The Crucible of Transmutationanecdotes about the creative process

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!

Joel Fletcher's sculpture of the stone giant from the movie Magic Island
My clay sculpture of the Stone Giant before it was cast in foam rubber.

Magic Island was a children's fantasy film released by Moonbeam Entertainment, Full Moon's family-oriented division. The film had numerous visual effects, but only one sequence utilized Harryhausen-style stop-motion when a character, the Stone Giant, suddenly came to life. On the film, I teamed up with the visual effects supervisor, Joseph Grossberg, one of the few talents who had secret knowledge of Dynamation setups. While Joseph was away on location in Mexico for the filming of the background plates, I remained and worked on sculpting the Stone Giant out of Roma clay. Then, on completion, I turned the sculpture over to the Full Moon "creature shop" for molding and casting. This character was not actually made of rock but rather foam rubber which covered a ball and socket steel armature. The head was made of hard plastic and was left hollow to allow room for the small batteries that powered it's glowing LED eyes. After the live action component of the shoot had wrapped, Joseph returned to prepare setups for the stop-motion photography. Various miniature props were needed to match their full size counterparts. As a result, I sculpted the tomb entrance and a tree using sculpey clay.

Disaster struck suddenly shortly after we had embarked on the animation component of the shoot. Full Moon Entertainment went broke while several of their movies were still at various stages of production. All departments ground to a halt and nearly every employee was abruptly terminated. The company was indebted to us for thousands of dollars! Eventually, the insurance bond company stepped in and provided the necessary completion money for Magic Island, probably because it was the film closest to being finished. The bond company needed Joseph and me to carry on with the Stone Giant sequence. That requirement gave us the leverage to demand any and all back pay owed us. Fortunately, we were able to recoup our money as well as finalize our artistic efforts for the benefit of our movie viewers. The downside of our deal, however, was the fact that the bond company's only real interest was in our finishing the project as soon as possible.

Joel Fletcher and Joseph Grossberg on a dynamation stop-motion set
I'm adding final touches to the Giant's paint job, while Joseph adjusts the lights.

The Full Moon production studio felt like a ghost town at the time we returned to work. Joseph and I worked on an alternating system where I animated on one stage while he prepared the next Dynamation setup (for me to animate) on another. Additionally, Joseph filmed debris and dust effects against a black background. These were used in some shots and double exposed on the film, after the animation, in order to add a degree of realism. For smooth animation, I only used traditional surface gauges, particularly since the studio did not have any "frame grabbers" which at that time were a newer technology. Many of the shots would have benefitted from a second take to enhance a better character performance, but that would not be permitted unless there happened to be a major technical flaw.

The Stone Giant was considered to be a sort of Harryhausen parody rather than an homage to the great filmmaker. The director, Sam Irvin, requested some wacky animated actions such as the breaking of a tree over the Stone Giant's knee. He also wanted a shot where the kid throws a rock at the Giant to hit him in the butt causing the Giant to leap to his feet, rub his butt angrily, and chase after the kid. Joseph and I thought that particular idea was "over the top" and we suggested a hit to the head instead. In retrospect, I think maybe the butt hit might have been a better match for the hammy tone of the movie.

A few months after leaving Full Moon, I was hired by Walt Disney Feature Animation to work as an animator on the pilot film Dinosaur, my first computer animation production. My animation career experienced a huge transformation as I moved over to the computer world. Unfortunately, this personal transition mirrored the end of stop-motion creature animation and the use of the Dynamation technique in feature films.

Magic Island was not released theatrically but it played repeatedly for many months on the Disney Channel. It was very popular with young viewers! A VHS tape was made available at the time; however, to date, a DVD version has not been produced .

As an aside, one of the greatest losses that came out of the Full Moon Entertainment collapse was the cancellation of David Allen's film, The Primevals. The live action shoot had been taking place in Romania and was still in the process of filming when Full Moon went under. Despite David's valiant efforts, the extensive Dynamation sequences for the film were never finished due to the lack of funds. If not, The Primevals would have held the distinction of being the last Dynamation movie ever produced. Sadly, David Allen died in 1999 and he was never able to see his "dream project" completed.

The giant statue from the movie Magic Island
The Stone Giant stands guard.
Story © 2013
Magic Island © 1995 Moonbeam Entertainment
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