Dynamation Explained: How Ray Harryhausen Integrated Stop-Motion Elements to Live Action

Patience and artistry strikes again!
Ray Harryhausen Stop Motion Jason Argo Giant

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay that unpacks Ray Harryhausen’s use of the technique known as “dynamation,” a.k.a. the blending of stop-motion elements with live-action footage in the same shot.

These days, stop-motion animation — the practice of incrementally puppeteering a subject frame by frame to give it the impression of movement — is no longer used to convey realism. When modern-day live-action films do integrate stop-motion characters (see, the recent Marcel the Shell with Shoes On), they aren’t designed with photorealism in mind. Henry Selick’s round-edged sea creatures in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, aren’t trying to “fool” anyone. But that’s also not their purpose. Today, the purpose of integrated stop-motion has more in common with the likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Cool World than anything else. If you want to add a “real-looking” monster/character effect in your film, CGI (theoretically) has you covered.

But believe it or not, there was a time when integrated stop-motion was the go-to for creature effects. (Assuming that the tried and true “guy in a suit” strategy was off the table). As a result, it fell to the artforms pioneers to solve the problem of how to blend stop-motion with live-action footage. You can only cross-cut between a mayhem-causing monster and the shrieking masses so many times before it gets a bit cornball.

Enter: dynamation, the technique pioneered by legendary 20th-century animator Ray Harryhausen. The process involves a sandwhiched composite of rear-projected footage, varying horizon lines, and matte glass layers. But in truth, it’s easier to see the process in action. The following video essay does just that, unpacking how dynamation works, what its limitations are, and the creative solutions Harryhausen came up with to allow stop-motion beasties to sword fight, pick up, and otherwise spar with live-action heroes.

Watch “How Ray Harryhausen Combined Stop-Motion and Live Action”:

Who made this?

This video on how Ray Harryhausen integrated stop-motion characters into live-action footage is by Andrew Saladino, who runs the Texas-based Royal Ocean Film Society. You can browse their back catalog of videos on their Vimeo account here. If Vimeo isn’t your speed, you can give them a follow on YouTube here.

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    Meg Shields: Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).