Ray Harryhausen

Jason and the Argonauts

Ray HarryhausenThe recent passing of special effects animation master Ray Harryhausen has been widely noted. I must admit to having little to add to the many well-deserved hosannas. A disciple of Willis O’Brien, he was able to one up his mentor by gaining a measure of creative control that enabled him to produce a greater body of work than O’Brien could hope for. His films, whose epic storytelling seems  to have been inspired by the Korda version of The Thief of Bagdad, were designed to showcase his spectacular talents, especially the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts and the Medusa sequence in the original version of Clash of the Titans. Alfred Hitchcock also seemed to structure his films around a series of set pieces, though Harryhausen’s seem more resistant to the fatigues of repeated viewing. Why this is so is the subject of “Harryhausen and the Expressively Imperfect World,” by The New Yorker’s art critic Adam Gopnik, who rightly compares him to Georges Méliès, noting:

What was odd about Harryhausen’s work was that it was obviously “fake,” fabricated—even in its heyday, its invented, articulated falseness was as evident as it was bemusing. One wasn’t convinced by his skeleton warriors; one was amazed by them, a different thing. His sword-fighting skeletons didn’t look like skeletons come to life; they looked like models of skeletons, painstakingly animated. And yet something about that truth spoke to some part of us deeper than the merely deluded eye—so that it is the rare lover of fantasy who does not much prefer Harryhausen’s “Clash of the Titans” to the elaborate C.G.I. remake. Indeed, in the many obituaries he received this week, a good number of people, and not all of them oldsters moved by nostalgia, made the case, or registered the feeling, that something in Harryhausen’s work, for all its obvious effort, was better than anything of the kind that came after. Tom Hanks, George Lucas—so many spoke up, or had spoken up before, about how mind-altering and enthralling Harryhausen’s underpowered and underfinanced spectacles remain.

Jason and the Argonauts

Images: Frame grabs from Jason and the Argonauts from DVD Beaver. The photo of Harryhausen is a frame grab from the John Landis interview on the Jason DVD.

Chief Serenbe

Chief Serenbe 02

I usually don’t take notice of student films here, but I understandably am making an exception for Evan Curtis’ Chief Serenbe, made last year at the Savannah College of Art and Design—especially since it was made in my graduate-level Media Theory class. (He has been in three of my classes and I am on his MFA thesis committee.) Ever since then, it has been making the rounds on the festival circuit and can now be seen online as part of the Cartoon Brew Student Animation Festival along with some information on its production; you should also check out Curtis’ website here.

The first half of my Media Theory class involves lectures and discussions on media theory with the major student assignment being a term paper; the second half involves a studio assignment where students are urged to expand in some way on an aspect of their term paper.  The topic of Curtis’ paper,  “Toy Monger,” was not really surprising, since he is is an avid toy collector, and action figures in particular. And though Chief Serenbe does, like most of his films, uses toys from his collection, its style is very much inspired by Italian Neorealism. The film’s opening shot (see image above) was filmed after the class was over. My contribution to Chief Serenbe was, at best, rather modest as Curtis seemed to know exactly what he was wanted to do. In any case, do take a look and enjoy.

Animation Filmmakers Who Like and Do Mocap

My March 9th posting on motion capture, “Oh Motion Capture, What Art Thou?,” elicited an interesting comment from Vita Berezina-Blackburn, an animation specialist at Ohio State University, who finds motion capture

to be closer to traditional puppetry than cel animation and wish there would be more films featuring experimental use of motion capture which has infinite possibilities in terms of setting up virtual rigs driven by human movement.

Vibeke Sorenson Her wish that more artists would use motion capture for experimentation is not often heard, but did ring a bell. Back in 1999, in doing a story for Animatoon on the University of Southern California’s Division of Animation and Digital Arts, I interviewed Vibeke Sorenson, its founding chair, who mentioned she first developed an interest in the area in graduate school, when computer animation was still in its infancy; she recalled, “the real time approach was important because of the roll of the spontaneous gesture in the act of creation.” And in the “Philosophy Statement” she wrote about the program she sent me said,

The computer provides unprecedented opportunities for data transformation, both in real-time and not in real-time. It allows animators to work with both 2 and 3-D animation, in real-time interactive virtual environments. They are a hybrid form of filmmaker, functioning at various times as directors, actors, cinematographers, and editors. Computers are transformative instruments providing vast new spaces and possibilities for animators.

Sorenson is now Chair of the School of Art, Design, and Media at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

John Clark Matthews in Up to No Good:  The Making of Papa No Good

Berezina-Blackburn’s feeling that motion capture is a form of puppetry is also a view strongly held by John Clark Matthews, the award-winning puppet filmmaker (The Mouse and the Motorcycle trilogy, Frog and Toad are Friends, Mouse Soup, etc.), who I recently talked to about the topic. (I must note John and I are friends and in 1992 I presented a paper on his films, “Experiments in Style: the Animated Puppet Films of John Matthews,” at the Society for Animation Studies conference at CalArts.)  When his studio went under in the mid-90s, he took a job as a computer animator with Sony Imageworks, where he was a lead/supervising animator on such films as Stuart Little (the design of the title character was based on the ones he did for The Mouse and the Motorcycle films) and Polar Express; he retired five years ago, but has not lost his interest in films and performance capture.

Before Polar Express, John experimented with motion capture at Sony Imageworks (samples of this work can be found here) and realized that “performance capture is nothing more than puppeteering.” As a puppeteer he is a big booster of the process and feels there is considerable room for creativity using the process.

(In commenting on the complaints animators had with Wes Anderson’s problems had with his decision to direct Fantastic Mr. Fox long distance, he feels it “is much better [using performance capture] than an animator trying to figure out what a director wants, especially when the director is not present.”