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Posts Tagged ‘Willis O’Brien’

Jim Danforth, Special Effects Master

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

A Jim Danforth matte painting from George Romero’s Day of the Dead.

Jim and Karen Danforth are two of the last great artists of the pre-digital era of cinema in the area of special effects work, especially matte paintings and stop-motion animation, both of which have been essentially rendered obsolete by CGI imagery. Matte paintings essentially fill in background or foreground areas when set would prove too costly to build, or too time consuming; stop motion animation of models, pioneered by the great Willis O’Brien in The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933) are now also a thing of the past.

While CGI work is often extremely convincing, as times goes by, there also seems to be a certain ephemerality about it; you know it’s not there, it has no physical solidity, and somehow it seems less “real” as a result. The great pioneers of motion picture special effects — people like Albert Whitlock, Bill Brace, David Stipes, Gene Warren, Harry Walton, Jim Danforth, Mark Sullivan, Peter Ellenshaw, Ray Caple, and Ray Harryhausen — all of whom are discussed in this interview, are some of the people who created the original magic of the movies, and their story is both fascinating and instructive for contemporary filmmakers, film historians, and students of the cinema.

In this remarkably detailed interview by a blogger known only as NZ Pete, Danforth talks about his many, many films assignments over the years, his early influences as a special effects artist, changing trends in the film production business, and looks back on the numerous assignments that he’s tackled, some of which worked out to his satisfaction, and others which he’s not enamored of.

The numerous stills in this interview are exceptional, and as NZ Pete notes, many of them appear here for the first time. Danforth is also refreshingly honest about his work, and his legacy, and more than happy to tip his hat to the many pioneers who came before him. He’s also extremely articulate about the incredible amount of work that goes into matte paintings and stop motion work; it’s about as time consuming a job as one can possibly imagine. So I’m happy to pass this along, as someone who also admired Danforth’s work over the years, in a variety of genres; it’s a fascinatingly rich discussion, and serves as a a real education on this aspect of cinema history.

Read the entire interview by clicking here, or on the image at the top of this page.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Earth vs. The Flying Saucers.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) was arguably Ray Harryhausen’s breakthrough as a stop motion special effects artist; he had worked on Mighty Joe Young (1949) and other films as an assistant under Willis O’ Brien, the creator of King Kong (1933), but with this film, he stepped out in front with a dazzling display of special effects wizardry which was, at the time of the film’s production, state of the art. What’s even more amazing is that the entire film, except for Harryhausen’s special effects, which took months to complete, was shot in just six days – a stunning feat, made possible only by director Fred F. Sears‘ expertise and grace under pressure. Indeed, while much of the film was shot on the Columbia back lot, Sears dispatched a second unit to Washington DC to shoot process plates for the special effects, and also footage of the film’s stars, Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor, dodging laser blast rays on the steps of the capitol building.

Another thing that’s remarkable is how much of the film was shot on location, and how quickly, without all the security that would make such an enterprise impossible today. Although Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is manifestly a union film, Sears and producer Sam Katzman pushed both the crew and the actors to the limits of their endurance to get the film in the can, while Sears worked feverishly with Harryhausen’s production designs to make sure that the live action material dovetailed perfectly with Harryhausen’s miniature work. Such a pace would be impossible today, when everything takes forever to shoot — Sears moved fast, and his co-workers moved with him, to make a convincing film on a minuscule budget.

In this age of CGI, anything is possible, but in the 1950s, the only way you could get something convincing on the screen was through the use of stop-motion animation, painstakingly moving the saucers frame, by frame, by frame, by frame, shooting one frame after another, with 24 changes of position per second, to achieve what then passed for realism. This isn’t a film which revels in plot, or in any degree of subtlety, complete with a stentorian narrator providing a “voice of doom” commentary throughout the film; the invaders simply show up and start blasting everyone in sight with a disintegrator ray, with but one objective; to take over the earth and colonize it for the members of their dying race. It’s one of the 1950s’ best, and most compact, science fiction films, moving along swiftly to its suitably violent conclusion. There’s a colorized DVD available, actually supervised by Harryhausen himself, but don’t fall for it; get the black and white original. The film looks and plays like a brutal newsreel of an alien invasion, and once seen, is never forgotten.

If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?

Special Effects Masters — Frame by Frame Videos

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Harry Hamlin in the original Clash of the Titans, with effects by Ray Harryhausen

For the past two years, Curt Bright and I have been doing a series of short videos also entitled Frame by Frame, and it seemed to me that it’s only right to break these out in a more public fashion by highlighting some of them in my text blog.

This 3 minute video, covering the work of special effects masters Willis O’Brien (King Kong), Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) and Phil Tippett, who made the jump from stop motion animation to CGI visuals, most notably in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997), is one of the best yet, and I really felt Curt’s hard work on the piece deserved a mention.

You can see it by clicking here, or on the image at the top of this page.

You can also see all the Frame by Frame videos by clicking here.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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