Cybersurfing: Was Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion more real than CGI?
In an article at Boingboing.net. author Ethan Gilsdorf muses on the recent passing of special effects artist Ray Harryhausen, an event which inevitably symbolizes the demise of old-fashioned analog special effects: miniatures, models, and most especially the Harryhausen style of stop-motion puppetry that brought imaginative creatures to life for decades. While acknowledging that digital effects offer their own brand of artistry, Gilsdorf believes these effects lack heft, gravity, and presence.
Gilsdorf’s point is a bit vague in terms of defining realism and its cinematic value. On the one hand, Harryhausen used puppets with texture – palpable objects that could be touched, lending a greater sense of reality – and this makes his stop-motion monsters superior to today’s artificially created computer-generated effects. On the other hand, today’s computer-generated creations are feeding audience appetite for ever greater realism and becoming so convincing that they will soon be indistinguishable from images that were actually photographed – and this makes them somehow inferior.
So, which is more real, and which is best? Though the answer to the former question is unclear, Gilsdorf’s enthusiasm for stop-motion comes through.
Like many people who address this topic, Gilsdorf has a view of modern effects that is tainted by (an acknowledged) nostalgia for older techniques. For him, the death of Harryhausen represents the death of “real” special effects and of the “real” in fantasy films. “Times have changed,” he insists. “And not necessarily for the better.”
Perhaps, but not necessarily for the worst, either. Today’s computer-generated effects may be overused, but they have solved numerous problems that plagued older movies; in particular, CGI has freed the camera from its lock-down, proscenium arch look that often identified effects in Harryhausen films. Today, filmmakers can create effects-laden sequences that fit seemlessly into the live-action, the camera style virtually identical.
The problem, I think, is that the over-abundance of effects leads to a certain carelessness – not in technical matters but in artistic ones. What “effect” – emotional, intellectual, whatever – is supposed to be accomplished by each special “effect” in the movie? When filmmakers were limited by time, money, and technology, they had to make sure that their special effects paid off with emotional effects. Even JURASSIC PARK, the film that spelled the death-knell for stop-motion (switching from that technique to computers during pre-production) was somewhat old-school in this regard, making fairly economical in its use of movie magic, so that each dinosaur shot really seemed to matter.
I, too, miss the demise of stop-motion as a special effects technique, along with models and miniatures; I believe there are stylistic reasons why those techniques are superior in some situations. However, the same holds true for computer-generated imagery, which gave us, for example, the Balrog in LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING – one of the most convincing movie monsters ever depicted.
Fortunately, stop-motion lives on in films such as PARANORMAN and FRANKENWEENIE. Hopefully, it will continue to enchant film-goers for at least a few more years.