Stop Motion Throwaways – By Philip Smolen

Anyone who has read any of my articles here in this magazine over the last few years knows that I am a stop motion fanatic. From my carefree days as a boy in the 1960s, I have been in awe of the frame by frame technique that brings inanimate creatures to breathtaking life. There was something about stop motion that enthralled me. And every time I saw a film that featured some sort of stop motion creature, I had to find out more about it. I scoured libraries and magazines looking for information, but until the late 1970s and early 1980s, knowledge was hard to come by (except if you subscribed to “Famous Monsters of Filmland” of course).

I think what I like most about stop motion is its ability to create character. Who can forget the incredible amount of personality that the original “King Kong” (1933) had? And what about “Mighty Joe Young” (1949), “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953) and the Ymir from “20 Million Miles to Earth”? Each of them is captivating to watch in their own way because of the behaviors and characteristics that their creators instilled in them one frame at a time.

But besides the main creatures in a stop motion movie, I have always been fascinated with smaller secondary animated creatures that populate many of these films. Most of these are onscreen for only a few moments, so they are really only ‘throwaway’ characters. But in the brief seconds that they are onscreen, they can create feelings of laughter, fear and amazement in an audience. And they also prepare the audience for the many fantastic wonders that will carry them to another world. So here’s a quick look at four of my favorite stop motion throwaway characters from some classic sci-fi and fantasy films. They all add an amazing and fantastic touch to the cinematic screen experience.

1. Vine Lizard from “King Kong” (1933) – Animator: Willis O’Brien: Time creature appears in the film: 1:01:12 – Total Time Onscreen: 14 seconds

This amazing little monster is never mentioned when the stop motion glories of “King Kong” are discussed. Kong, the Tyrannosaurus and some of the other animated creatures are usually cited, but for me this little guy is just amazing. In the film, Jack Driscoll has managed to save himself from Kong’s rampage at the log and has climbed down into a small cave. As he defends himself from Kong’s attempts to grab him, Jack notices that a vine is moving. He looks down and sees a large and creepy looking lizard climbing up to snack on him. Thinking quickly, Jack uses his knife to cut the vine and sends the hungry visitor back into the pit where he belongs.

The lizard is beautifully designed by Marcel Delgado and features sharp claws and fierce teeth. Clearly, it means to snack on Jack. But it’s the delightful manner that it is brought to life that I love. In the few precious seconds onscreen, it wriggles and struggles to climb the vine, sensing that there is something good at the top. You can almost feel the weight of the creature as it goes higher and higher. Then it slows down, almost as if it’s preparing to strike. And then it drops helplessly off screen as Jack manages to save himself. I always wondered if the lizard was a leftover from the famous deleted ‘Spider Pit Sequence.’ For all we know it may have been featured in it, but even if we can never see that lost sequence, it still great fun to see this throwaway character in this classic film.

2. Trap Door Spider from “The Black Scorpion” (1957) – Animator: Pete Peterson: Time creature appears in the film: 56:30 – Total Time Onscreen: 57 seconds

“The Black Scorpion” is one of my favorite 1950s sci-fi movies simply because of the plethora of stop motion creatures that populate it. But my favorite monster in the film is the wacky Trap Door Spider that chases the annoying Mario Navarro around the cave. Geologists Hank Scott (Richard Denning) and Artur Ramos (Carlos Rivas) have descended into a deep cavern to check if it is the home of the giant scorpions. Unknowingly, little brat Juanito (Navarro) has snuck on board and wanders off on his own. He comes across a rock that is moving and the idiot obligingly lifts the rock to free the creature within. He is horrified to discover a large quick spider living there which promptly chases him around the cave. Calling out to Hank and Artur, Juanito is trapped against a small cave wall as the spider closes in. But Hank and Artur have bought enough firepower with them and quickly kill the arachnid.

I really like the design of this creature. It’s short and stubby and has two sets of claws; a small inner set and a larger outside set. I also love the little chirps the spider makes as it chases Juanito. But more importantly, I really love the persistent personality that Pete Peterson instills in this puppet. It has but one single purpose – to enjoy a Juanito-burger (oh if only!). It skitters and zooms across the cave extending its claws, hoping to catch the young stowaway. After initially being shot by Hank and Artur, it turns and lunges at its attacker, its claws waving defiantly. But after a few more rifle volleys, the creature collapses into a ball and dies. Peterson captures its death throes perfectly and it’s a fitting end for a great stop motion throwaway.

3. Ornithomimus from “The Valley of Gwangi” (1969) – Animator: Ray Harryhausen: Time creature appears in the film: 49:25 – Total Time Onscreen: 48 seconds

I remember being at a matinee for “The Valley of Gwangi” back when I was 13 and hearing a lot of the kids in the audience laughing at the first site of the Ornithomimus. They laughed at its strange appearance and weird coloring and continued laughing as it ran away from Champ (Richard Carlson), Rowdy (Dennis Kilbane) and Bean (Mario De Barros). They stopped laughing when Gwangi leapt out and grabbed hold of it and began tearing chunks of meat off of it. Everyone screamed and the comical scene quickly turned to downright horror. I remember smiling satisfactorily and thinking to myself that Ray Harryhausen, the master, successfully caught the audience off guard with that scene.

The Ornithomimus is the perfect stop motion throwaway creature. It’s odd and unusually shaped and its coloring is strange yet attractive. Ray gives it a odd gait and an even stranger high-pitched squawk that makes it immensely watchable. It’s the perfect creature to introduce the audience to the prehistoric wonders that exist in the valley. Its comical nature also makes it the perfect first victim for Gwangi. Once the Allosaurus pounces and begins feeding, all bets are off. The film’s leisurely pace quickly tightens up and the movie’s tone turns exciting. While it would have been nice to have the Ornithomimus escape from the clutches of the alpha predator, Ray knew that its death was necessary in order to properly introduce the real star of the movie.

4. Laboratory Amphibian/Lizard from “Piranha” (1978) – Animator: Phil Tippett: Time creature appears in the film: 16:46 – Total Time Onscreen: 45 seconds

If there was one director from the 1970s and 1980s that loved stop motion and tried to always include a scene in his films, it was Joe Dante. Falling in love with the stop motion images of Ray Harryhausen, Dante always made sure that his films included at least one stop motion scene in order to increase the audience’s expectations of what they would see. In this 1978 camp classic investigator Bradford Dillman and reporter Heather Menzies are looking into the disappearance of a young girl when they come across an old research facility. While looking around one of the labs, they fail to notice a small odd amphibian/lizard creature skulking around the room. The creature hides from the two but every so often peers out of his hiding space to see what the couple is doing. When Menzies unwittingly unleashes the titular characters from their holding tank, the pair are attacked by a crazed scientist played by genre vet Kevin McCarthy. As the trio fight among the lab equipment, the weird creature becomes terrified and flees from the fighting humans.

This is another perfect example of a stop motion throwaway creature. Phil Tippett designed a real unusual looking monster that registers both curiosity and fear. Hearing Dillman and Menzies arriving, the amphibian/lizard quickly darts between laboratory equipment while cautiously looking at the couple. Then when the fight begins, the it becomes terrified and runs away. Tippett’s animation is flawless and each shot of the creature leaves the viewer wanting to see it again. Initially, Dante and producer Jon Davison wanted to have several more scenes with it, but executive producer Roger Corman wouldn’t shell out the money. That’s a shame, because Tippett successfully created a monster that fans of the movie always want to talk about.

Of course this is just a quick look at some stop motion throwaway characters. There are many, many more and sci-fi and fantasy fans undoubtedly have their favorites. But for me, these four hit the stop motion sweet spot. They are now a part of my sci-fi consciousness and they continue to thrill me every time I see them onscreen.

Selected References

Harryhausen, Ray and Dalton, Tony. A Century of Stop Motion Animation. New York, New York:Random House, Inc. 2008.

Pettigrew, Neal. The Stop Motion Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2004.

Warren, Bill.  Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2010.