Opening Act

This year is the 30th anniversary of the creation of Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special, the opening sequence of which I had the honor of animating. It all started with an unexpected phone call from producer/director Prudence Fenton. Production was to start in just a few days and she was inquiring about my availability to shoot the stop-motion animation for the title sequence. Prudence also requested that I sculpt a clay fox and several other animals to animate and have ready immediately. I was more than willing but considering the unusually short notice, I could only create the clay fox puppet ahead of the shoot. Getting right to work, I wondered what I was getting myself into, and the project did have many difficulties, but my efforts paid off in that they resulted in an Emmy nomination!

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Dynamation's Last Stand

During the early Nineties, the animation and visual effects industries transformed rapidly from their traditional old-school techniques to the use of computer generated imagery. One of the lost arts was "Dynamation", invented by the late, great Ray Harryhausen. Once considered the best and most revered method for integrating creatures into live action movies, Dynamation is now long obsolete. Although this Harryhausen-created procedure was generally considered to be a magician's secret, a few other masters such as Jim Danforth, David Allen, Randall William Cook, Jim Aupperle, Phil Tippett, and Doug Beswick all knew and practiced the art. The procedure involves animating a realistic stop-motion puppet in front of a rear-projection of live action footage. Foreground elements are masked out on a glass sheet in front of the camera and then restored by backwinding the film and running a second pass. The result is the illusion that the animated character is in the scene and interacting with the actors in the movie.

While employed by Full Moon Entertainment in 1994-1995, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to animate using the Dynamation technique on five separate movies. One of these productions, Magic Island, had the distinction of being the last feature film released which utilized Harryhausen's legacy process!

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Cowboys, Aliens, and Giant Scorpions

The Night Scorps animation sequences!


In 1994, animation legend David Allen (1944-1999) hired me to animate gigantic scorpions for the feature film Oblivion. The film was a bizarre space-western, the original "cowboys and aliens"! It was produced by Full Moon Entertainment, which was a very busy studio with many movies in production. At that time, David was running the Full Moon special effects department and rarely doing any actual hands-on animation. In fact his main concern was planning for his upcoming Primevals movie, which was his dream project. He trusted his crew to create the work for other films such as Oblivion, under his overall supervision. I teamed up with Joseph Grossberg, who was in charge of the visual effects camera work and lighting. My task was to bring the giant alien scorpions, called Night Scorps, to life via stop-motion animation.

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Stop-Motion Field Trip

In 1987, I was part of a group of dedicated artists hired to animate critters for the ABC weekend special RUNAWAY RALPH. For one particularly successful sequence, director John Clark Matthews came up with the bold idea of shooting the stop-motion animation outdoors. The concept sounded crazy at first because the stop-motion process would exaggerate the changing sunlight, clouds, and wind blowing on the landscape. For “realistic” animation, filming outside should not work, but it did! The sequence in question involved Ralph the mouse running away from home and riding his motorcycle on the highway. Initial tests proved that if the camera shots were animated in large increments, necessary in order to follow Ralph’s motorcycle, the wind and changing sunlight would be imperceptible.

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Fairy Tale Surrealism

One of the most unusual projects of my career was RED RIDING HOOD AND THE WELL-FED WOLF, an educational film that featured characters representing the various food groups. As Animation Director of the 1989 film, I created and brought to life talking food interacting with live actors who portrayed Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. Stop-motion animation was the main technique used, and traditional puppetry was employed for the shots involving the actors and the talking food together.

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The Making of ENCOUNTER

Let's take a journey in the “way-back machine” to 1982, when I was busy creating a stop-motion world in the spare bedroom of my apartment. Having previously filmed numerous animated experiments, I devised the methodology for a more ambitious project, ENCOUNTER, about a confrontation between knights and aliens in the Middle Ages. Information about the stop-motion process was very scarce in those days, but I managed to figure out and find ways that would work within the confines of low budget independent filmmaking.

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A look behind the scenes of art-making and other musings by .

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See More Articles:

Howie and pumpkin from The Nightmare Before Christmas Skellington Incident

Pillsbury doughboy baking a pie Stop-Motion Doughboy

Aliens from Encounter movie Making ENCOUNTER

mouse riding motorcycle Stop-Motion Field Trip

nimslo camera Anaglyph Technique

Frog as a knight St. Frog and the Dragon

Mother and father Umblebum Meet the Umblebums

Carrot puppets from Red Riding Hood and the Well Fed Wolf Fairy Tale Surrealism

3 cavemen Sculpting Cavemen

A reindog and elf The Red-Nosed Reindog

Disney popsicles Making Mickey's Parade

Freddy nightmare Nightmares Made Real

tattooed lady Tattoo Parlor Diorama

face of fire dancer Painting RING OF FIRE

face of Night Scorp Gigantic Scorpions

face of Night Scorp Chroma Key Animation

bodybuilder Frank Zane posing The Living Body as Sculpture

Man runs in a sewer movie set Starting at the Bottom

Animated bottle cap character Zippy the Cap

Stone Giant stop-motion puppet The End of Dynamation

Candy on a boys face Eye Candy

Dancing figures Lucid Dream

Talking deer and moose hunting trophies Wacky Trophy Heads

Handstanding figure over river valley Making THE WANDERER

Portrait of man made of fruit Creating a Fruit Man

Colorful mandala design Mysterium Mandala

Portrait of Jack Skellington Nightmare Still Photos

Spacecraft Wreckage Spaceship Junkyard

Closeup of a robot Models and Props pt. 1

Watch shaped like a mouse Models and Props pt. 2

Train locomotive Models and Props pt. 3

Face of a cute dinosaur Young Iguanodon

ice skating hersheys kisses Lively Kisses

shopping mall Making Mall Mania

powerful super hero Extreme Heroic Poses

face of mother earth Earth Mother

The character Kait from Gears of War Motion Mixture

Clay fox sculpture in the snow Pee-Wee Christmas Title

Painting of a wild goat overlooking a valley One With Nature

© 2006-2019 Joel Fletcher
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