Saturday, February 14, 2009

3. A Brief History of Time Lapse

What the HELL is Going On Here You Tardy Git?

The well-oiled machinery of my blog having ground to a halt atop the clumsy Victorian orphan of poor planning, I've decided to take advantage of this unforeseen break in schedule by using this week's post as a sort of info-dump for things that I'd probably never get around to discussing in an actual review. It is in this spirit - that same spirit of wide-ranging and poorly-researched rambling which so infuses all my projects - that I now set out to recount what will no doubt prove to be a highly inaccurate history of stop-motion special effects in general, and of the career of stop-motion pioneer Willis H. O'Brien in particular. It might be fair to say that anyone devoting time to reading a blog about caveman films already has a pretty good handle on both those subjects, but at the same time it's a fair call that anyone devoting time to maintaining a blog about caveman films really likes the sound of their own voice.

So let us go back - back in to time - to an age when skirts were long, films were short, and The Phantom Menace was just a twinkle in an adding machine's eye...

What the Hell Is Stop Motion Anyway?

Well this part is fairly simple. As most people know, a film strip consists of a sequences of images each only incrementally different from the last. When projected back on to a screen one after another at a fast enough rate, the human mind is unable to perceive the gaps between the individual images - thus giving the illusion of a moving picture. Instead of filming a moving image and capturing it as a series of frames, it's possible to reverse this process by shooting one frame of a stationary object, moving that object to the position it would occupy in the time elapsed between frames, and then taking another picture. Do this a few thousand times and then project the results back on screen, and you have a series of static images coming together to produce the illusion of an animate object. Which is to say, you stop the camera rolling, move the object a little, and then start the camera again and in the end it looks like your object is moving - hence, "stop-motion".

This is the core principle of all animation, of course, the more common variation being to film sequences of two-dimensional images rather than moving a puppet frame by frame. This latter approach has its origins in things like zootropes - little wheels which, when spun, gave the impression that the images printed on them were moving as though alive - and flip books, which were basically just store-bought versions of those cartoons everyone tries to make as a kid by drawing lots of pictures on the various pages of their Maths notebook and then flicking through them ineptly (I will admit, however, that when Animorphs came out I thought that the little morphing flip animations in the bottom corners of the pages were the coolest thing ever). Oddly enough, however, when cinema rolled around people didn't immediately click to apply the principle in films (maybe because it's just really hard). You had guys like J. Stuart Blackton, I suppose, but while making a chalk drawing of a guy grow a beard and then look grumpy is hardly the pinnacle of the animator’s art (though congrats for trying). And so 2-D animation was slow to get going even as stop-motion was picked-up as a neat little visual gimmick by exhibitors looking to put together "trick" films.

No-one's really sure who "discovered" stop-motion, but it seems to have gotten quite popular quite quickly. Although the first film makers, such as the Lumiere brothers, were content to shoot footage of everyday life and then call it a day, the technology was soon seized upon by a number of popular entertainers who immediately realised the potential for motion pictures in augmenting their stage acts, eventually leading to the narrative cinema we all know and love. The most famous, and the most important, of these early crackpots was Parisian magician Georges Melies – generally regarded as the father of trick photography, and of fantastical cinema in general. After attending an early exhibition of one of the Lumieres' short films, Melies was struck by the technology and tried to buy one of the brothers' cameras. They weren't budging, so instead Melies purchased a set-up from a rival inventor and modified it into something more to his liking. Like anyone whose just bought a new camera, he immediately went out and started filming everything that took his fancy (presumably while clad in a flowing purple robe with stars on it). The “Eureka!” moment, according to Melies, came when he was trying to film a car driving down the road and his camera jammed. By the time he got it working again, the car had moved out of the viewfinder and a hearse was in its place. Melies was pretty annoyed at all this, but when he got back to his haunted tower on a cliff edge and developed the film and played it back he discovered something truly marvellous – to all appearances, the ordinary car he’d been filming suddenly transformed mid-shot into the hearse which had been following it! Now here was something markedly more interesting that watching some jerk get sprayed in the face with a garden hose.

Of course, this story is probably just something Melies pulled out of his pointy wizard hat to fool reporters, since it dovetails a little too nicely with his own macabre sense of humour. But however Melies happened up the effect, it did open the guy up to the full potential of in-camera visual trickery. Forced perspective, matte shots, time-lapse and of course the much greater control afforded by a studio environment as opposed to attempting stage magic were all thoroughly plundered by Melies. While he initially showed films as a small part of his stage act, in time the films became the main attractions, growing more and more ambitious until Melies’ craft finally saw full bloom in what is his most famous film, 1902’s 14 minute epic A Trip to the Moon.

The importance of Melies lies as much in the way he inspired others to screw around with camera effects as it does in his actually inventing all of those techniques. In fact, in early cinema it’s often more appropriate to talk of “pioneers” than “inventors”, since half the time you would have some crazy guy deep in the jungles of Peru trekking over the Andes to show people his miraculous new innovation of playing footage in reverse at high-speeds for comedic effect, only for him to “discover” that it’s 1924 and Sherlock Jr is showing at the local Cineplex. In any case, the art form had been freed from the shackles of short subjects in which people walk out of a factory, and film makers were now happy to play about with lots of whacky crap.

On one level, I’m sure that film makers were doing this for the fun of it, but on another level cinema in its early days was still little more than a novelty, facing very real competition from things like stage plays and box socials. As a result, a lot of films focused on giving the filmgoers something that could only happen on screen. This is where stop-motion began to come into play, a key weapon in the arsenal of special effects necessary to get butts into seats. As a result, you get crazy trick films like Segundo de Chomon’s The Electric Hotel (1905) – a largely plotless vignette where a newlywed couple book into a hotel where everything automatic, and the audience is thus treated to such spectacles as luggage making its own way to a person’s suite, and a man getting his shoes polished by an invisible bootblack.

This is, of course, a pretty neat idea for a film, and would be ripped-off mercilessly in 1909 by Emil Cohl’s entirely plotless Automatic Moving Company and by those lousy shills at Sesame Street for decades to come. It also points to something important about the way that stop-motion has generally been utilised in motion pictures as compared with 2-D animation – something which can perhaps be better exemplified if we look at the career of animation pioneer Winsor McKay.

A newspaper cartoonist of moderate popularity, McKay’s principle interest was in fantasy and he explored this through his comics, which took place largely inside the dreams of his characters. In 1910, McKay made the leap to film by producing a two minute, full-colour animation based on his most popular character, Little Nemo. A pretty cool cartoon about nothing in particular, displaying animation easily on a par with anything Disney would produce (with the exception of Fantasia) up until the digital revolution of the late 80s, it was also completely self-contained. McKay had essentially created an independent fantasy world, and he followed this up with another hermetically-sealed vignette in the form of How A Mosquito Operates in 1912. His next film was something altogether more ambitious, however – not content to simply tell weird stories about nothing in particular, McKay cooked-up what is generally regarded as the very first character created specifically for the screen, and in the process sealed the fate of American animation as a silver-screen extension of the comic book fantasy world.

In 1914, McKay supposedly made a boast (possibly drunken?) that he could bring a dinosaur to life. He then went out and did just that, by animating the utterly charming short Gertie the Dinosaur. In live exhibitions, McKay would stand by the screen and coax Gertie out of her cave, then give a few simple commands to the misbehaving dinosaur before finally stepping into the screen and riding away on her back. It’s pretty simple stuff by today’s standards, but the fact that McKay looked at a challenge like “Bring a dinosaur to life”, and then thought “Well, ok,” and did it – well, it’s just sort of inspiring, you know. (What makes it even more impressive is that no-one at that point had clicked to the idea of animating moving objects over a single background matte, and so every single frame of the five minute film had to be redrawn in its entirety, by hand – “Little Nemo”, for example, ran for only two minutes and yet took a month of continuous work to produce). It’s appropriate that 2-D animation would begin with a guy vanishing off into a wholly animated world, since this was the principle use to which the form was put. So while cartoons were used to create wholly artificial realities (that is to say, you know, actual cartoons), it was left to stop-motion to take-up the slack in providing an effective means of augmenting our reality. Which is all to say that, while 2-D animation is all about creating new worlds, stop-motion has, with numerous notable exceptions (hello, Wombles! Hello Welsh children’s television!), principally been a tool for special effects.

And Now The Actual Point of This Article...

The guy who really took all of this to the next level (in America, at least) was a young fellow from Oakland, California by the name of Willis H. O’Brien. While O’Brien had always been passionate about sculpting and illustrating, he took a wide variety of jobs throughout his early life in order to support himself (and as I am contractually obliged to mention in any discussion of O’Brien’s life, one of those jobs was as a guide for palaeontologists working in the Crater Lake region of Oregon, something that apparently left O’Brien with a life-long fondness for palaeontology). One day, however, while sculpting something or other, it occurred to O’Brien that he could animate a figurine on film using the same principles as cell animation by moving its various body parts incrementally. Now, as we’ve seen stop-motion was nothing new by this point, but for O’Brien at least it was something of an independent discovery. Furthermore - while stop motion had been applied to a wide range of ordinary objects, the notion of animating a model so as to give it the appearance of life was, in the early teens, if not an entirely new idea then still a fairly novel one. O’Brien rightly figured there’d be money in it, and put together one minute of test footage depicting a stop-motion caveman fighting a stop-motion dinosaur. It was fairly crude – the models were clay over rough wooden armatures, and had a tendency to melt under the stage lights – but it was enough to sell a producer on the idea of stop-motion cartoons, and O’Brien was given $5,000 to make something slightly more ambitious.

The result was 1915’s The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, a six minute film about a group of aristocratic cavemen who attempt to win the hand of the Duke’s daughter, but are perpetually being hassled by Wild Willy the Missing Link (I believe the original title was Don’t Bogart A Dukeling). It’s a pretty simple film, with jerky animation and cheap models and no composite shots, but it compensates for its lack of technical polish with a nicely whimsical sense of humour and some impressive ambition in terms both of the scope of O’Brien’s creations and in what he has them do. O’Brien was determined to give his models the full range of physical expressiveness. As a consequence, he not only has a monkey man, but sets it to swinging about in trees and trying to cut the tail of a sauropod. For no real reason aside from a bit of comic effect he whips-up an adorable “desert quail” (a Diornis) and has it flounce about the place making goo-goo eyes at one of the cavemen. This brings me back to the point about the humour – we saw essential the same thing in Chaplin’s His Prehistoric Past, released a year earlier, with the jokes coming mostly from anachronistic references and irony (why else would you set a comedy in the Pleistocene Era, after all?). The difference is that The Dinosaur and the Missing Link is much funnier. O’Brien has a nice comic touch, with a mixture of wryness and a mild cruel streak, and it’s something that would pop up a lot in his later “serious” work (a personal favourite of mine is the look of utter confusion and disappointment conveyed by an Allosaurus in The Lost World after it accidentally knocks an Apatosaurus it was fighting off a cliff). All in all, it’s most obvious comparison is one of those low-budget Eastern European stop-motion shorts that always used to show-up as filler between episodes of The Wild Thornberries.

This film went into distribution and was eventually seen by Thomas Edison, who decided to not only purchase the rights but to hire O’Brien to produce a series of further shorts. Given that this is Thomas Edison we’re talking about, I’m surprised he didn’t just change the opening title card to read “A Product of the Edison Company” and then have one of his cronies set about ripping it off. Then again, by the teens I suppose it was getting harder and harder for a man to make an honest living by shamelessly pirating the works of independent filmmakers. Which is a pity since piracy is after all what the American publishing industry was founded on.

In any case, 1916 saw the production of R.F.D. 10,000 B.C., a ten minute “mannikin comedy” which, while less entertaining overall, represents a significant step forward in terms of animation. The plot is straightforward, and indeed slight and somewhat drawn-out even for as brief a span as ten minutes, following a conniving cavepostman who switches a valentine from his rival with a card saying “Old Maid” and proceeds to take advantage of the resultant misunderstanding. What’s really significant is the level of attention which O’Brien has put into the physical acting. In the long shots the mannikins give performances easily rivalling those in your average live action film of the period, and in fact display a great deal more subtlety and nuance of inflection than one had any right to demand in 1917 (in fact this may be the undoing of the film, the entertainment value of which seems to have been put second to O’Brien indulging in the minutiae of character movements). In addition to this, O’Brien had begun to incorporate seemingly minor yet highly important effects. He manages to animate the puffs of smoke coming out of the postman’s pipe, for example, and even positions an air bladder inside the chest of a sauropod which could be inflated and deflated to present the illusion of breathing. There’s even a moving background for a shot where a character is flung through the air.

Prehistoric Poultry, of later the same year, represents another step forward. Not only is the animation smoother, the models have once again improved significantly. The caveman models now have detailed faces capable of registering different expressions, right down to moveable eyeballs. The prehistoric poultry of the title is a reappearance by the Diornis (and here I must pause and cry loudly to the heavens “I WANT ONE!”), this time presented with a carefully animated, highly flexible neck that’s even fitted with bladders to show the bulge when it swallows something. And it flies! And while the sauropod makes another appearance, this time it appears to have been directly modelled on McKay’s Gertie, right down to making its appearance by emerging from a cave and eating a tree (itself a considerable step forward in the interaction between sets and characters). The film itself is a slight affair, little more than a series of quick gags involving a caveman who gets stoned and then accidentally shoots a guy out of a catapult, but overall it’s pretty entertaining.

Unfortunately, it seems that the next two films O’Brien made for Edison are lost (or at least, not up on YouTube), but this is alright since it allows me to move on to what could be considered O’Brien’s big break, and his first really major work as a writer director and special effects technician. On or about 1917, O’Brien was approached by producer Herbert Dawley with the offer of producing a feature length film. Rather than another full animation, live actors would be integrated into and alongside footage of O’Brien’s fantastical creations, with the aim being to make everything look as realistic as possible. The result was The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, a film which (as has been pointed-out ad infinitum) is in many ways simply a proving ground for the techniques that would come to play in the far more ambitious The Lost World a few years later. And yet at the same time it actually holds together far better, as a whole, than it’s admittedly more spectacular descendant.

The plot is fairly simple, really. Uncle Jack (played by Dawley) is pestered by his nephews into telling them a story of rip-roaring adventure. Jack, a writer, is more than happy to oblige, and he sets the two boys on his knees and begins to ramble on in somewhat purple prose. A few years back, you see, Jack and his friend Joe headed out to Slumber Mountain on a camping trip. On the way up they passed by an empty cabin, and the gravesite of the desiccated coconut who used to dwell there – a hermit by the name of “Mad Dick”. Mad Dick was an enigmatic sort, seldom glimpsed. Joe is apparently a regular in the area, and yet even he can only recall encountering the fellow once. As Joe tells it he happened by Dick’s cabin one night and caught sight of the hermit heading off up the mountain. His interest piqued, Jack tailed the man, and so bore witness to a rather peculiar sight. Upon reaching the top of the mountain, Mad Dick pulled a queer sort of spyglass from his satchel and began peering out through it into the night. I’m sure you’ll agree with Joe that it was all very peculiar, and the man eventually made his way back down the mountain, taking care not to alert Mad Dick to his presence.

Jack is suitably tantalised by all of this, and when he lies down to bed he’s still got Dick on the brain. He’s scarcely closed his eyes, however, when he hears a strange voice calling him from up the mountain. Curious, he follows the voice, and finds that he’s been led straight to the cabin of Mad Dick. It is at this point that the double-exposure ghost of Mad Dick appears (Willis O’Brien under copious amounts of make-up) and directs Jack to break into the cabin. Jack obliges, and discovers that the place is crammed full of dinosaur models, careful sketches and texts on palaeontology. What is especially fascinating, however, is a wooden box inside of which Jack finds the bizarre telescope of which Joe spoke (honestly, it looks like a cross between a gramophone and one of those weird viewfinders Luke Skywalker was always peering through). The ghost leads Jack up to the top of the mountain and begs for him to glance through the telescope. Jack obliges, and what do you think he sees? No, it’s not an inky nightscape – it’s a prehistoric wonderland!

Yes, the telescope allows people to gaze back through time. This is pretty darn cool (as Jack declares – “Thunder lizards!”), and the second half of the film is made-up almost entirely of shots of dinosaurs wandering about doing various things. Firstly, there’s an Apatosaurus that wanders down to drink at a river. It finishes-up wading out midstream, an effect accomplished using a sort of mouldable gelatine that could be used to loosely mimic the splashing and rippling effect of water. Then Jack sees what looks like a Gastornis, a flightless bird that stood as tall as a man and had a beak the size of a suitcase, eating a snake (here Willis O’Brien confirms something that I’d already suspected from the Diornis in his earlier films – namely, that the guy had a real knack for animating birds. This think looks great). Then Jack sees a pair of Triceratopses fighting one another – eventually one of them retreats, but the victor has little time to celebrate. Out of nowhere comes an enormous Tyrannosaurus Rex, which duels with the Triceratops for a short while before eventually finishing it by ripping a massive chunk from its side.

It’s a gruesome sight – so gruesome, in fact, that Jack cries-out in terror. And wouldn’t you know it – the gosh-darned Tyrannosaurus hears him! Before Jack can even begin to contemplate how much shit he’s in, he finds himself running for his life very large, very hungry dinosaur that has suddenly gotten 65 million years too close for comfort.

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain’s story isn’t particularly deep, but really it doesn’t need to be. It’s enough to get Uncle Jack up on the mountain so that he can gaze at what would have, in 1918, been simply spectacular dinosaur effects. It hardly needs stating that the effects are somewhat less than lifelike, but what it noteworthy is both how much better O’Brien’s models are here than they were even just two years ago, and how much smoother the animation is. In the case of the Gastornis and the Triceratopses the stop-motion is actually better than it would be for the majority of The Lost World, although nothing here ever reaches the level of the Apatosaurus animation for the attack on London. Things may drag a little during the “spectacle” portion, but the advantage of stop-motion is that once the effects have become badly dated you’re at least left with some cool-looking models to gawk at. And the sudden twist of having the Tyrannosaurus come at Jack salvages the film from being a mere spectacle, by instead rendering it perhaps the first know instance of humans and stop-motion creations interacting on screen (although it should be noted that dinosaurs and humans would not appear in the same shot together until The Lost World). All in all, this is a charming little adventure that benefits enormously from being both quite straightforward and rather brief, thus never really wearing out it’s welcome.

This briefness isn’t intentional, mind. When O’Brien signed-on for Slumber Mountain, it was with the understanding that he’d be producing a feature film (as I understand it, the film was also supposed to be about a group of adventurers encountering a lost valley of dinosaurs, but I’m not sure what happened there). In the end, the finished product clocked in at around forty minutes, but Herbert Dawley decided in one of the first of many prickish moves that he would cut the film down and release it as two films entirely independent of one another. Hey! Twice the films, twice the box office, and who ever really believed in that artistic integrity thing anyway? This was bad enough, but didn’t even begin to cover the extent of Dawley’s dickishness. Not only did O’Brien make precious little money off of what was actually a quite profitable film, but Dawley also had his name removed from the credits and proceeded to claim sole responsibility for the story, direction and creation of the revolutionary effects.

Thankfully, no-one really bought Herbert Dawley’s story (something about his claims of having constructed life-sized canvas puppets just rang a little false) and when First National Pictures entered pre-production on The Lost World they knew exactly who to turn to for the creation of the dinosaurs. Herbert Dawley went on to produce many other films, but both his name and his work remains at this point in time largely forgotten. Willis O’Brien, as if it needed stating, went on to provide the good parts of one of the greatest monster films ever made.

But that, lady and/or gentleman, is a story for next week, as I’m afraid that 4,370 words is my limit.

(this has nothing to do with anything, but damn if it doesn't look cool. Unfortunately Walter R. Booth appears to be outside the scope of my demented ramblings.


  1. That's all very interesting. One of these days I'll have to get to a computer where I can watch some of those YouTube clips.

    I didn't even know that Willis O'Brien did the effects for THE LOST WORLD. I guess I thought that he sprang into the world with fully formed King Kong miniatures in each hand.

  2. Also, I was watching something not long ago that suggested that much of the appeal of stop-motion animation is nostalgic. In other words, animated effects (because of their distinctive look) trigger a memory of what it was like to be five years old and easily impressed by fighting dinosaur models.

    I guess the way to test that hypothesis would be to find out how the post-JURASSIC PARK generation responds to stop-motion animation.