Ray Harryhausen was one of the great stop-motion
artists of the 20th century. Harryhausen, along with Willis
O'Brien, Jim Danforth and David Allen, were responsible for
giving the public fantasy films like King Kong, Mighty
Joe Young, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Jason
and the Argonauts and many others. The incredible creatures
shown in these pictures ranged from dinosaurs to skeleton swordsmen.
The creatures in these movies were given life
through a technique called stop-motion
animation. Typically, a miniature model of the creature
constructed with posable limbs and body and was placed in a
miniature set and photographed by a motion picture camera one
frame at a time. Changing the pose between frames would cause
the model to appear to be moving by itself in the final film.
Despite success in early movies such as King
Kong, the technique had its weaknesses. The miniature sets
were expensive to construct and it was very difficult to combine
live action in the same frame as the stop-motion creatures.
While working on a low-budget film called The Beast from
20,000 Fathoms, Harryhausen came up with a technique he
later named "dynamation" that eased both of these problems.
The technique used a split screen, with rear projection.
Split screen had been around as a special effect from almost
the beginning of film itself. One early clip from France shows
a bicycle rider sailing over the city of Paris. The photographer
had shot it by covering the bottom half of the lens of the camera
with black tape, then filming the bicycle rider through the
top half. The mask was then reversed and the film rewound inside
the camera. The film was exposed again, this time photographing
the city of Paris through the bottom half of the lens. When
the film was developed, the rider appeared to be sailing across
the Paris skyline. Harryhausen's dynamation used the same basic
idea with some additional twists.
first step in dynamation was to film the background image. For
this example let's say the scene is to show a dinosaur in a
big city emerging from behind a building into an intersection.
People are running away from the creature down the street toward
the camera (A similar scene is in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms).
The camera would be set on a real street and the
actors would be filmed running towards the camera. The camera
is locked so it does not change position at all while filming
the background. The background film is then developed and loaded
into a projector back at the studio.
The projector then projects the first frame onto
a back projection screen. The back projection screen is a thin
piece of plastic stretched tightly across a frame. Unlike a
regular screen, the image appears on the front when illuminated
by a projector from behind. A motion picture camera is loaded
with film and locked into position in front of the screen so
it can rephotograph the film clip as it is projected onto the
screen. This camera will be used to capture the new action.
A piece of glass is then put between the camera
and the screen. The glass is painted with black paint so that
portions of the image on the screen that are to be in front
of the dinosaur (the foreground) are blacked out when seen by
the camera. In our example this would be the bottom of the screen
and the building from behind which the dinosaur emerges.
In between the glass and the screen a table is
set up on which the miniature dinosaur is placed. The table
might also hold anything that the dinosaur might directly interact
with during the scene (let's say a lamp post that he can gnaw
on). The dinosaur is carefully positioned so that it is matched
for size and position with the image on the screen as seen through
The film in the projector is advanced one frame
at a time. With each frame the dinosaur is moved to simulate
walking out from behind the building. After the position of
the dinosaur is correct, the camera captures one frame. The
frame at this point shows the background image of the upper
half of the screen, the model dinosaur in front of it, and the
blacked out portions of the glass.
After the entire scene has been filmed both the
projector and the camera are rewound back to the beginning.
The glass is removed and another sheet of glass is inserted.
The new glass is the reverse of the first one, though, as the
portions of the glass that were clear now have been painted
over and the sections that were blacked out are now clear. The
model dinosaur and the table are cleared away. The film is re-shot
again, this time exposing the foreground part of the image which
had before been blacked out. When the film from the camera is
developed and viewed it will show the dinosaur apparently moving
out from behind the building.
The use of dynamation allowed Harryhausen to dispense
with many expensive miniature sets (In our above example only
the dinosaur and a streetlight need to be constructed in miniature).
It was also used in later films to allow very close interaction
between the human actors and the animated creatures. Because
the model was animated directly in front of the screen that
was showing the human actors, it was possible for Harryhausen
to synchronize the movements of the models with the previously-filmed
action. This allowed sword fights between humans and skeletons
where each could parry and thrust convincingly.
As effective as dynamation was, it had flaws.
It was often extremely difficult to match parts of the miniature
set with the previously filmed-material for brightness and color.
Also, none of the human characters could pass in front of the
miniature objects, only behind them. (A separate technique,
back projection, that could be used in other shots did put the
human action in front, however).
Despite the problems in the process, Harryhausen's
dynamation gave audiences thrills for decades until sophisticated
computer graphics became available.
Here is a list of Harryhausen films using the
dynamation process, though not all were billed with the dynamation
Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
from Beneath the Sea (1954)
vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)
Animal World (1956)
Miles to Earth (1957)
7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
3 Worlds of Gulliver (1959)
and the Argonauts (1963)
Men in the Moon (1964)
Million Years B.C. (1967)
Valley of Gwangi (1969)
Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)
and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
of the Titans (1981)
Krystek 1999. All Rights Reserved.