Wednesday 8 May 2013

Ray Harryhausen: 1920 to 2013

Yesterday Ray Harryhausen died. He was nearly 93 so in a way it was no great surprise, it was becoming a matter of sooner rather than later, but it was still profoundly depressing. That said, I consoled myself with the thought that because he lived so long, he was around to enjoy the renascence of interest in his work. After his retirement from animation, prompted, I believe, by the rather negative reviews of Clash of the Titans, it looked as though his style of effects had passed into history, and a slightly neglected history at that. A decade later the emergence of photo-realistic CGI dinosaurs in Jurassic Park appeared to well and truly hammer the final nail into the coffin of stop-motion animation. Dinosaurs of all things! What a bloody insult! The best movie dinosaurs had always been the preserve of stop-motion animation ever since Ray's mentor Willis O'Brien breathed life into the romping creatures sculpted by Marcel Delgado for The Lost World in 1925. And now a bunch of computer geeks had usurped them with pixels!

And yet the seemingly inexorable march of CGI served only to boost interest in older, more hands-on techniques, and as the living master of stop-motion animation, Ray came to be appreciated more and more until by the end of his life it is no exaggeration to say that he was venerated. Since the late 1990s stop-motion animation has made a roaring comeback, though not, it must be said, in the area in which Ray excelled, that of visual effects. Stop-motion now has its own niche in pure animation films such as those of Nick Park and Henry Selick which have their own line of descent separate from Ray and Willis O'Brien.

But while it is true to say that CGI dominates the type of visual effects Ray practiced so beautifully, as the critic and author Kim Newman put it so pithily on Twitter yesterday:
It now takes 500 pixel-wranglers to do what Ray Harryhausen did better single-handed.
Which partly explains the interest in Ray's work. That one man could breathe life into so many iconic creatures, working with his hands with metal skeletons, foam flesh, rubber skins and cameras using film! Film! What the hell's that when it's at home? Ray's brain, with its infinitely subtle imagination, was his computer, far better than anything the pixel wranglers possess.

Even given all that, I don't think his passing would have touched so many if he hadn't also been a true gentleman, a charming man with a quiet but puckish sense of humour. Everything I have read of his character reinforces what an utter gentleman he was. In a very small way I got to see this first-hand in November 2008 at a book-signing where, even though we exchanged only a few sentences, he exuded warmth and kindliness.

A truly inspirational figure (you can blame him for this piece of nonsense), Ray Harryhausen was one of those uncommon people for whom the phrase 'They don't make them like that any more' could have been coined. To which I would add, 'And they never will.'

RIP Ray.


Popbitch, which usually carries scurrilous stories about the rich and famous, ran this wonderful anecdote about Ray and Tom Baker!

RIP Ray Harryhausen. Back
in the early 80s Tom Baker made
contact with Ray via a friend.
Tom would stop over at Ray's place
in Kensington, and both would get
shitfaced on good brandy until
Ray's wife, Diana, banned Tom
after he weed in their fireplace.

Sunday 17 March 2013


This entry is something of a change as it doesn't deal at all with any of my own attempts at animation or any other kind of visual effects. Rather, as a break from coverage of my latest creature, it's a chance to have a look at some splendid old-school miniature ship effects.

Back in the day, a TV-film called Ironclads was shown on telly. It being back in the day, I had to record it on crappy old VHS (yes, shock horror, there was no digital recording in that bygone era). It was a somewhat cheesy American Civil War melodrama but the highlight was its depiction of the famous Battle of Hampton Roads, the world's first ironclad versus ironclad ruck. The miniature effects were very well done (and shit all over cgi IMHO) and were, perhaps surprisingly for a Yank fillum, shot in Blighty!

Ironclads, sadly, is not available on DVD (I still have the off-air recording but haven't digitised it yet). However, someone has edited out the battle and bunged it on YouTube (it doesn't, sadly, include some earlier scenes when the Merrimack/Virginia first attacks the blockading Northern warships):

In June 1992, Model Boats magazine published a five-page article about the making of the miniature battle sequences. I've now scanned this fascinating piece and you can read it below (click on the images for biggitude).


Friday 15 March 2013

PANDOPUS sequel?

Not as such, but the next project is a follow-up of sorts to PANDOPUS! Here are some sneak preview pics of the animation puppet's construction in progress which, for the first time for me, is being made using the 'build-up' process:

What could it possibly be? You'll have to wait and see...

Saturday 23 February 2013


Inspired by another b3ta Challenge, this time simply 'Pandas', I decided to have a crack at making a quick film incorporating stopmotion animation. Unfortunately I didn't manage to finish it in time for the challenge deadline (missing it by a day) but I felt that the concept was decent enough to stand alone anyway.

It was immediately apparent that the quickest thing to do would be to make a spoof monster movie trailer, which offers a lot of scope to nick clips from other films and cobble them together into something vaguely approaching a narrative. Add a few shots composed of stills made in Photoshop, record a corny voiceover and a couple of character voices, find a suitably dramatic piece of music, and all that was left to do was the animation. By way of tribute to the masters Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Ninth Wonder of the World!

If you want to see just the animation, check this out:

Why a half-panda half-octopus creature, I hear you ask (or not)? Well, I had a wire armature of a set of tentacles knocking around that I'd made a few years ago for an abandoned animation puppet and felt it would save time to use that; at the same time the schlocky sci-fi horror flick Sharktopus sprang to mind, which made Pandopus seem the obvious choice...

The whole thing took nearly a week to make, with Thursday afternoon and evening devoted to animating the puppet. Most of a day may seem a long time for only 8-seconds of animation but quite a bit of time was wasted going up blind alleys, in particular trying to do some green-screen compositing. I found that with the equipment and software I have it simply isn't practicable. Fortunately I still had the model building facade left over from Die Hard In 60 Seconds, and that was more than adequate for Pandopus to crawl up.

There aren't many photos of behind-the-scenes stuff, I was simply in too much of a hurry to get things done, but of the few images that exist these are probably the best:

As you can see the scenery was very crudely achieved by printing out what I wanted off my colour inkjet and gluing the sheets to card (in the case of the London Zoo background). Having, as mentioned above, abandoned the idea of green-screen compositing, I toyed with the idea of printing a London landmark such as the Big Ben clock tower, but in the end it was simply easier (and quicker) to use an existing prop (the larger-scale model skyscraper from Die Hard In 60 Seconds).

The Pandopus creature was made as simply as possible: a clay master was sculpted, a two-part plaster mould was then made from that into which liquid latex was sponged to make a skin. The armature was made from wire with a vertical piece 3mm thick for the 'spine' and a cross-piece of four 1.5mm wires twisted together for the arms, these being held together with Friendly Plastic (see previous post). Unfortunately I botched applying the Friendly Plastic, which also constituted a 'skull', to the extent that it was impossible to bend the body or turn the head (I also, in my haste, didn't bother incorporating any wires to animate the mouth), which is why the Pandopus is so immobile and inexpressive above the waist (this is why I tried to animate the arms doing stuff as well, to give it a bit more life). The latex-lined mould then had flexible polyurethane foam mix poured in to pad it out and give the body form.

Another (one-piece, open) mould was made of textured clay with suckers sculpted on to give the tentacles the requisite octopussy look (a technique swiped from the superlative Lone Animator, aka Richard Svensson - check this baby out for details) and from this mould several latex 'skins' were made. I made a complete horse's arse of applying these to the tentacles but fortunately I'd started on the tentacles at the back so by the time I got to the front I'd managed to get the hang of it and those ones are considerably better finished. With the tentacle armature constituting one unit and the upper panda body constituting another unit, they were very simply joined together with twisted wire, the 'skirt' of webbing between the tentacles hiding the join.

Colouring was achieved with the old standby of homemade PAX paint (a mixture of artist's acrylics and Pros-Aide No-Tack prosthetic adhesive). Despite the name it does remain a little tacky forever (but less tacky than non-No-Tack, if you see what I mean) but a dusting with talcum powder kills this off and dulls the glossiness too, which is a bonus.

And that, dear reader, is pretty much that.

Wednesday 13 February 2013


Anyone casting even the most cursory of glances at this blog over the years will have seen that I've been arsing and faffing around forever (though horribly sporadically) experimenting with sculpting this and modelling that, trying to produce immaculately crafted foam and rubber figures and puppets to bring to life with stopmotion animation. How bleedin' ironic, then, that my first foray into the art should be a crude (in every sense of the word) couple of seconds animated gif for a b3ta Challenge!Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you KNOBZILLA, KING OF THE GENITALS!

With a plasticine monster, balsa-wood and paper tanks, and printouts cut out and mounted on card for the background cityscape (and yes, they're nicked from stills from the original Godzilla), this is about as low-tech as it gets...

Here's a peek behind the scenes:

Having only been alerted to the b3ta Challenge by my old mucker Joe Scaramanga last Friday, and then spending the entire weekend pissed due to commemorating my shuffling yet another year nearer the grave, I spent a frantic Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday preparing and then animating (not helped by half a day spent searching for all the cables and power-supply for my camera which, in an entirely and depressingly predictable McTodd-like stroke of organisational genius, had been separated at birth).

On the vague off-chance that anyone's interested, the jet of tank-crushing jizz was simulated using the amazing PolyMorph, aka Friendly Plastic, which manifests itself initially in the form of little white beads or granules which can be shaped by hand after being soaked in freshly-boiled water for a couple of minutes to soften them. Seven streams of spoodge, depicting the jet at successive stages of, well, jetting, were made and swapped in a form of substitution animation. The actual pool of spluff was made from shaving foam. Consequently, my room smells uncharacteristically pleasant at the moment...

Wednesday 30 January 2013

More Martian Stuff...

As usual, being utterly indecisive I've modified the earlier Martian sculpt considerably, partly because I felt it was a bit too 'cuddly', going back to an earlier design of mine which adheres to Wells's basic concept of the creature, but with some tweaks to try to make it more 'rational'. If you know the novel, the Martians in The War of the Worlds can be seen as hyper-evolved humans, which is the starting point for my version. I need to digress somewhat to explain...

In 1893 in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article, The Man of the Year Million, Wells had posited that technological progress meant that the processes of locomotion and digestion in humans would be increasingly, and eventually wholly, mechanised leading, through evolutionary development, to the atrophying of the parts of the human body that carry out those functions. At the same time, our brains would grow, as would our hands ('the teacher and agent of the brain' as Wells put it) leading, in a million years, to humans having evolved into weird giant heads perched on enormous hands, with tiny vestigial bodies dangling like grotesque pendants.

The magazine carrying this piece, The Pall Mall Budget, illustrated them thus, bathing in the 'nutritive fluid' Wells speculated would replace conventional feeding (this is, incidentally, to the best of my knowledge the first time that that hoary sf staple the Big-Headed Super-Intelligent Being, as exemplified later by Dan Dare's would-be nemesis the Mekon, makes its appearance):

The humorous periodical Punch parodied the article in a piece of amusing doggerel accompanied by this rendition of the same scene (ironically, despite ridiculing Wells's vision Punch's illustrator probably captures the essence of these strange beings more closely than The Pall Mall Budget's more restrained artist):

The Martians are a step beyond this vision, their bodies being mere colossal heads containing, apart from the prodigious brain, little in the way of entrails save a heart and lungs. The two bunches of tentacles are effectively highly evolved hands. With no digestive system, they take their nutrition directly into their bloodstream by injecting the blood of other creatures (they are essentially vampires - there must have been something in the air in 1897, the year WOTW was first published as a serial, as this was also the year Bram Stoker's Dracula appeared). That they are implicitly a vision of what humanity could evolve into is made clear when Wells's nameless narrator cites, in support of the thesis that they are descended from humanoids, The Man of the Year Million in a rather post-modern manner, even criticising the author's 'facetious' tone!

Thus, I have attempted in my sculpture to incorporate features which imply that the Martians are, indeed, hyper-evolved humanoids (if not humans), as my crude initial concept sketch shows:

First, I've compromised on the number of tentacles to make it practical to animate. Wells's creatures have sixteen in two bunches of eight; I've reduced this right down to six in two bunches of three. But apart from this, taking minor liberties with Wells's descriptions (which make the Martians out to be basically large spherical lumps with very few external features save eyes, mouth and tentacles) I've added a vestigial torso, which would contain the heart and lungs, and a sort of 'fused neck' connecting it to the massive swollen head.

So far, this is how the sculpture looks (it's still in the roughing-out stage, hence apart from anything else the lopsidedness as I've yet to build-up the left-hand side of the bulging brain case):

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Martian Madness 2!

A while ago (2008!) I had a go at sculpting a Martian, a la H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, which I never finished because I decided it was shite. So now I've gone back to one of my oldest fondest projects and have started on a new Martian. Here he is so far (the tentacles are just there for show, they're not the actual ones, those are being made separately)..