Unmade Cine-Magic (Part 2) – By Philip Smolen

 

Last month I took a look at several unmade films that would have had stop motion special effects created by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen (click here to check out Part 1). This month we’ll check out several additional stop motion movies that never got made. However, these flicks would have had stop motion work supplied by two other effects geniuses; Jim Danforth and Dave Allen. The plotlines for both films are so tantalizing, especially for anyone who loves stop motion creatures. They would have expanded the generally restricted landscape for stop motion animation and they would have also expanded the types of critters that usually inhabit this kind of film. I’m also sure that they would have been box-office successes. Both were unusual and would have appealed to a sci-fi starved audience who were just looking for something different. These movies would have also helped establish Danforth and Allen as credible film directors who had an innate knowledge of presenting special visual effects onscreen. So let’s put on our whirly-bird beanie caps and travel back to a time when the best movie monsters were created by stop motion animation…

 

Unmade Jim Danforth Film Project

Jim Danforth was one of the most honest, ethical and diligent special effects artist that ever worked on motion pictures. Initially excited by the stop motion work of the great Willis O’Brien, Danforth was bitten by the special effects bug and was determined to create spectacular visual effects for movies. Jim learned and perfected his stop motion skills as he grew up and also learned about many other aspects of special effects including puppet construction, rotoscope animation and matte painting. In the early 1960s, Jim was hired by an effects company called Project Unlimited and worked on many classic 1960s sci-fi and fantasy films, including “The Time Machine” (1960), “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm” (1962), “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1962) and “The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao” (1964). In 1968 Danforth was hired by Hammer Films to create the dinosaur effects for “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” (1970), an unofficial sequel to “One Million Years BC” (1966). To this day, Jim’s dinosaurs for this movie remain some of the most perfectly animated creatures that have ever graced celluloid and his efforts were rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Special Effects. By the mid 1970s, Jim realized that the visual effects artist needed to be an integral part of the initial design for a special effects film and not simply a hired hand. Wanting to see his own ideas turned into exciting movies, Danforth wrote screenplays and tried to get producers interested in his work. He almost succeeded.

 

TIMEGATE (1978?) – Director: Jim Danforth

In the 21st Century, The Chronex Corporation has perfected a method of time travel and offers paying customers the chance to go back in time and go on a prehistoric safari and photograph (and even hunt dinosaurs). A new safari is launched which is headed up by Chronex guides Steve, Ben and Nina. The trio as well as six guests are transported back in time and begin their activities. However, the guests are unaware that Chronex has installed electrical barriers around the areas where the more dangerous predatory dinosaurs roam. The safari initially goes well, but one of the guests is reckless and his carelessness causes the destruction of the group’s time transport device which strands them in the past. However, Steve and Nina know that there is a government research base some distance away which also has a time travel device. But to get there, the group must travel through the dangerous prehistoric area that contains fierce predators including the aggressive four-legged wolf lizards! (Story synopsis taken from Jim Danforth’s first screenplay draft)

Danforth initially conceived the idea for “Timegate” around 1974. He saw it as a type of disaster film (like “The Poseidon Adventure” [1972] and “The Towering Inferno [1975]) and felt that it could be very popular. Unfortunately, the project went downhill almost as soon as Jim got the green light on the project. Danforth was going to direct the film and design and execute all of the effects (along with his hand-picked team). Jim went into business with several producers (including former Amicus head man Milton Subotsky) and everyone seemed to get along initially. But as Jim recruited people for his project, the producers kept trying to change its scope. They had Danforth write additional drafts of the screenplay which would incorporate their ideas. Finally pre-production began with the effects crew designing several different types of dinosaurs including the fearsome wolf lizards. But as props and effects were designed and locations were scouted, the producers kept changing the film’s requirements which kept increasing its budget. They had the film recast when they weren’t happy with the actors that were initially selected and these delays kept pushing the film’s starting date further and further back. Adding to these problems, the effects studio was broken into and robbed of many important props. A little while later, there was a meeting held with American International Pictures (who were to co-finance the project) and several of the producers decided to relieve Jim of his directing duties. Several months later, AI pulled out of the project and “Timegate” fell into development hell.

I remember reading about “Timegate” in all the fan magazines during the 1970s. It sounded so tantalizing and I couldn’t wait to see it. There would have been a plethora of animated stop motion creations, including those amazing wolf-lizards, several hypsilophodons, a T-Rex, a Monoclonius and a mother and baby Styracosaurus. Also the crab-like all terrain vehicle that the safari travelers would have rode in would have been animated (in the long shots). Danforth had also assembled a truly wonderful team of effects artists including Phil Tippett, Doug Beswick, Dennis Muren and Tom Scherman. There’s no doubt in my mind that “Timegate” would have elevated the stop motion film above its traditional b-movie roots. This film is truly a lost classic and cinema fans all over the world are poorer for never having the chance to see it.

To view a short film about the making of “Timegate”, please go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-hTrCouba0&t=3s

 

Unmade Dave Allen Project

Dave Allen was one of the few stop-motion animators who had the opportunity to work on both low and high budget film projects. He started his career in the late 1960s working on Dennis Muren’s low budget wonder “Equinox” (1968). He then went to England to help Jim Danforth and he wound up animating the Chasmosaur sequence in “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” (1970). Afterwards, Allen worked on such low-budget films as “Flesh Gordon” (1974) and “The Crater Lake Monster” (1977). But Dave also worked on major Hollywood films such as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971), “Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985), “Batteries Not Included” (1987) and “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” (1989). In 1978 Dave met producer Charles Band who was impressed with Dave’s ability to create character with his stop motion puppets. For the next 18 years, Allen supplied Band with stop motion effects for many of Band’s Full Moon productions including “Laserblast” (1978), “The Day Time Ended” (1979), “The Dungeonmaster” (1985), and the famous “Puppetmaster” series of flicks. But even with all of these credits, Dave wanted to direct his own stop motion feature and create a truly unique cinematic fantasy. He came very close.

 

THE PRIMEVALS (1999) – Director: Dave Allen

Unfortunately there is so much mystery surrounding “The Primevals” that it’s very difficult to find any complete story synopsis. We just know that the basic plot revolves around a scientific expedition to the Himalayans who find a lost valley that is inhabited by giant Yeti-like creatures. These Yetis are being controlled by reptile-like aliens who experiment on all of the other creatures in the area including a horned lizard and a spider type creature.

But while very little is known about the final script of “The Primevals”, much more is known about its production. According to Jim Danforth, David (along with Dennis Muren) came to visit him in March 1968 to discuss a film idea that they had. Their idea was about a group of World War I prisoners who hijack a German zeppelin and are carried by winds over an uncharted area. The group is forced to land when their craft is attacked by Pteradons. They land in a valley inhabited by sub-humans who have domesticated a giant sloth-like creature. Danforth made several suggestions to Allen, including adding in a race of lizard men who ruled the sub-humans. Then when Jim was in England working on “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth”, he mentioned the project to Hammer executives who were excited about the project and contacted Allen. However, Hammer later backed out of the project and Dave temporarily shelved the film.

Then in the late 1970s producer Charles Band became interested in the idea and “The Primevals” was revived. By this time Dave had revised the plot (keeping in the lizard men) and he began designing puppets and props. But for the next 15 years, the project stopped and started as financing ebbed and flowed. Finally, in 1993 and 1994, Band secured enough money to allow the production to fully commence. Dave and his crew flew to Romania and filmed all of the live action scenes. The film’s cast included such baby boomer favorites as Juliet Mills (“Nanny and the Professor TV show) and Robert Cornthwaite (“The Thing from Another World” [1951]). After live action was completed, Dave returned to his studio to with his crew to complete all of the animation and optical effects. In between, Allen did stop motion effects for other films including “Dragon World” (1994) and “Robot Wars” (1994). However, in 1998 Dave was diagnosed with cancer and he died less than a year later with his life-long goal within his grasp.

The film now sits in cinematic limbo and will probably never see the light of day. Chris Endicott, Dave’s long-time friend and effects associate, reports that Allen left very specific instructions on how he wanted the film to be completed. It’s also been reported that various effects artists have tried to buy the film from Charles Band and finish it the way Dave wanted to in order to honor him. To me, it just seems like the height of life’s injustice. Dave was given the green light to make a stop motion film exactly the way he wanted. He put all of his life energies into the film and never gave up on the project. He almost reached the mountain top only to have the shadow of death stop him. Over the years, many pictures of the stop motion puppets for this film have been released and they have been wondrous to behold. What breaks the heart of stop motion fanatics like me is that “The Primevals”, much like “Timegate” could have changed the direction and perception of stop motion films forever (for the better). More than a quarter of a century later these two cancelled projects have drifted into cinematic lore and are now (just like the creatures that would have appeared in them) memories of a time long past.

To watch several short test clips from “The Primevals”, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN48BINgdjk&list=PLweZWKwPzqGGwmsrClYWB6luBp-sOaXll&index=1

 

Selected References

Danforth, Jim. Dinosaurs, Dragons and Drama – The Odyssey of a Trick-Film-Maker. (Volume 1: The Outward Journey [CD-ROM]). Los Angeles, California: Archive Editions, LLC. 2011. ISBN: 978-0-9817829-3-5.

Danforth, Jim. Dinosaurs, Dragons and Drama – The Odyssey of a Trick-Film-Maker. (Volume 2: The Siege [CD-ROM]). Los Angeles, California: Archive Editions, LLC. 2015. ISBN: 978-0-9817829-6-6.

Harryhausen, Ray and Dalton, Tony. A Century of Stop Motion – From Méliés to Aardman. New York, New York: Random House, Inc. 2008.

Pettigrew, Neil. The Stop-Motion Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. 1999.