Animation Marvels—In Print And On DVD

A spectacular new book about Ray Harryhausen is cause for celebration—but more about that later. The estimable Mr. H was inspired to pursue his art, and craft, by the films he saw as a boy, especially The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933). But the man who created the stunning animation in those films, Willis O’Brien, wasn’t the only person experimenting with the wonders of stop-motion. Steve Stanchfield, Stewart McKissick and Ken Priebe at Thunderbean Animation have compiled a dizzying DVD collection of rare short subjects appropriately titled Stop-Motion Marvels! and it’s a must for anyone interested in this field.

The centerpiece of the disc is the Kinex collection, a series of ingenious silent shorts that were created expressly for the 16mm home-movie market in the late 1920s, and marketed as—

—Kodak Cinegraphs. Through years of buying and trading among film collectors, along with diligent research, the Thunderbean folks have cobbled together the story of this obscure studio, charted its brief existence (having produced 26 shorts before its demise in 1930 or 31), and located 19 of the films in surprisingly good copies for this release. Among the engaging stars are Snap the Gingerbread Man, Chip the Wooden Man, and the citizens of Doodlebugville. A booklet by McKissick documents the whole saga. Thunderbean has also unearthed a handful of films made by Kinex veterans in the 1930s, some of them in color.

If you’ve ever seen the early work of Willis O’Brien—and especially if you’ve ever tried executing stop-motion animation yourself, as I briefly did when I was a kid—it is fascinating to watch these films and see how a team of creative people devised clever visual effects and pushed the boundaries of their medium, inch by inch.

Stop Motion Marvels! also offers a number of bonus cartoons, ranging from J. Stuart Blackton’s pioneering Princess Nicotine (1909) and one of O’Brien’s caveman comedies for the Edison Company to an array of TV commercials, including Dave Allen’s famous 1972 recreation of King Kong for Volkswagen. Some of the shorts offer commentary tracks, one of the best being The Sky Princess (1942), in which legendary puppeteer Bob Baker talks about how some of the effects were achieved when he was working for George Pal on his Puppetoons series.

From the attractive packaging to every aspect of the presentation, it’s clear this DVD was a labor of love. It belongs in every animation collection, and I feel certain it would fire the imagination of kids everywhere—and inspire some of them to want to become the next Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen.

A lifelong packrat, Ray Harryhausen has documented his life and career quite extensively in several fine books co-written with Tony Dalton (Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life and The Art of Ray Harryhausen, as well as A Century of Stop-Motion Animation). Could there possibly be room for another book examining his extraordinary career? The answer, I’m happy to say, is yes. Last year brought the first installment of Mike Hankin’s Ray Harryhausen: Master of the Majicks (Archive Editions), although it was actually Volume 2, as Volume 1 is still in the works. Now I have in my hands Volume 3: The British Films and it is a knockout. I won’t pretend that I’ve read every word of this gigantic, 640-page tome, but I’ve read enough—and lingered over its elaborate color layouts of concept drawings, behind-the-scenes stills, frame enlargements and more—to know that it is irresistible for any Harryhausen fan. Filmmaker and fanboy supreme Guillermo Del Toro provides an enthusiastic preface, while one of Ray’s loveliest leading ladies, Caroline Munro, offers an equally upbeat preface. Author Hankin covers every aspect of Harryhausen’s films, from casting to shooting to promotion (wait till you see the foreign posters, comic books, and other tie-ins). He has spoken to many of Ray’s colleagues and co-workers to help him shape a definitive look at movies that have influenced fantasy and science-fiction filmmakers for the past half-century. A series of appendices add still more information on Ray’s extended filmmaking family, Harryhausen collectibles, and more. There is even a gallery of original Harryhausen models in 3-D! Bravo! to editor, publisher and designer Ernest Farino for a job well done. To purchase a copy, go to Don’t delay: the previous volume is already out of print.

The third in a series of lavishly produced volumes from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library, The Archive Series: Design (Disney Editions) is exquisite. Here we have inspirational artwork, character design, and practical layouts for everything from the earliest Disney shorts to Tangled, showcased in a beautifully printed, oversized volume that gives each piece of art its due. Aficionados will be especially drawn (no pun intended) to the work of such celebrated artists as Tyrus Wong, Mary Blair (whose whimsical use of color has never been matched), and Eyvind Earle, but you’ll find many equally striking pieces by anonymous workers from the early days and unheralded designers of today. (Check out the early concept of Snow White being frightened by the imagined eyes staring at her as she runs through the forest on page 35.) This series is a pet project for Pixar guru, and lifelong Disney buff, John Lasseter, who contributes a foreword, and master designer Hans Teensma. I hope the series continues for many more volumes.

The latest addition to a growing number of instructional books about animation comes from Nancy Bieman, whom I met more than thirty years ago when I was teaching a course about the history of animated cartoons at the New School in New York City. Nancy was already spending time with master animators, recording their thoughts (which she quotes throughout her text) and taking their advice to heart in her own career. That’s what gives her book Animated Performance (AVA Academia) such weight: she not only knows a great deal, and understands how to communicate her thoughts (verbally and visually); she has the knowledge and experience to put her ideas into practical context. Aside from useful illustrations that dot the text, she recommends specific films and scenes to watch in animated cartoons and live-action movies as well, for a variety of specific reasons, mostly to do with performance. A young person hoping to succeed in this specialized field would do well to follow her advice.

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May 2024