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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Zippy the Cap

One of the cleverest ad campaigns I have been involved with was for Black Star Beer in 1992. A "Make-Believe History" was created for the newly started brewery by the Wieden & Kennedy agency, directed by Alex Proyas. The ad featured a montage of pretend commercials from the past, presented by announcer John Corbett (of Northern Exposure fame). My contribution was to animate Zippy The Cap, an iconic talking bottle cap character, supposedly from the year 1950.

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Starting at the Bottom

Scene from the horror movie Vamp filmed in a sewer set
Running from vampires in the sewer. Note the pink and green eighties lighting.


Having moved to Los Angeles with the dream of becoming a professional stop-motion animator, I initially found it very difficult to get my foot in the door of the movie business. I managed to get a few gigs making miniatures as a model maker, but even those jobs were hard to come by for a newcomer. Then the opportunity came to work on my first feature motion picture, starting at the very bottom... the sewer! Okay, in actuality I was hired to build a sewer, as part of the construction crew on the horror movie VAMP in 1986.

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The Living Body as Sculpture

Frank Zane and Lisa Lyon, examples of classic bodybuilding physiques!

Some may call bodybuilding a sport but it can also be a true art form. Bodybuilders literally sculpt themselves by making conscious decisions about where to add and where to subtract, accomplishing their goal with focused weight training, exercise, and diet. The objective of their efforts is to reach the physical ideal, which is certainly subjective depending on the eye of the beholder.

When I was a very young man, I attended the 1979 Mr. Olympia competition and filmed many of the highlights with my trusty Super 8 camera. In that event, the bodybuilders essentially gave stage performances as living, breathing sculptures. Frank Zane, arguably the greatest bodybuilder ever, won the contest for a third straight year. A unique guest poser was also at the event, pioneering female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon. The show represented the end of an era. Within a few short years, the world of professional bodybuilding was to experience HUGE changes. The following is some background information on these featured stars in my movie clip.

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Stop-Motion Chroma Key Compositing

Cup-O-Noodles commercial with Saber-Toothed Tiger!


Since the invention of motion pictures to this very day, the goal of many imaginative filmmakers is to combine animation with live action. One of the most successful methods to achieve that effect is the chroma key technique. This process removes a color background, usually blue or green, by electronically cutting out the foreground subject, which then is composited over a different image. Chroma key works exceptionally well with stop-motion animation, and Chiodo Bros. Productions in Burbank, CA are masters of the procedure. In the nineties I was an animator on numerous Chiodo Brothers projects, for example this Cup-O-Noodles commercial featuring a saber-toothed tiger.

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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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Painting RING OF FIRE with Open Acrylics

Detail of painting of female fire dancer
A close up of the painting


The art and mystery of painting is one of my greatest loves. However, I produced no paintings for a very long time due to focusing on my animation career and family matters. In 2010 I regained my motivation to pick up the brushes, but wanted to try a different method. Most of my earlier works were painted in acrylics, but I was disenchanted with the "plastic" look, and particularly their difficulty in blending as they dried almost as soon as the paint contacted the canvas. Conversely I found oil paints tended to get get over-blended, and the fumes and toxic solvents were a turn off. I really liked the look and ease of use of pastels, but found them to be a fragile, easily damaged medium. Fortunately, a new line of paints was introduced in 2008, Golden OPEN Acrylics, which bridge the gap between oil and acrylic. Intrigued by these slow-drying acrylics, I decided to try them out for my new artworks. Having completed several new paintings now, I present this demonstration of the creation of my latest painting Ring of Fire, followed by a review and analysis of the Open Acrylics.

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Tattoo Parlor Diorama

The Living Art Tattoo Parlor with Harley Davidson motorcycle and inked woman


Leaning against a parked Harley-Davidson chopper, a woman wearing nothing but inked images gestures toward the doorway of the Living Art Tattoo Parlor. This was the concept of a piece I created in 1985, in the unique art form known as Shadowbox Diorama. Projects of this type require a great deal of planning, as well as the skills necessary to execute it such as painting, sculpture, model making, staging, design, craftsmanship, and custom lighting. It was quite a challenge to produce!

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Nightmares Made Real

My first special effects job for a feature film occurred in 1986 at Image Engineering, a mechanical effects company owned by Peter Chesney. The movie was A Nightmare On Elm St 3: Dream Warriors, and Image Engineering was responsible for many of the imaginative ways that the maniacal Freddy Krueger disposed of his victims in the dream world. Unlike the computer generated visual effects of today which are accomplished in post-production, this was a pre-production project that required a performance with the actors during the live action shooting. Lets take a look at how we seemingly made a bathroom sink and a television come to life as the personification of the evil Freddy.

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Making Mickey's Parade

One of the most ambitious stop-motion commercials of all time was created in 1991 for Mickey's Parade Frozen Treats, directed by Kevin Dole. The advertisement featured hundreds of animated puppets and props, and required ingenious methods to bring them to life.

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

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face of fire dancer Painting RING OF FIRE

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face of Night Scorp Chroma Key Animation

bodybuilder Frank Zane posing The Living Body as Sculpture

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Animated bottle cap character Zippy the Cap

Stone Giant stop-motion puppet The End of Dynamation

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Spacecraft Wreckage Spaceship Junkyard

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Train locomotive Models and Props pt. 3

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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

A singing cartoon box character Lounge Singer

© 2006-2019 Joel Fletcher
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