Before the advent of either CGI or even Ray, who had worked in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, there were earlier dimensional animator pioneers developing and fine tuning the art and discovering how it could work for them as film makers. Along with Ray these were pioneers who would gradually develop the medium so that it would find its true potential and realisation.
Replacement or substitution
The history of dimensional animation begins with one of the most famous innovators and pioneers, the Frenchman Georges Méliès (1851-1938). In 1896 he discovered, completely by accident when he was filming a street scene for his film Place de l’Opera, that if the camera stopped whilst people and vehicles were going by, one thing could replace another. He recalled in 1907 that, ‘I suddenly saw a Madeleine-Bastille omnibus change into a hearse and men into women’. He realised the trick’s potential and used replacement in many of his fantasy shorts, and stop-motion, using children’s toy alphabet blocks in an advertising film. His name for the ‘trick’ was ‘Stop-action’, which is now called ‘Stop-motion’.
Stuart James Blackton (1875-1941)
However, it was to fall to a British born pioneer, working in the US in 1897, who realised the true potential of the technique. Working with colleague Albert Edward Smith (1875-1958), Blackton discovered the same technique of replacement when they were making a short subject on the roof of a New York building. When they viewed the processed film they saw that wisps of steam from a vent change shape. Realising that these had occurred when they had stopped the camera and restarted it, they made plans to use the optical trick in a short that was called The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1898), in which they utilised animated wooden toy animals borrowed from Blackton’s daughter.
After the success of that short, Blackton and Smith made a large number of innovative and popular shorts that included Visit to a Spiritualist (1900), The Haunted Hotel (1907) and Princess Nicotine (1909).
Arthur Melbourne-Cooper (1874-1961)
In Britain, Arthur Melbourne-Cooper had dabbled in two-dimensional cartoons but then realised how much more interesting three-dimensional animation could be. He called his creations, ‘trick-films’ or ‘stop-and-start films’ and began with Matches Appeal (1899) using animated matchsticks. He followed that with Dolly’s Toys (1901) using toys, as Blackton had done. Throughout the 1900s Melbourne-Cooper made a series of shorts all using toys that included the 1908 film Dreams of Toyland in which he animated in excess of twenty to thirty toys at any one time.
Edwin Stanton Porter (1869-1941)
Edwin Porter is one of the cornerstones of film history but he is not so well known for his work in dimensional animation. Although he had used the technique to great effect in such films as Fun in a Baker Shop (1902) and Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1907) it wasn’t until The ‘Teddy’ Bears (1907) that his expertise in the art manifested itself with a ninety-second sequence in the film that showed six teddy bears, of varying height, performing acrobatics. This sequence has to rate as one of the most entertaining dimensional animation in these early short subjects.
Ladislaw Starewitz, also known as Wladyslaw Starewicz (1882-1965)
Ladislaw Starewitz (there are many spellings of his name) was of Polish descent who was born in Moscow. Whilst working at the Museum of Natural History in Kaunas (in Lithuania today) he made a film called The Battle of the Stag Beetles (1910). After experimenting with real live stag beetles he discovered that under the lights the creatures either died or became very lethargic. In the end he killed the beetles and preserved the shells and reattached them by means of wire and sealing wax to create an articulated model, albeit made from a real creature. The film was so successful that Starewitz followed it up with a number of other films that used real creatures, such as The Cameraman’s Revenge (1911) and The Ant and the Grasshopper (1911) but much later he moved on to models in such films as The Tale of the Fox (1937). Over a period of fifty years or so he made 47 films.
Charles Bowers, also known as Charles R. Bowers (1877-1946)
Charley Bowers is not necessarily the most important or prominent pioneer in the history of dimensional animation but in recent years he has become famous for his eccentric, even outrageous films, made in the 1920s in America. One of the most famous is There It Is (1928) in which he animated a fully grown chicken coming out of an egg, a tiny kilted creature called MacGregor who lives in a matchbox, and a cuckoo in a cuckoo clock being eaten by a cat. An acquired taste!
Joseph Leeland Roop (1869-1932)
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Roop is the lost pioneer of dimensional animation. His name has only just survived into the twenty-first century because his letters and photographs have been preserved by the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. He began work on dimensionally animated subjects in 1916 and in 1917 he made a film called The Birth of Christ, which used animated models. Around 1922, he worked on a series of shorts called Tom and Jerry which featured a boy (Tom) and a mule (Jerry), which became very successful. In 1924 Roop worked on the feature The Lost World as an animator and assistant to Willis O’Brien.
Willis O”Brien (1886-1962)
Ray always calls the great Willis O’Brien (Obie) the Star-maker because it was O’Brien who designed and animated King Kong.
Willis O’Brien was born in Oakland, California and after trying his hand at various careers, chose, almost by accident, the art of dimensional animation. In 1914, whilst working in a marble shop, he built some clay figures and with a friend at the shop held a mock fight with the figurines. Knowing about animation he realised that he might be able to bring those figures to life, or better still, creatures with which he had always been fascinated - dinosaurs.
In 1915 he filmed a short subject that was to be a crossroads for the young man. It was The Dinosaur and the Missing Link in which an ape-like missing link, a brontosaurus and a prehistoric phororhacos appear. This led to a job making a series of shorts for Thomas Edison in New York and after that another short subject called The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1919) in which a brontosaurus, a diatrmya, a triceratops and an allosaurus make appearances. Although hugely successful, the film led to O’Brien’s falling out with his producer Herbert M. Dawley (1880-1970) - but fate intervened.
He went to work for producer Watterson R. Rothacker (1885-1960) who owned the rights to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories including the dinosaur adventure The Lost World. This was O’Brien’s break through into feature movies. Over a period of nearly eighteen months O’Brien and his crew designed, built and animated a whole menagerie of prehistoric creatures for The Lost World (1925). It was another huge success, the blockbuster of its day.
Several unrealised projects followed, including Frankenstein (1928). It would be seven years after the success of The Lost World before he was to work on his masterpiece, King Kong (1933).
The innovation that O’Brien had achieved in The Lost World was not only a smoothness in the animation but also integrating live-action into several scenes so that the actors could react to the animated creatures. In King Kong he improved on this technique to the point where the creatures (certainly Kong) were so well integrated with the live action that the animation was the star of the picture.
King Kong is certainly one of the great landmark films in the history of dimensional animation. Not only is the film a great film, even after nearly eighty years, the design of the creatures, the quality of animation and the overall look of the entire picture is still seen by many to be the real beginning of the art. Sadly O’Brien was never to achieve that height of success again.
Almost immediately a sequel to Kong was produced - Son of Kong (1933), which O'Brien hated and this was followed by a succession of pictures (not all included dimensional animation) with Kong’s producer Merian C. Cooper and many unrealised projects.
In 1945 he was commissioned again by Cooper, to work on the production Mr Joseph Young of Africa, another giant ape picture that was eventually to be called Mighty Joe Young (1949). A young assistant was employed to not only help with the twelve-month pre-production but also execute nearly all of the key animation for the picture. His name was Ray Harryhausen.
Although O’Brien won an Oscar® for Best Special Effects in 1950 for Mighty Joe Young (there was no such category when Kong had been released) the film was to be his last great achievement. He worked on more unrealised projects and there also followed two low grade science fiction subjects - The Black Scorpion (1957) and Behemoth, The Sea Monster (aka The Giant Behemoth) (1959) – neither of which were good, either for the design of the models or for their animation.
Willis O’Brien died aged seventy-six on the 10th November 1962.
His early work was remarkable and his chief legacy will always be King Kong, which has become a benchmark for subsequent animators to aim for, including Ray of course.
Alexandr Ptushko (1900-1973)
A prominent Russian animator, Alexandr Ptushko made a number of features that used dimensional animation but the film for which he will always be remembered is a Soviet retelling of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, not surprisingly called The New Gulliver (1935/6). Ptushko used clay with detachable heads for the models, and there were reputably over fifteen hundred of them used throughout the entire film. No mean achievement even with fifty assistants.
Lou Bunin (1904-1994)
Another Russian born animator was Lou Bunin although he was brought up in America from a very early age. Bunin’s style was caricature models most evident in his 1943 wartime propaganda short Bury the Axis (1943) in which he lampoons Mussolini, Hirohito and Hitler. In 1948 he realised a long cherished project, made in Britain and France, of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) for which he is best remembered. The feature combined live action and dimensional animation although the scenes in which they were combined utilised straightforward mattes.
George Pal (1908-1980)
Today George Pal is known for making feature films of science fiction stories, predominantly The War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960). But he began his career in Europe as a short subject filmmaker using dimensional animation and prior to arriving in the US he is credited for filming over two hundred such subjects.
During the war years he made a stylised series using replacement model heads and legs called Puppetoons on which both Ray and O’Brien worked.
In 1949 he branched out and produced his first feature, called The Great Rupert, in which a squirrel saves a Vaudeville family from destitution. Although audiences thought the squirrel was real it was in fact animated.
Although Pal didn’t personally work on the animation of this and the work done for subsequent films, which included Tom Thumb ((1958), The Time Machine (1960), The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) and 7 Faces of Dr Lao (1964), Pal always promoted the art wherever possible and never forgot his origins.
Karel Zeman (1910-1989)
In what was then known as Czechoslovakia, there has always been a tradition of puppetry. One of the greats to emerge from that country was Karel Zeman who perhaps compares closest to what Ray was doing in the West. Zeman brought dimensional animation and live action together in the East and although his pictures are nowhere near as well known as Ray’s (probably because of the limitations of language and style) they are generally thought of as classics in the art.
Zeman started with shorts but soon progressed to features. His first success was Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955) (aka Cesta do praveku and Journey to Prehistory) in which four boys journey back to prehistoric times on a river of time encountering all types of dinosaurs.
This and many of his films were influenced by the stories of Jules Verne and his next feature was not only based on Verne but was Zeman’s most accomplished feature. It was called Vynález zházy or as it was known in most English speaking countries, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958). The film featured a submarine, an airship and a giant octopus.
There followed many more features including Baron Prásil (aka Baron Munchausen) (1961), Urradená vzducholod (aka The Stolen Airship) (1967) and Na komete (aka On a Comet) (1970).
Jim Danforth (1940-)
Next to Ray Harryhausen, perhaps the best known and respected dimensional animator is Jim Danforth. Jim, like Ray, was influenced by King Kong and The Thief of Bagdad (1940) but unlike Ray he never quite found the success that Ray achieved, probably because he never found a producer like Charles Schneer, as Ray had. Although Jim is not a pre-Dynamation animator and technician, he warrants a special mention in these pages as an innovator, superb visual artist and a first rate animator.
He began working at Clokey Productions on inserts for The Dinah Shore Show and went on to do some of the animation on The Time Machine for George Pal.
In 1961 he was employed as an animator on the substandard (not because of Jim's work) Jack the Giant Killer (1962), a rip off of Ray’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Jim animated several sequences including the fight between the two-headed giant and the sea monster.
There followed a number of key features including Pal’s The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) in which he animated the dragon sequence, and 7 Faces of Dr Lao(1963) for which he created and animated the Loch Ness Monster.
Next came his finest achievement, When Dinosaurs Ruled the World (1971) for which he designed and animated (with some help from David Allen) a pterosaur, giant crabs, a plesiosaur and an unnamed dinosaur and the birth of its young, which has to rate beside Ray’s birth of the Ymir and homunculus.
In 1980 Jim was asked by Ray to join him on Clash of the Titans (1981) for which he animated some of the flying horse (Pegasus) sequences and the Dioskilos sequence.
He once commented that, ‘Animators and trick film-makers were considered by Hollywood to be technicians rather than performers, or artists, or film-makers’, a sentiment that would be echoed by Ray and most other dimensional animators.
Interested in reading more...
The above are only brief resumes of each of the animators careers and indeed, are only a few of the key animators. If you would like to learn more about the pioneers of dimensional stop-motion animation then read A CENTURY OF MODEL ANIMATION (US title: A Century of Stop-Motion Animation) which covers the entire history from Méliès to Aardman.