Then he would work on the film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World alongside O’Brien in 1963.

7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)

Danforth’s breakout film would combine stop motion effects directly into the scene, removing a lot of the camera trickery used in Harryhausen’s films at the time. His scenes including the Loch Ness, a puppet snake, and Medusa hair, would earn his first direct Oscar nomination.

7 Faces of Dr. Lao would be joined in 1970 by When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth as Danforth’s most famous films. The latter film had some interesting work but is mostly known as a half hearted sequel to Harryhausen’s film One Million Years B.C, which is famous for being ‘that Raquel Welch movie’.

The Equinox (1970)

This mess of a film was created originally from a budget of $6,500 and moved around a bit before release. Danforth worked cel shading effects and helped in many areas, but a lot of the importance of the film is wrapped up in the next projects.

The writing team of the film moved onto make the cult hit Evil Dead series with Sam Raimi. Danforth brought the main beast into his next project, another cult favorite, Flesh Gordon.


This is also where Danforth met with Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett, the future leaders of Industrial Light & Magic. ILM would be the house of Go Motion animators that led the charge of Sci-Fi effects in movies for Spielberg, Cameron, and Lucas. We’ll explore Muren’s work more in the next Motion Animation post, but you may recognize a certain Wookie style from Equinox.

Flesh Gordon (1974)

Danforth would continue his use of puppets and integrated animation for one of the cultiest of cult hits. A pornographic and campy adventure series, Danforth asked to not be given credit but was eventually listed as Htrofnad Mij (backwards).

While working on the film, Danforth would train up and coming artists. Minor would go on to make the first 2 Star Trek films, including Wrath of Kahn. Jein worked on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Allen worked on series like Ghostbusters, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and the insanity of The Puppet Master. Rick Baker would also help in the film, one of the most prolific make-up and effect artists in the business. Baker had already made noise while working on The Exorcist, and went on to make Star Wars, An American Werewolf in London, and a plethora of films with the most recent being 2014’s Maleficent.

Jim Danforth (post-1974)

In 1981, Danforth would work on three different projects that returned him to the fantasy settings of old. One with Harryhausen on Clash of the Titans, making the Pegasus and Kraken scenes. Another was Caveman, starring Ringo from the Beatles. Danforth animated a T-Rex getting high by eating plants.

He was also connected with a remake of O’Brien’s King Kong film, but his project was shelved after director De Laurentiis released King Kong. The De Laurentis film was awarded an Oscar for best visual effects, despite the fact that the effects nominating committee for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had made no such recommendation (and the bulk of effects were actually shots of Rick Baker in an ape suit on a miniature set), Danforth quit the committee and the Academy in protest.

Equinox-foreground painting-Danforth

In 1974, his work brought him into the fold with John Carpenter‘s first major film Dark Star. This relationship continued in various films over two decades including Body Bags, They Live, Prince of Darkness, and Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Jim Danforth made a lot of cel shaded work, painted matte backgrounds, used stop motion, and puppets, depending on Carpenter’s needs.

Final Thoughts

Willis H O’Brien, Ray Harryhaunsen, and Jim Danforth were the revolutionary artists of their time. The stop motion, matte, and camera effects developed by these masters became the blueprint of Green Screen and Digital effects that took hold in the late 70’s. Without them, we may have never experienced the awe of Star Wars opening scene, or Kubrick’s practical stunt designs.

For a more detailed look at the Matte filming, Blue/Green Screen effects, and how they built up, FilmMaker IQ did this video that is pretty solid.

Part 2: The Digital Revolution

Dennis Murren, David W Allen, and Phil ‘Dinosaur Supervisor’ ‘You had one job!’ Tippett; They were the driving force of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, and every blockbuster effect seen today from Transformers to Avatar. We’ll look at some of their work and success in turning films digital for the new world.