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Stop-motion magic In Focus by Richard Crouse February 06, 2009

rh-clashofthetitansThe textbook definition of stop-motion animation is “to make a physically manipulated object appear to move on its own.”

That’s too mechanical a description for an art form where artists like Ray Harryhausen and Henry Selick create unique worlds on film one frame at a time. At its best stop motion has a timeless quality and otherworldly charm born from the old fashioned process that brings it to the screen. It’s handmade with a level of craftsmanship and soul that not even the most skilled programmer working on the most advanced computer can imitate.

“I think stop motion creates a dream quality,” said Harryhausen. “If you try to make fantasy too real with CGI you bring it down to the level of the mundane.”

There’s nothing mundane about Harryhausen’s 1957 masterwork 20 Million Miles to Earth.

The special effects wiz made his name on this film with his beautiful rendering of the Ymir, an outer space creature brought back to Earth by the first manned flight to Venus.

In the film’s most striking sequence the baby creature, looking like the love child of a bodybuilder and a dinosaur, hatches from a gooey space egg. In a masterful scene the infant rubs its eyes and gets acclimated to his strange new world. Its King Kong meets E.T., showcasing Harryhausen’s trademarks — beauty, compassion and imagination.

It’s one of the films that sparked the imagination of Tim Burton, who once joked that Harryhausen was so good he got more personality out of puppets than most directors could get from real live actors.

Burton confirmed his love of stop motion when he hired Henry Selick — who’s beautifully twisted tale Coraline opens in theatres this week, to direct The Nightmare Before Christmas. The story of the mayor of Halloweentown who kidnaps and impersonates “Sandy Claws” to bring his own brand of goodwill to the world is a wonderfully warped story that is plays like an offbeat Rankin/Bass production.

Even stranger, but just as intriguing is The Cameraman’s Revenge, a 1912 film about a jilted husband whose revenge involves filming his wife and her lover and showing the result at the local cinema.

All characters are played by animated insects and the results are so realistic one critic wondered if Starevich taught bugs to perform for the camera. It’s a bizarre, beautiful artifact from one of the pioneers of the art form.

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