In Our Opinion


By • May 2nd, 2010 •

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With the CGI remake of Ray Harryhausen’s original stop-motion special effects CLASH OF THE TITANS doing well in theaters, the stop-motion special effects vs. computer animation special effects battle, which has been a passionate one in the industry among old and new practitioners, has been framed with a new and unique sense of clarity.

This isn’t just a geek squad topic of conversation; it has more general implications across the entire spectrum of motion picture visual aesthetics.

To set the ground rules: stop motion is the process by which – for special effects applications – reasonably realistic miniature articulated figures are moved one frame at a time and photographically combined with live action (the classic though somewhat technically primitive example of this would be the original King Kong, still an artistic powerhouse). Even today, the effect can be occasionally stunning. In the opposing corner, CGI, which means “computer generated imagery”, is a technique whereby the figures and often-greater parts of the worlds they inhabit are created within the computer by artistic and design wizards. Stop motion is by necessity usually the work of a lone or nearly lone craftsman performing all the duties under intense concentration one frame at a time while CGI special effect sequences tend to have small armies devoted to their specialized tasks.

In the larger debates, stop motion generally wins with traditional artistically-biased aesthetes because its handcrafted nature does more than telegraph its traditional art history background of design and sculpture, but it’s also a magic show in which actual physical material objects have been handled in a way which produces an illusion. CGI is an abstract technological computer world of zeroes and ones, and while the artistry is there to be sure, the traditional special-effects-man-as-magician magic show is not. This forces special effects practitioners in the CGI realm to be better artists to compensate for the lost magic-show wow factor, but when it works, it’s a detail-enhanced and roller coaster with a wow factor all its own.

It would be a mistake, however, to simplify the discussion into being about one of Paintings (CGI) vs Sculpture (stop motion) – the details are too nuanced for that.

One additional mistake we should not make, which won’t go down well with stop motion people, is that we need to keep a perspective on the stop motion medium in the totality of the examples that exist . To say that something Ray Harryhausen created decades ago does or does not hold up well does not speak to the entire medium. There have only been a few geniuses in the stop motion field of special effects and Ray Harryhausen sits alone at the top.

Additional to Harryhausen’s often-flawless live-action/animation matching was a powerful directorial talent that often left people mistaking that it was the animation that made his FX sequences so interesting when it was often Ray’s direction and cutting that ultimately sold a scene. Put it all together and we have a unique singular talent who will probably never be equaled for generations yet to come.

The point is that just because Ray Harryhausen = stop motion animation does not mean that stop motion animation = Ray Harryhausen. Stop motion proponents often remark about the stop motion technique in a context divorced from the artist who made it most interesting and believable. Some stop motion enthusiasts might even feel that the stop motion special effects from the non-Harryhausen JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1960) are superior to the best current CGI (and such people do exist), but with that film’s animated creatures looking like little more than refugees from a play-doh factory, that’s going to be an extremely hard sell outside a very tiny and specialized group of fans and practitioners.

Speaking for myself, CLASH OF THE TITANS, both versions, reminds me that I don’t miss stop motion special effects. I miss Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion effects, specifically, combined with his design and scene set-up, direction and cutting. While stop motion enthusiasts will agree that what we need, really, are fewer computer render farms, that only works for stop motion if those render farms are replaced by brilliantly imaginative lone geniuses, regardless of the technique and technology. The problem is that computer render farms can be bought. Not so with lone geniuses.

Ultimately this reality should satisfy no one on a schedule and a budget, but has the advantage of making the very occasional lone genius all the more special when he or she arrives. A toast, then, to Ray Harryhausen and the very, very small, exclusive club of occasional lone geniuses, regardless of the technology. It’s been officially proven: assembly lines and render farms cannot replace them.

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