Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) was stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen's 11th film and his second sword-and-sandals movie. Previously, most of Harryhausen's work had been giant monster movies (Mighty Joe Young, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, It Came From Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Mysterious Island). Jason and the Argonauts, however, represents Harryhausen's move away from giant monsters and toward the integration of animated beings as characters right alongside their human counterparts.

Jason contains four big scenes:
1) The attack of the bronze giant Talos on the Isle of Bronze;
2) The attack of the Harpies on Phineas;
3) Jason's battle with the Hydra; and
4) A battle with skeletal warriors, sown from the Hydra's teeth.

A fifth scene, in which the Clashing Rocks are held apart by Triton, isn't a stop-motion scene but simply miniatures with live action.

The greatest scene is the skeleton sword fight, considered Harryhausen's best work.

Harryhausen co-wrote the film, and choreographed both the live-action and stop-motion "actors". The live-action fighting was filmed first, and Harryhausen and fencing master Ralph Faulkner coached the actors on the set to make their thrusts, parries, and slashes look real (even though there was nothing there).

Front-projection was used to project the live-action sequence onto the foot-tall miniatures. The miniature film had to be speeded up to 96 frames per second (four times faster than normal) to make the stop-motion work look right. Every skeleton moves; there is no cheating by having many of them stand still while just one moves. Harryhausen worked alone on the project, sometimes filming just four frames of live-action film a day. It took him four months to do this single scene.

The symbol on each skeleton's shield represents a creature from a previous Harryhausen film. Visible are the octopus from It Came From Beneath the Sea, the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth, and the Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Here's how front-projection works:

In rear-projection, the actors stand in front of a screen, onto which an image is projected from the rear. This makes the rear-projected image look blurry, and the action in front of the screen looks better-lit than the rear-projected image.

In front-projection, a projector is set off-stage parallel to a reflective screen. A two-way mirror is set at a 45-degree angle in front of the reflective screen. The projected image will hit the two-way mirror and project at a right angle onto the actor (who is standing in front of the reflective screen.

This projects the image onto the actor, and onto the reflective screen. The actor is lit very brightly, which "washes" the image off him. A filming camera is set at a right angle to the reflective screen, and photographs the combined image through the two-way mirror.

The combined image is much crisper than rear-projection, and both the live-action and projected-action appear equally well-lit.

By the way: Front-projection is an old theater trick, from the 1700s.

The battle with the skeletons was storyboarded almost second by second. Here's Harryhausen's own concept art. (There's a book, The Art of Ray Harryhausen, which contains most of his storyboard and concept art.)

Harryhausen was a fine artist! He'd spent years collecting old woodblock prints, lithographs, and drawings of famous ruins in Italy and Greece, and he'd learned to draw by imitating these fantastic illustrations. In learning about anatomy and fine art, he learned how to make his own creations much more realistic and even more animated. Especially for the new "human-oriented" films like Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, these would come in very handy as inspiration for the great choreographed battle scenes Harryhausen intended to portray on screen.

Here's Ray Harryhausen with models of his skeletons. (The one in the middle is a demon from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.) The other image is of skeletons on display at a major museum show of Harryhausen's model work held in London (where Harryhausen lived most of his life) in 1989.

Here's an image just for fun: William "Bill" Gudgeon was a former Canadian boxing champion. He played Triton in Jason and the Argonauts. There's Ray Harryhausen to the right preparing to shoot Gudgeon during the "clashing rocks" sequence.

The bronze giant Talos from Jason and the Argonauts is considered one of Harryhausen's best works. Harryhausen worked hard over his lifetime to overcome the jerky motion of early stop-motion. He also experimented heavily with film stock, lighting, colored gels, and more to overcome the color imbalance between live-action and stop-motion film. (His color stop-motion process was called "Dynamation".)

Yet, to animate Talos, Harryhausen had to reject a quarter-century of work and make him look as mechanical and robotic as possible!!

Here's Harryhausen filming the Hydra for Jason and the Argonauts. Harryhausen was very dissatisfied with this sequence. The problem is that a single actor fights the Hydra. With multiple heads, Jason should be gulped down pretty quickly. To keep this from happening, Harryhausen had to choreograph the scene so that only one head snapped at Jason at a time -- which was really illogical. It went against everything Harryhausen believed in, which was that all elements of the animated creature shouuld be in motion at all times. One, even two heads holding back wouldn't be a cheat. But here, six of the seven heads are nearly motionless. (By the way, so are the tails, which shouldn't have been.)

In the other photo, you can see the image being projected onto the Hydra by a camera (off-image to the right). Pegboard below the model of the Hydra allows the creature's movements to be plotted and to keep it in place. The colored light (part of Harryhausen's "Dynamation" process) corrects the color balance so that the stop-motion will blend well with the live-action. The camera filming the projection and animation is in the foreground (see the crank, which allows one frame at a time to be filmed).

The black curtain hanging below the image is a matte, and will allow additional live-action footage (in this case, steam from the rocks) to be composited into the scene.

And you can see the finished product, too!

The ending of Jason seemed weak to me, but that's really my only complaint. I also think it's this film that started the trend of using an all-star cast to portray Olympic gods.

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