Monday, January 25, 2016
Cult-TV Theme Watch: Stop Motion Animation
Usually in these “Cult-TV Theme Watches” I look at recurring ideas, themes, characters or tropes in the history of television. They are often ‘in-show,’ however. Today I look instead at a special effects technique that has recurred in cult-TV over the years: stop-motion animation.
Stop motion animation might be described as a technique that involves the manipulation of a filmed object, an individual frame at a time. Once those frames are run-together at normal speech, the manipulated object, moved incrementally, appears to move take and life.
The black-and-white horror/sci-fi anthologies of the late 1950s and early 1960s were among the first to take advantage of the stop-motion technique. In a 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) called “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” stop-motion is used to depict a dinosaur, an Apatosaurus. A twentieth century plane crew – flung back in time – spies it from the cockpit.
The most terrifying “bear” of The Outer Limits (1963-1965) owes its very existence to stop-motion animation. In the horrific, “The Zanti Misfits,” Bruce Dern and other actors grapple with exiles from Zanti, horrible ant-creatures with human-like faces. These alien menaces skitter out of their spaceship, down walls, across the floor, and so on. The stop-motion still holds up well, and these monsters have lost none of their scary nature over the decades.
In the 1970s, stop-motion animation moved to a different realm: live-action Saturday mornings. In 1974, Land of the Lost (1974-1977) premiered, and the series concerns an American family of the disco decade trapped in a prehistoric pocket universe, Altrusia.
The many denizens there -- Grumpy the T-Rex, Big Alice the Allosaurus, Dopey the baby brontosaur and so on – are all rendered mobile by the auspices of stop-motion animation.
For the second season of Space: 1999 (1975-1977) there was some discussion of using stop motion animation for the episode “New Adam, New Eve,” but it was not to be. Instead, the format reached the final frontier in Filmation’s Saturday morning series, Space Academy (1977). In the early episode “Castaways in Time and Space” (9/17/77), a crashed Seeker spaceship and its personnel, Gampu (Jonathan Harris) and Laura Gentry (Pamelyn Ferdin) encounter an alien creature rendered in stop-motion format.
The follow-up Filmation series, Jason of Star Command (1978-1980) featured several stop-motion aliens in both seasons of its run, as well.
In Great Britain, Doctor Who (1963-1989) utilized this format at least once, during the Jon Pertwee Era, in the serial “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” A stop-motion Loch Ness Monster also appeared in "Terror of the Zygons."