From the early 20th century to its close, stop motion animation was a common method of making the impossible seem tangibly real. And while stop motion is still a beloved artform , as seen in this year’s Frankenweenie (which ranked highly on our top 10 list of such animated movies) the advent of computers has seen its use in live-action films dwindle to a dot.
This list is devoted to some of the most magical, surprising and occasionally horrifying stop motion animated moments in live-action films. From dinosaurs to skeletons to trigger-happy robots, animators such as Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen and Phil Tippett, to name a few, have captivated audiences everywhere. Here’s our tribute to just a fraction of their spectacular work…
The Lost World (1925)
To get an idea of how groundbreaking and realistic the stop-motion effects were in this early fantasy adventure movie, you only have to look at how audiences reacted to early footage. Legend has it that Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the source novel, showed a few test reels of dinosaurs on the rampage to stunned members of the Society of American Magicians. A report on the footage made the next day’s edition of the New York Times, which described them as “extraordinarily lifelike” and “If fakes, they were masterpieces.”
These stop-motion sequences were the work of effects pioneer Willis O’Brien, a former farmhand, fur-trapper and cowboy turned artist who gradually built up his own animation technique using wire and clay. Under the wing of inventor Thomas Edison, O’Brien perfected his techniques over successive short films between 1915 and 1925, with The Dinosaur And The Missing Link (1915) and Prehistoric Poultry providing the groundwork for The Lost World, and demonstrating his extraordinary talent for animating prehistoric lizards.
Stop motion had been around since the late 19th century, but it took O’Brien’s artistry and cunning to blend live actors with animated miniatures in a manner which, for the time, was as seamless as the effects in a modern CG blockbuster. The Lost World‘s celebrity was overshadowed somewhat by the next film on this list, and O’Brien’s 1925 work is widely seen as a warm-up act for what was to come next. But The Lost World’s impact has never gone away; its effects sequences are captivatingly framed and lit, and O’Brien’s dinosaurs would influence animators for decades afterwards.
King Kong (1933)
Perhaps the ultimate giant monster movie, King Kong was Willis O’Brien’s magnum opus. Kong, the ‘Giant Terror Gorilla’ was brought to life with four scale puppets of varying sizes, each built out of aluminium, latex, rubber and rabbit fur for his stop-motion sequences, while a full-size hand and head, chest and neck were constructed for close-up scenes.
A rollicking pulp adventure, King Kong is full of action, but also pathos; Kong may be a fearsome beast, capable of battling dinosaurs or flinging square-jawed men off a log like a handful of ants, but his later treatment at the hands of PT Barnum-like showmen and then the US airforce is extremely moving. This is thanks in no small part to O’Brien’s masterful animation; without it, King Kong could have been little more than an expensive and rather embarrassing footnote in film history.
Instead, scream queen Fay Wray has a true screen presence to play off against, and cinema was treated to one of its earliest and greatest special effects movies. When a fatally wounded Kong falls from the top of the Empire State Building, it’s a moment that still tugs at the heart, even after all those remakes and parodies.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
In what would become a recurring line of artists inspiring other artists, a young Ray Harryhausen found inspiration in King Kong. After several years of perfecting his stop motion animation techniques, Harryhausen eventually got to work with his idol Willis O’Brien on the 1949 film, Mighty Joe Young. A film made in the wake of King Kong’s enduring success (it was reissued in cinemas twice in the 1940s), the less famous giant gorilla movie nevertheless won an Oscar for its special effects where King Kong didn’t – back in 1933, the Best Special Effects category didn’t yet exist.
Where O’Brien’s career sadly waned after King Kong – many of his proposed projects never got off the ground – Harryhausen’s blossomed. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms – a giant monster movie made in the wake of yet another King Kong reissue – was his first solo project, and depicted an ancient dinosaur’s assault on New York following an atomic bomb test.
Very loosely based on The Foghorn by Ray Bradbury (preliminary work had already begun on Beast, but elements of it were later incorporated, and Bradbury’s name added to the credits), the film’s plot and special effects would have a profound effect on the movies, sparking a wave of nuclear-powered giant creatures and city-wide destruction. Godzilla is perhaps the most famous, sparking the kaiju genre in Japan, while 2008’s Cloverfield revived the premise for a handy-cam generation.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms marked the start of Harryhausen’s long and remarkable career. The film’s finest moment? Surely the moment when the roaring Rhedosaurus tucks into a Coney Island rollercoaster.
Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956)
Ray Harryhausen had long wanted to direct an adaptation of HG Wells’ classic invasion novel, War Of The Worlds. Sadly, that dream project never made it past a brief 10-minute concept reel, which imagined what the octopus-like Martians might look like.
The closest Harryhausen came to bringing that story to the big screen came in 1956, with Fred F Sears’ Earth Vs The Flying Saucers. Mixing stop motion and stock footage, Harryhausen created a classic series of attack sequences: the scenes of the saucers blowing up US landmarks, and later crashing into the Capitol Building, would have an indelible effect on later filmmakers. Roland Emmerich was clearly inspired by these early scenes of mass destruction when he made Independence Day, while Tim Burton referenced them openly in his invasion pastiche, Mars Attacks!
Fiend Without A Face (1958)
It takes rather along time for the grotesque aliens to actually appear in this 50s sci-fi, but when they do, it’s a great moment. Brought to life using stop motion, the invaders – essentially exposed brains with tails and snail-like antennae – menace a group of pilots holed up on an airbase. In what was an extraordinarily gory sequence for the time, the humans open fire, their revolver bullets opening the creatures up in a shower of blood and goo.
These fantastic effects sequences – created in Germany by artist K L Lupell – are one of the major reasons why Fiend Without A Face is regarded as one of the finest B-movies of the era.
The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (1958)
After the contemporary dino-rampage of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Harryhausen began his cycle of fantasy adventure movies, beginning with The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad. By this point, Harryhausen had perfected his own animation technique called Dynamation, which used rear projection to merge live-action footage with stop-motion. This process, along with Seventh Voyage’s searing use of colour, made the effects sequences extraordinarily powerful for the time.
Anyone who grew up watching the movie on television will probably have their own favourite scene – the cyclops fight on the beach, perhaps, the hypnotic snake woman, or our personal favourite, the extraordinary skeleton staring contest and sword fight posted here.
Harryhausen spent 11 months creating these moments, but his efforts were worth it; the movie was successful enough to spawn two sequels, and Harryhausen’s reputation as a master of special effects was cemented.
Jason And The Argonauts (1963)
After having Sinbad engage in a swordfight with one living skeleton in The Seventh Voyage, the next logical step was to have a hero fight a whole army of the hellish things. The result is one of the most remarkable effects sequences in cinema – an almost perfect interaction between animated puppets and sword-waving actors.
Harryhausen spent more than four months carefully planning and animating the scene, ensuring that the movements of the seven skeletons’ shields and swords precisely matched the actions of the live-action footage. And this, of course, wasn’t the only effects sequence in the film; the Grecian adventure was packed full of them, from the hollow-eyed bronze titan Talos to the spectacular, serpentine Hydra.
A staple of Sunday afternoon television, Jason And The Argonauts left a generation of young viewers goggle-eyed with fascination.
First Men In The Moon (1964)
Although shot on a relatively low budget, this funny, fresh adaptation of HG Wells’ sci-fi novel was colourful and often beautifully designed. While Nigel Kneale made sure the humour and tone of the book remained intact, First Men In The Moon’s visual brilliance was thanks in no small part to Ray Harryhausen, who designed and animated the spectacular Selenites (a race of child-sized insects who live beneath the Moon’s surface), a breed of giant caterpillars named Moon Cows, and Prime Lunar, the Selenite’s cerebral leader.
Clearly a devotee of Wells’ novels, Harryhausen based his designs on the illustrations E Hering provided for early editions of the story. Their movements – the scuttling Selenites, the lumbering Moon Cow – are Harryhausen’s alone, though, and full of personality.
The Valley Of Gwangi (1969)
Although not the most commonly-discussed movie Ray Harryhausen was involved with, it was undeniably memorable for his typically imaginative stop-motion effects – it has to be said that his dinosaurs were far better at acting than the humans. The film’s stand-out moment had to be its fight between the titular Gwangi (an Allosaurus) and a circus elephant – unsurprisingly, the pachyderm is no match for the dinosaur’s snapping jaws.
The Valley Of Gwangi marked the end of a cycle of great, dinosaur-themed action fantasies, and it would take 1993’s Jurassic Park to make the subgenre blockbuster property once again. Interestingly, one distinctive shot of Gwangi snatching a much smaller dinosaur in his jaws appears to be referenced directly in Jurassic Park – an acknowledgement, perhaps, of the debt modern effects studios owe to Harryhausen’s mastery.
Star Wars (1977)
George Lucas employed a wide range of special effects techniques to bring Star Wars to life, and its colossal box office success revitalised Hollywood’s interest in making effects-heavy blockbusters. The majority of Star Wars’ once groundbreaking dogfight sequences were created using miniature models and motion-controlled cameras, but stop motion does make an appearance in one memorable and oft-quoted scene – the one where R2-D2 and Chewbacca play Dejarik aboard the Millennium Falcon.
Playing out like a holographic version of chess, the Dejarik sequence was put together by a young visual effects artist named Phil Tippett. Tippett was inspired to get into animation after seeing The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, and it’s easy to spot a hint of Harryhausen’s influence in the design and movements of the game’s battling monsters.
It was only a brief moment in a movie filled with exotic creatures and effects, but the Dejarik scene not only captured a generation of young imaginations (who wouldn’t have wanted their own holographic monster fighting game?) and also marked the beginning of Tippett’s remarkable career. “Let the wookie win” indeed.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The resulting movie may have been a hit, but the production of Star Wars was chaotic, with its effects designers struggling to get the range of boundary-pushing space sequences finished in time, while Lucas and his wife Marcia struggled over locking down an effective edit.
For The Empire Strikes Back, ILM enjoyed a vastly expanded budget ($32 million versus the original’s $11 million), plus the benefit of experience. Having cut his teeth on Star Wars’ Dejarik sequence, Phil Tippett oversaw the production of several stop-motion animated scenes – most notably, the extraordinary battle on Hoth, in which four-legged At-Ats trudge through ice and snow. Employing a technique Tippett later dubbed go-motion – a technique which introduces a smoothing touch of motion blur to each frame – these action sequences blended live-action footage with animation in a manner that was, for its time, truly astonishing.
The Evil Dead (1981)
A young Sam Raimi burst onto the moviemaking scene with his 1981 horror film The Evil Dead. But while the movie became the epitome of low-budget gore (sparking a wave of imitators whose conventions were recently lampooned by The Cabin In The Woods), it’s worth noting how elaborate and imaginative many of the effects are.
At the 75-minute mark, and having thrown gallons of blood and severed limbs at the screen, Rami treats us to several deliciously grungy stop motion animated sequences, which feature melting Deadites and a screaming Book of the Dead. Created by Tom Sullivan, who worked tirelessly on all aspects of The Evil Dead’s effects, spent several weeks creating the elaborate stop-motion end sequence. Incredibly, this scene was one of several snipped out by censors in the UK – it was only in 2001 that British audiences finally got to see Sullivan’s work in full.
Raimi continued to use stop motion in the two Evil Dead sequels that followed, with 1992’s The Army Of Darkness serving as a homage to Harryhausen.
Between his work on the first and second Star Wars sequels, Phil Tippett worked on the Academy Award-nominated visual effects for Dragonslayer. An unusually violent fantasy movie for Disney (who co-produced with Paramount), the movie wasn’t a hit, the movie has since garnered something of a cult following, partly because of its beautifully realised (and surprisingly scary) dragon, the Vermithrax.
Beautifully designed and animated by Tippett, the fire-breathing Vermithrax is perhaps the finest of all big-screen dragons, and was once described by Guillermo del Toro as “perhaps one of the most perfect creature designs ever made” – high praise indeed. Only time will tell whether The Hobbit‘s Smaug will carry quite the same air of menace and charisma.
Clash Of The Titans (1981)
The last work of the great Ray Harryhausen, Clash Of The Titans saw the artist end his big-screen career in a welter of beautifully designed monsters. Although the film didn’t acquire the iconic status as that earlier swords-and-sandals fantasy adventure, Jason And The Argonauts, it’s still full of creatures and sequences to swoon over; who could forget Medusa, with her writhing head of snakes and rattlesnake tale? Or the moment when the gigantic Kraken emerges from the ocean depths? Or the scorpion attack?
While some reviewers argued that Clash Of The Titans’ animation looked a little “old hat” when compared to contemporary effects pictures such as Star Wars or Superman, the movie remained a Sunday afternoon fantasy staple for years afterwards. And when compared to Harryhausen’s imagination and understanding of how animals move, the computer animated creatures of 2010’s Clash Of The Titans remake look positively anaemic.
Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)
Maverick director Larry Cohen served up this magnificent monster movie, which sees the Aztec god Quetzacoatl – a 130-foot-long winged serpent – nibbling on the inhabitants of New York City. The stop-motion animated sequences were handled by David Allen and Randal Cook, and give the movie an endearingly old-fashioned look which is absolutely in keeping with the movie’s B-picture roots.
The film’s most memorable sequence, in which David Carradine and a group of soldiers scale the Chrysler Building and blast away at the creature as it circles overhead, is terrifically entertaining, and mixes real and animated footage quite well, given its restricted budget. It’s an oft-told story that Cohen didn’t bother to ask for permission to fire machine guns out of the top of the Chrysler Building. Understandably, the local police were rather perturbed by the sound of gunfire echoing around the city. A newspaper headline read the following day, “horror movie stirs up a real scare.”
With that particularly risky bit of moviemaking forming the backdrop for Allen and Cook’s animation, the Chrysler Building was immortalised on film.
The Terminator (1984)
Made for a lean $6.4 million, James Cameron’s hugely successful sci-fi feature was full of inventive special effects. Gene Warren Jr and his studio Fantasy II were responsible for several stop-motion sequences, most obviously, the concluding scene where a denuded Terminator endoskeleton emerges from a burning truck and chases Sarah Connor and Kyle Reece. Working from a full-scale design by Stan Winston, Warren and his team created a stop-motion miniature, whose skeletal form and movements immediately recall the revived bodies in Jason And The Argonauts. Interestingly, Schwarzenegger’s flesh-and-blood version of the character was given a limp shortly before this sequence, in order to make it easier for the animators to marry the movements of the animated Terminator and the actor’s.
Although the quality of the effects were superseded by Cameron’s 1991 sequel, Judgment Day, The Terminator remains a relentlessly thrilling movie, and the emergence of the fleshless Terminator from a blanket of fire is a classic animated moment.
Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi satire zips by so wonderfully that it’s easy to forget just how much stop-motion work it contains. Gigantic robot law enforcer ED-209 was brought to life using a mixture of full-scale props and miniature effects, overseen by Phil Tippett. Animated with humour and incredible attention to detail, Tippett gives ED-209 a sense of both menace and awkwardness – just look at its wonderfully confused reaction to a flight of stairs, or the way it sways around drunkenly after being blasted by RoboCop and his new-found Cobra Assault Cannon.
As mentioned earlier, Tippett was inspired to become a visual effects artist after watching Ray Harryhausen’s Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad. Perhaps the lumbering dinosaur seen in the advert for the 6000 SUX is his homage to the master of stop motion.
Forget Tim Burton’s disappointing, CG-encrusted retelling of Lewis Carroll’s Victorian fantasy. If you’re looking for an unusual, disquieting take on the story, look no further than Czech animator Jan Švankmajer’s Alice, which uses stop motion to peel back the layers of the original tale, revealing a darker underbelly beneath. Once you’ve seen the Madhatter’s tea party recreated with the skulls and bones of animals, you’ll probably never feel the same way again.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Quite possibly the most disturbing movie on this list, Shinya Tsukamoto’s underground sci-fi horror became a cult sensation when it appeared in American arthouse cinemas in the early 90s. About a Japanese salaryman whose body undergoes an extraordinary series of biomechanical mutations, its mix of live action, strobing images and stop motion gave the impression of a fever dream. Gory, assaultive and extremely violent, Tetsuo was proof that stop motion could be frighteningly intense in the right hands.
If we had to choose just one animated moment from Tetsuo, it would have to be the extraordinary birth-destruction-nightmare sequence, which you can see around two minutes into the clip above.
Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989)
The original Indiana Jones trilogy went out with a bang with The Last Crusade, while villain Donovan (Julian Glover) went out with a shriek and a welter of special effects. Perhaps hoping to end with the same flash of the grotesque that he brought to Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Spielberg had Donovan drink from a fake version of the Holy Grail, leading to an accelerated decay sequence created by ILM. The scene took three months to create, and used a mixture of fright make-up, scale models, and finally a bit of stop motion. It’s only brief, yet its usage accounts for the spectacularly grotty shrivelled skin.
“He chose poorly,” the old knight says, in one of Hollywood’s great understatements.
The Wizard Of Speed And Time (1989)
Adapted from his own 1979 short film, this uniquely strange fantasy movie probably baffled as many people as it entertained. Whether you can get behind its weird, self-referential humour or not, there’s no denying the amount of effort that filmmaker Mike Jittlov put into The Wizard Of Speed And Time. A film about the process of getting movies made in Hollywood, it unfolds like a hyperactive, living cartoon, with the narrative punctuated by animated sequences which use actors to create the impression of extraordinary speed.
The sequences where the Wizard (Jittlov) sprints around sun-drenched Los Angeles are surprisingly exhilarating, and the happy mirror image of the utterly nightmarish Tetsuo: The Iron Man, which used similar techniques to a more oppressive effect.
Robot Jox (1990)
A delightfully cheesy giant robot battle royale from Stuart Gordon, the acting and storytelling are hugely outshone by the sterling stop-motion work. Numerous production disagreements were largely responsible for the messy final film, but the movie’s still worthy of inclusion for Dave Allen’s great robot effects – their design and movement is far less cumbersome, and far more majestic, than the film’s mediocre script.
RoboCop 2 (1990)
Lacking Paul Verhoeven at the helm or Ed Neumeier’s sharp writing, RoboCop 2 couldn’t hope to match the brilliance of its predecessor. But while the sequel is bloated and often excessive even by the standards of the first film, the presence of Phil Tippett ensured that the stop motion effects were well-observed and full of energy. The drug-addicted RoboCop 2 has genuine weight and presence, even if its design isn’t as eye-catching as ED-209’s.
The film’s finest animated moment is surely the one captured above; with OCP still intent on creating the ultimate half man, half machine cop, a series of abortive robot designs are demonstrated in front of the company’s weary president. It’s a great mixture of techniques, and a great instance of brutal slapstick humour.
Army Of Darkness (1992)
Sam Raimi took his hero Ash Williams far from his cabin in the woods roots for this second sequel, which incorporates time-travel, epic battles, and most of all, loving references to Ray Harryhausen’s classic fantasies. This included a number of stop motion scenes, which used a new process called Introvision to blend actors with animated puppets. This came in particularly handy for its wonderfully articulated skeleton army – a fitting tribute to the master of animated special effects. “Buckle up bonehead…”
Starship Troopers (1997)
With Jurassic Park’s groundbreaking use of CG, the rein of stop motion in live-action movies was coming to an end. When his own stop motion velociraptor animation test was put aside in favour of a CG version of the same scene, Phil Tippett remarked, “I’ve just become extinct.”
1997’s Starship Troopers marked Tippett’s transition from stop-motion to CG – and the results were exceptional. You can see just how effective Tippett’s work is in the clip above, which was a piece of test footage designed to encourage the studio to give Starship Troopers a green light. Tippett’s work on the movie earned him a much-deserved Academy Award nomination.
Tippett’s studio is still going strong, and while it primarily deals with digital imagery these days, Phil Tippett’s current movie project, Mad God, will use stop motion to tell its tale of dark fantasy. A homage to the heroes of the effects industry, it is, like all the greatest animated sequences in the movies, an organic, vibrant labour of love.
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