Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Goodbye, Ray.

Vale, Ray Harryhausen.

Yeah. I know. They can do all that animation stuff better these days with computers. Shiny. But you know what?

Harryhausen, man. The things he did. The monsters, the heroes, the magic, the stories. I'm not even going to start making a list. So many!

If you're ignorant, at this point I'm going to tell you to hit Wikipedia. I'll just say that Ray Harryhausen was one of the legendary, gigantic greats of animation, specifically in the region of stop-motion work. His vision and his talents were the only things that made fantasy film-making possible for a span of decades. Without Harryhausen and the people he inspired, it's doubtful that the current wave of computer animation would be anywhere near as sophisticated, or as widely accepted as it is.

More, though: Harryhausen's technique is simple. Anyone can do it. It's classic animation: frame by frame, a little bit of movement each time. It's the way I taught both my boys to make movies with their toys and their lego, and the worlds of imagination they've created since all owe their inception to Harryhausen's magic touch.

Any other parents reading today? Here's a suggestion for the next really rainy day.

Give your kid access to a digital camera. You'll also need a bit of completely free software, such as Monkeyjam, a small and very simple programme that will take digital images and combine them into a basic AVI movie file. You'll also want an MP3 player with voice-recording functionality, or an iPod with the same, and a copy of the completely free Audacity software, so you can record special effects and an audio track for your animation.

So. You've got a camera, you've got an image-to-movie animation programme, and you've got a basic sound-sampling and editing programme. After that, you need two things: some very basic movie-editing software such as can be had free through Windows, or at minimal cost elsewhere.

Oh -- and you need imagination. Lots and lots of imagination.

Computer animation programmes with shiny rendering functions, and skeleton-builds, and the rest... yeah, they're peachy. But they cost a bloody fortune, and they take enormous amounts of computer power, and there's a hell of a steep learning curve involved. And frankly, you can't really see much until you're well into the process. But if you take fifteen minutes with the gear I've listed above, you can see your very own first, brief, animation take shape. Just set up your scene. Photograph it. Move the thing that you want to animate, very slightly. Repeat until you have enough images to string together. (When you start, you'll want about twelve pictures for every second of footage...)

It really is that simple. And it's bloody fantastic. Here's another thing the computer stuff can't do: it can't bring your kid's toys to life. It can't take the simple, inanimate objects lying around your house and make them dance, and sing. But with your little camera and your computer? Yep. Too easy.

When Harryhausen got started, all those decades ago, stop-motion animation was a very specialised skill that required enormously expensive equipment and training. But that was then. He lived long enough to see his art almost superceded in the cinemas... but I like to believe that he was also aware of the Internet, and the way literally millions of people have begun to follow in his footsteps.

It's easy. It's fun. It's magic. 

Thank you for everything, Ray. We'll take it from here, okay?