100 years of animated characters in live-action films

From 1914 to Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes in the present, Ryan charts the evolution of animated characters in live-action film...

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and this year’s Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes chart the ascendance of a new, genetically-modified species of intelligent ape. Yet behind the scenes, these films also show us the technical evolution of digital effects, and how seamlessly live-action and computer-generated characters can be blended.

Where 20th Century Fox’s earlier Planet Of The Apes films, beginning in 1968, used actors and prosthetic effects to bring their talking simians to life, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes used the latest developments in performance capture to create some extraordinarily realistic characters. With its story told largely from the perspective of a genetically-modified chimpanzee named Caesar, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes’ success hinged on the quality of its effects and Andy Serkis’ physical acting – and in both respects, the movie was a triumph. Caesar wasn’t merely an impressive special effect, but a sympathetic, fully-rounded character, capable of carrying entire scenes with subtlety and pathos. 

As the trailers for Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes prove, effects technology has improved even further in the years since the release of its predecessor, and we’ve now arrived at a point where digital characters are now a common – perhaps even unremarkable – sight in cinema. Yet the mix of live-action and artificial characters is almost as old as filmmaking itself, with its origins going back at least 100 years.

Gertie The Dinosaur and early animation

American cartoonist Winsor McCay was one of the pioneers of animation and moviemaking. Most famous for his cartoon character Little Nemo, who first appeared in The New York Herald in 1905, McCay was one of the most technically gifted and prolific American illustrators of the early 20th century. Yet his greatest cultural gift was arguably his series of animated shorts, which he created between the years 1911 to 1921. In them, McCay successfully gave movement and depth to his distinctive and intricate drawing style.

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Although McCay wasn’t the first animator, as he boldly claimed, he did introduce many of the techniques which would soon become standard practice in this new medium: keyframes, registration marks and animation loops being just a few of them. McCay was also a showman and an enthusiastic self-promoter, and he often integrated his animated films into a live stage act.

One of his first films was Little Nemo (1911), based on his own cartoon strip. In it, a dapper McCay impresses a group of artists by drawing a group of his characters on an easel, which then spring magically to life. McCay expanded on these techniques in his most famous film, Gertie The Dinosaur (1914), where he would stand in front of an audience and command a cartoon dinosaur to perform tricks – bowing, raising a foot, and so on. The animator later recorded a version of Gertie, with his own part in the performance pre-recorded, which could be shown in cinemas.

Gertie The Dinosaur inspired a generation of artists and filmmakers, not least Max Fleischer, who became a pioneering animator in his own right. Fleischer invented Rotoscoping – the process of drawing over live footage to create life-like animation – which he showed off in his series of animated films called Out Of The Inkwell. Like Gertie The Dinosaur, these films mixed live action and animation; the 1921 short, Modelling, mixing hand-drawn animation, stop motion as well as conventionally-shot footage.

So too did the early work of one Walt Disney, a young cartoonist who decided to turn his hand to animation. The Alice Comedies series of ten-minute shorts were among his earlier pieces of filmmaking, with the first one appearing in 1923. With names like Alice’s Day At Sea, Alice’s Wild West Show and Alice The Toreador, the films saw actress child Virginia Davis interact with animated characters, most commonly a cat named Julius.

The success of the Alice Comedies not only helped establish Disney’s reputation as an animator, but also established his studio’s tradition of combining live action with animated characters. Such films as The Three Caballeros (1945), the controversial Song Of The South (1946) and Mary Poppins (1964) all did just this.

Willis O’Brien and the stop-motion effects revolution

While Max Fleischer and Walt Disney continued to further the progress of hand-drawn animation through the 1920s, animator Willis O’Brien was creating pioneering work of his own. Having created a series of stop-motion animated short films through the 1910s and 1920s, O’Brien was signed up to create the special effects for director Harry Hoyt’s 1925 film, The Lost World – a glossy adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel.

O’Brien’s plateau of animated dinosaurs was nothing short of ground-breaking. The first feature film to feature stop-motion, The Lost World‘s integration of wide-eyed actors and animated creatures sparked a wave of effects-heavy movies. It was eight years before O’Brien got to complete another movie (his project after The Lost World, called Atlantis, was never made), but it was again a key moment in cinema: 1933’s King Kong.

An expensive production, King Kong was remarkable not just for the quality of its special effects, but also for the personality O’Brien brought to its title creature. This, surely, was the first special effects movie to bring real emotion to its monster; King Kong was powerful, certainly, but O’Brien brought humour, life and warmth to Kong, too. For the first time, an artist had given a film character not only movement and weight, but also a distinctive personality.

King Kong‘s impact on the history of film shouldn’t be underestimated. Aside from the visual impact of the film as a whole (its scenes are still copied and parodied today), King Kong’s animation techniques prompted Ray Harryhausen – then still a teenager – to become an animator. Without Harryhausen and his extraordinary body of work, which includes Mighty Joe Young (1949), The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Jason And The Argonauts (1963) and Clash Of The Titans (1981), special effects cinema would undoubtedly have looked entirely different.

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From Pete’s Dragon to Jurassic Park

For much of the 20th century, the methods used to bring imaginary characters to the screen were refined yet remained largely unchanged. Pete’s Dragon, released by Disney in 1977, placed a hand-drawn animated dragon in a live-action musical – something director Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit would do to far more striking effect 11 years later. Meanwhile, such films as The Thing, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and RoboCop (the latter brilliantly animated by Phil Tippett) continued to use stop motion – or variants of it, such as Tippett’s go motion – to bring their characters to life.

Towards the end of the millennium, however, computer-generated imagery began to creep into cinema. At first making cameo appearances in such films as Westworld, Star Wars, Superman and Alien, CGI began to transform the special effects landscape in the 1980s. Within the space of a few years, computer technology evolved to the point where the first CG characters creatures appeared in cinemas. In Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) a knight leapt from a stained glass window and became the first 3D animated character in film history. Labyrinth (1986) saw Jim Henson’s puppets briefly joined by a CG barn owl – the first instance of a ‘photo realistic’ creature in a film.

Director James Cameron did much to further the progression of CGI in cinema with his liquid effects in The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) in particular, but when it came to bringing a virtual character into a live-action movie, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) proved to be nothing short of revolutionary. Although Jurassic Park still used many traditional effects techniques (particularly animatronics) it also used CGI to create several dinosaur effects shots. 

This was a brave decision on the part of Spielberg, since many of the techniques for animating a realistic creature in a computer weren’t yet in place. The person responsible for bringing these dinosaurs to life was Industrial Light & Magic’s Dennis Muren, who’d previously created the stained glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes and the liquid effects in The Abyss and T2. Muren was, however, extremely nervous about making something as complicated as a dinosaur, with its complex movement and textures.

“I didn’t have any clue if we could render skin and light correctly,” Muren told the author Tom Shone in his book, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Summer. “Computers are good at replicating things over and over [so] it seemed like the stampede scene would be a good idea to try something. So we did a test of that and a test on a full-size Tyrannosaurus rex and those two tests we showed to Steven. That changed the whole movie. That changed the whole deal.”

The first screening of that test footage was an emotional one; according to Tom Shone’s account, George Lucas was moved to tears by what he’d just seen. “It was like one of those moments in history,” Lucas enthused, “like the invention of the light bulb or the first telephone call.”

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Of the film’s industry-changing effects, Shone added: “In its way, Jurassic Park heralded a revolution in movies as profound as the coming of sound in 1927.”

Or, indeed, a revolution as profound as Willis O’Brien’s Lost World dinosaur effects in 1925.

Jar Jar Binks to the present

That test screening of Jurassic Park effects lit a spark in George Lucas’s mind. Within four years, he’d begun work on the special editions of his original Star Wars trilogy, which would incorporate new scenes created with CGI, and he would soon begin work on what would become the first entry in a trilogy of prequels.

Jurassic Park inspired me,” Lucas later admitted. “I didn’t have to use rubber masks. I could build digital characters that can act and perform and walk around and interact with actors. I can use digital sets. I can paint reality. In essence, it means that cinema has gone from being a photographic medium to a painterly one.”

Throughout the 90s, the digital revolution continued apace, with each year bringing with it a number of CGI innovations: the first instance of rendered fur in The Flintstones (1994), and the first CGI lead character in a feature film in Casper (1995), to name but two.

In terms of character creation, however, George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace was arguably the most ambitious film since Jurassic Park. Not only did Lucas and his team at ILM face the task of creating nearly 2,000 effects shots – a huge number for the time – but also the creation of several entirely computer-generated characters, including comedy side-kick Jar Jar Binks.

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Before The Phantom Menace launched in the summer of 1999, there was a considerable amount of interest surrounding Jar Jar. Rolling Stone magazine put the character on its cover, and described him as “the world’s first breakout digital star.” From a technical standpoint, Jar Jar was indeed a breakout: ILM captured the movements and mannerisms of 25-year-old actor Ahmed Best, resulting in a digital character who appeared to interact seamlessly with the rest of the cast. 

Yet ILM’s accomplishments with Jar Jar were overshadowed somewhat by the audience response to his character. Far from becoming a star, Jar Jar was denounced as an infuriating distraction by some critics (“Jar Jar sucks the oxygen out of every scene he’s in”), and described as a racial stereotype by others.

Lucas defended Jar Jar, even taking to UK TV’s Newsnight to refute claims that Jar Jar was intended as a stereotype:

“The American press uses the internet as their source for everything, so when people were creating websites saying, ‘Let’s get rid of Jar Jar Binks, he’s terrible’ and some of the critics were describing him as a comic sidekick, they came in and they started calling the film racist.”

The debate over Jar Jar Binks’ comedy antics continued to detract from the effort taken to create him, and it’s telling, perhaps, that although The Phantom Menace was nominated for a Visual Effects Oscar the following year, the award ultimately went to The Matrix.

Instead of Jar Jar Binks, whose role was scaled down considerably in the second and third Star Wars prequels, the standard bearer for motion capture performance became  Gollum – glimpsed briefly in The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001) and more prominently in The Two Towers (2002).

A mixture of great writing, the technical wizardry of Weta Digital and Andy Serkis’ extraordinary underlying performance came together to create Gollum, and the results were justly lauded by critics and audiences alike. Gollum proved that a digital character could be invested with many of the qualities you might expect from a flesh-and-blood performer: mischief, menace, humour and vulnerability. All three Lord Of The Rings films were awarded for Best Visual Effects Oscars, while Andy Serkis was singled out for Best Supporting Actor at the 2002 Saturn Awards.

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Since The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Weta Digital and Andy Serkis have been at the forefront of performance capture and the creation of digital characters. Weta was the lead effects studio behind James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), a film which led to the creation of animation technologies now commonly used in cinema.

Today, digital characters are a regular sight on our screens, whether they’re in relatively cheap adverts on television or in multi-million dollar movies like this year’s Godzilla. As a result, audiences have become inured, perhaps, to special effects, and it’s fair to say we tend to take for granted some of the extraordinary work that goes into making a character like Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings or Caesar in the Planet Of The Apes prequels.

But really, CGI is just another technique, like hand-drawn or stop-motion animation. From Gertie the dinosaur in 1914 to Caesar the chimpanzee in 2014, the aim behind these techniques has remained the same: to take characters from our imaginations and make them seem real. How those characters are created might  have changed, but what really matters is that we find them moving , or frightening, or beguiling. While the cinema lights are down and the film is running, we suspend our disbelief. We believe they exist.

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