Dramatic Principles in Stop-Motion:
A Discussion of Animation in the Fantasy Film

Jun 20, 2006

This essay originally appeared in the fanzine PHOTON (issue #22), in 1972.

Stop-motion animation has been attracting a growing number of enthusiasts for about the last ten years, and though it seems the majority of these people must out of necessity be disappointed, many of them have an interest that extends beyond curiosity into a hope for professional careers. Perhaps to this group more than anyone, I would like to try to make some general remarks about the aesthetics of stop motion, and while it may be difficult to keep a particular framework intact for this, I hope that some discussion of the things that have been important to me will be of some interest to others, also.

As will be guessed from what follows, the basic inspiration for my work was provided by the 1952 re-release of King Kong. Later, of course, Ray Harryhausen’s work directed my interests into specific interests of technical study. At this point, I would like to pause and say two things. The first is that it would be difficult to give Mr. Harryhausen too much credit for the technical and stylistic advances which he has contributed to the animated fantasy film. His industry, perseverance, and artistry are apparent to anyone familiar with his career. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad alone was a revolutionary achievement, not only because of the technical challenge that color presented, but more importantly because it freed animation from the realistic—usually dinosaur-oriented—stop-motion film, opening up many more romantic possibilities. I need go no further than my own work to demonstrate his influence.

The second point is that it is the intention of this article, and one which I have been approached for specifically, to deal in criticism along a more comprehensive line than is customary with these films, and this will force me to state personal beliefs about what has been successful in stop motion, and what has not. It is certainly not my intention to hold Ray Harryhausen responsible for flaws in his films that are unconnected with visual effects.

To begin, I feel that for comparative purposes, it is a good idea to cite the best example of success in a romantic adventure fantasy, and try to discover the things in it that made it great. No one who knows me will be surprised (though I know some who disagree) that I still consider King Kong to be that film. For our purpose, it has the added advantage of being a stop-motion film that has exerted a wide-ranging influence over the films of Ray Harryhausen and others. Naturally, no one can say that there is any one best type of plot construction for the fantasy film. Kong operates on quite different principles than other classics such as The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or The Innocents. However, it is in the succession of stop-motion films that followed Kong that its influence is most marked, and it is interesting to trace and compare that development.

I am not the only one, of course, who has given thought to the reasons why Kong worked so well as a film. I have read many articles by others about the film, but most of them do not deal in conceptual areas. Therefore, what I would like to do now is list the factors that, in Kong, seem valuable for study.

Fairy tale and mythic elements: Perhaps the most basic ingredient. Fairy tales probably contain elements that are indigenous to the culture that produces and maintains them. One need consider only the ingredients of horror within a moral system that the typical fairy story affords to see a relationship to Kong. Fairy tales of the gothic school, in particular, rely on the shock value of the grotesque for effect. That Kong follows the tradition of the mythic adventure can also be shown. This is true not only of the classical tragic elements (Kong could be compared to Prometheus) but of the sequential construction of the events, a formula that has worked since Homer.

Kong as protagonist: Strongly connected to this point is the relationship that Kong as a character has to the definition of a tragic protagonist. To anyone not familiar with Aristotle’s Poetics, this work, which contains the basic outline of western drama, explains the traits which the tragic figure must have to evoke sympathy and identification. To illustrate, the tragic character must be a larger than life personality, usually a ruler or a great hero. Kong is, of course, an ape; but he is sufficiently humanized to stand up to this requirement. Further, he displays the characteristic “tragic flaw” in an otherwise proud and secure personality. This is shown as his weakness for beauty. A hopeless infatuation for beauty by the grotesque is a very strong stimulus for sympathy in fiction. Here, Kong compares very well to the Frankenstein monster or Quasimodo. My feeling is that there is something very elemental in our identification with a character who, against a known capacity for violence and revenge, is then shown to have the same possibilities for tenderness and sacrifice as we.

There is something else that is very important about the implicit conflict in the plot of Kong, and it is something that has not been sufficiently credited. This is the simple and integrating factor that Kong and the other major characters have one identical and overlapping motivation: the possession of the girl! It is this organizing principle which binds the suspense, the struggles, and the characters to each other, preventing Kong from ever becoming remote from the human actors in the film. It is the absence of this element—a shared and conflicting motivation across the line between character animation and live action—which is the consistent flaw in films of this type. The lesson to the scriptwriter is this: Kong is the hero of the story, not Denham or Driscoll. He is not only the center of the actions but also the subject of the theme (beauty and the beast). This is the most basic and overlooked fact behind the attraction of the film.

The importance of the antihero: Most of us would agree that roles such as Sokurah, the magician of Sinbad, or James Mason as Captain Nemo, often provide us with characters far more interesting than the leading roles opposite them. This is probably because the hero or heroine becomes stereotyped in a fantasy film, and is not permitted the relative range of complexity that the villain, or antihero, is allowed. Carl Denham is an antihero, with something of the tenacity and aggressiveness of a Captain Ahab as he challenges Kong for supremacy. Nowadays, with our modern suspicion of dominative strength and material exploitation, Denham appears less sympathetic as he plows irresolutely and somewhat unfeelingly toward his goal. Yet, for all this, he remains the most interesting human character, with a very nostalgically American style.

The concept: After forty years, during which many films of the day have deteriorated and become forgotten, it is easier to give Kong perhaps too much credit for story originality. Of course, parallels to The Lost World come to mind but, after that, it should be mentioned that a part of Hollywood had just gone through a “jungle film” phase, probably reinvigorated after talkies with the highly promoted Trader Horn (with its blond jungle heroine). There was even one such film predating Kong, which showed a man in a gorilla suit carrying off a white girl sacrifice (according to Rudy Behlmer’s Jungle Tales of the Cinema). Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack had themselves been involved in on-location jungle films of this type with Grass and Chang. Looked at in this way, Kong can be seen more naturally as the product of a line of developing inspiration. However, this should not be taken to detract from the credit that is due to Cooper, Edgar Wallace, and the perfect coalition of talent that came together at R.K.O. The record certainly shows that Cooper had to argue for his vision of what he knew from the beginning would be a stunningly unique motion picture.

Nostalgia: This may or may not add to one’s appreciation of Kong, but the fact is that the film has now lived so long that it is a veritable costume-period picture. This quality is accented by the photography, the acting, the dialogue, and, to a much lesser extent, the direction. Any attempt to remake Kong would have to consider the qualities that the production gained by being filmed in 1932.

The music: Max Steiner’s score for Kong is, in his opinion, one of his three best. It is romantic and melodramatic in the grand manner, yet always sublimated to and harmonious with the total effect. This technique, the translation of emotion into musical terms, reached its full development in the operas of Wagner and Strauss, and it was inevitable that in their public accessibility, the conventions of romantic music would reach Hollywood. Later, such music would turn saccharine in the presence of hundreds of studio weepers, but in 1933, the results that Steiner achieved with an under-built orchestra of day-labor musicians were sensational. One need only recall the musicianship and timing of the native celebrations, the crescendos moving behind the escaped Kong, or the overture itself to have the suspicion that the romantic score may someday return to a place of honor in films.

Sound effects: Besides the visual effects, it is easy to overlook the contribution that the sound effects of Murray Spivack and his crew made to the production. When one considers how new sound itself was to film, the accomplishment is even more impressive. Of particular interest is the careful relationship between the musical score and the sound effects. Not only do the sounds not clash with the music, they often slide in and out of the score with the effect of another instrument in Steiner’s orchestra.

Special effects: Although the animation in The Lost World is often strangely technically superior to Kong, it is certainly less robust and demanding. All things considered, the general improvement seen over the six or seven years between the two films is astonishing. Those that consider King Kong as good “in its time” or “for its day” should question whether the qualities that have made it last are factors almost exclusive to “its time.” It is often said that Kong might be improved today with our newer and more efficient technical apparatus. Possibly, but my reply is that the effect, the mood, which is no more or less than its style, owes much to the fact that the absence of such technical apparatus often forced the greater burden upon artisans, who had to substitute art for technique simply because no other means existed! Thus, the deficiencies of miniature background projection meant that no real jungle could be projected behind the puppet characters—therefore the jungle was designed, painted, and built by hand with an atmospheric flourish that no real jungle could offer. The situation is analogous to the regret we attach to a product where the machine has displaced the craftsman in its manufacture. We may admit a newer, but not necessarily higher, efficiency and detect that we have lost on the one hand as much as we have gained on the other.

It should also be warned that with technique, almost invariably, comes formula. This lack of a formula, of a pre-established system, gave an exploratory character to all phases of the film. In the effects, the result was that each shot, each animation set up, was a new challenge that had to be dealt with individually. Somewhat unintentionally, I suspect, this made the finished sequences far more filmic and vital than seems possible today. Every known trick of the time was stretched to its furthest limits—perhaps sometimes even beyond those limits—for the sake of the desired “look.” This sort of “effects license” is almost nonexistent today, because effects work tends to be chiefly augmentative in nature and is thus forced to cut realistically with the whole. Kong is rescued from this modern sterilizing tendency by the fact that, until the New York scenes, it rarely has a realistic backdrop for comparison.

Remarks as extended as these should, include at least some negative criticism of the picture. Although such things as fluctuations, in the size of Kong, or handling marks on the fur, seem less important to me now than they did years ago (I never minded—even preferred—the “jerky” aspect of stop motion), I must concede to the realist that they are there, and can be distracting. One of the things that occasionally annoys me today is the generally careless attitude about the animation itself. There is enough good work in the film to show that they could have had better overall quality in the stop-motion. Secondly, I have been slightly disappointed in some of the contents of the “censored” scenes that have just resurfaced. The overdone people-chewing scenes diminish our sympathy for Kong, and the animation is worse than usual in most of the shots. Further, I admit that much of the sympathy is accrued to Kong by the nature of the story itself, and is often not sensitively reinforced at crucial times. These things, however, I consider very minor in comparison to what was achieved, and against the vitality, the recklessness, and the pervading informality of Kong, there is no film of the type which compares equally.

The same group tried more than once to recapture the spirit of Kong, but it never could. The closest that any work has come to it, in my opinion, is The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Sinbad, like Kong, was something new in fantasy—or at least a new twist. Further, like Kong, it required some new technical thought before production could begin. I was never on the sets, or involved with the film in any way, but I can almost feel the adventurism and bravado that all concerned must have felt for the project. Also like Kong (and to be admired in any production), it is a highly efficient film in which there seems to be a little waste. It is done with an intelligent economy, embracing and challenging its own limits. Like Kong, the story and characters are interesting, and the animals are fascinating and well integrated. The film is not perfect, but at least for me, it recaptured the flavor of Kong in a way that none of Mr. Harryhausen’s earlier films had, even though I enjoyed them very much.

A few years ago, I was very surprised to read in an interview with Ray Harryhausen that he preferred Jason and the Argonauts to Sinbad. Certainly, Jason is a near-perfect record of composite effects work, and many of the scenes rate among his best animation. But in spite of the fact that it is modeled after Sinbad, and maybe partly because of it, the film lacks life of its own. Between the animation segments, it tends to wander and become turgid, and even the hydra sequence fails in generating any true sense of excitement or suspense. The reasons why Jason achieves less than it might have can, I think, be explained in terms of what made Kong a success.

First of all, none of the characters, with the possible exception of Hercules, are made interesting to the viewers. Without evaluating performances, the part of Jason is difficult to portray sympathetically since he is really on a mission of burglary. Is it not of justifiable concern to the people who prosper by holding the fleece that Jason wants to steal it for his own uses? This may seem like a small point, but its importance is deceptive, for it prevented the writers from focusing on Jason’s motives, which, in turn, robbed the actions of any strong meaning. It is a quest film in which the quest must be seldom discussed or made to seem urgent.

The impact of the animation sequences is extremely varied in Jason, and in some ways this is a credit to the attempt to try for differing moods in each episode. Except for the hydra affair, there is something worthily nonstandard in each of them. The skeleton sequence, though lacking the horror and immediacy of the one in Sinbad, becomes the most cinematically thought-out and directed stop-motion sequence in years, and the harpies are really quite as original as anything I can recall, though they might have been made even more human by the use of better close-ups. Nevertheless, in spite of all this, the puppets just do not have the presence of the ones in Sinbad. More importantly, they seem to operate less as an intrinsic part of the plot machinery, though they are relatively faithful to the myth.

Another of the Charles Schneer-Ray Harryhausen pictures worth studying is 20 Million Miles to Earth. It has parallels not only to King Kong, but to their most recent picture, The Valley of Gwangi. Potentially 20 Million Miles to Earth had excellent opportunities. It not only had a continuing stop-motion character, but a character that, unlike Gwangi, offered a chance for human sympathy. It still seems strange to me today that so little was done to capitalize upon this obvious asset. There are a few scenes that give a hint of the creature reacting to a confusing environment, such as the newly hatched Ymir on the table, or the sequence with the sheep, but on the whole the film fails to focus its theme through the character of the Ymir. I would like to add, however, that the animation work in this picture may be Mr. Harryhausen’s finest. If only there had been more thought given to the character of the Ymir particularly, and the direction, it could have risen far above another “monster on the loose” film.

Gwangi, it seems to me, had far less to work with. Again to Ray Harryhausen’s credit, the animation (considering especially the amount of time in which it was done) is prolific and yet maintains his usual high standards. I have no doubt that children enjoy this picture immensely, as I used to enjoy The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms or It Came from Beneath the Sea. The difficulty is that films have come a long way in the twenty years since those pictures were new, and some of us who have grown up would like to feel that stop-motion could be used today in more courageous directions. Gwangi is much overstuffed with clichéd situations and characters (old professor, Mexican boy, gypsy woman, etc.), and I just do not see on what basis anyone could be passionate about this picture.

Our most recent stop-motion entry, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, is without question the worst offender of all. It is living proof of the insensitive disaster that results when incompetence of the spirit unites with a material interest. To anyone who has seen the film, it need not be added that those involved had no feeling or regard for the kind of picture they were committed to making. Stunning effects work by Jim Danforth becomes little more than black-out vignettes over a background that varies unrelievedly between boring and ludicrous. With the example of so much fine work (even their own One Million Years, B.C., which Dinosaurs was cynically imitating for profit, is a far more professional motion picture), it is difficult to excuse, or even to understand how such a film as this can happen. The real tragedy is that films of this mentality do serious harm to public estimation of the whole genre, thus jeopardizing more serious efforts.

As I am in the animation field myself, it may seem strange that I have had so little to say about the contribution of stop-motion as a process to the science fiction and fantasy field. This has been deliberate. Many other people have expressed the enjoyment they receive from seeing fine animation combined with first-rate art direction, and I assure the reader that I have enjoyed these same sensations also. But I have tried instead here to demonstrate something of the complex relationship between plot, character, theme, art direction, and effects in the stop-motion film, and if I have been able to stimulate thinking about these areas, I will be grateful. I’m afraid there has been an excess of adulation given to the technical side of these films, and it is exactly that attitude which, at the production levels, results in an effects—rather than story-oriented—motion picture. Spectacle without human involvement, no matter how theatrical, has no inherent emotional meaning, as I think the Toho exports have proven. To those of us who may be involved in filmmaking careers, a worthy goal is to secure balance and respectability in our future fantasy films.