Dynamotion, or the Art of Creating Character by Neil McGowan

A couple of weeks ago, I took a day off. The kids were at school, so it was just me and my wife. We popped into Edinburgh for the day and spent a fascinating couple of hours at the National Gallery exploring the Ray Harryhausen exhibition.

We both grew up with these movies, so there was a distinct air of nostalgia as we wandered about. All the classic models were there - Pauline was especially delighted to see BoBo the owl (from Clash of the Titans) whereas I was more interested in the skeleton warriors from Jason and the Argonauts (I guess that shows where my interests lie…), but even more interesting was the back-story behind the movies.

There was a whole series of sketches and drawings showing the development of the models, and you could trace the development of the idea from initial concept to finished creature, including all the problems encountered and how they were solved. I was most taken with the engineering drawings, showing how even the direction a bolt was fitted was a factor in the overall design, even though this would never be seen in the finished item.

There was some archive footage of people talking about working on the movies, and how these latex-covered metal frames developed their own, distinct personalities in the movies.

It got me thinking about writing, specifically character. Phrases like, 'The writing has a strong, unique voice,' and 'quirky characters that will stay with you long after you finish the book' are common, as is the constant advice to 'find your own voice'. (Both examples were taken at random from a selection of books on Pauline's TBR pile.)

I started thinking more deeply about what this actually means for a writer, and how Harryhausen's process could so easily apply to character and plot development for writers. The first draft is like those early sketches, working out how the character or story will go together. The engineering drawings are an extension of this - as you get to know your characters and story, you start to consider how it goes together, and how all the individual pieces will function as a whole. Then comes redrafting and editing, which I thought was akin to putting the flesh on the bones (or in this case, the latex over the metal) and refining it until you have something that takes on a life of its own.

I also considered (with less enthusiasm) how, as writers, a knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the writing process can jar you out of the story if something isn't right - I was reminded of seeing the zipper up the back of the costume on The Creature From the Black Lagoon when I was a teenager; I've never been able to watch the film since without looking for this. It pulls you out of the action, and the suspension of disbelief is that much harder to maintain.

All of which led nicely back to character, and how, even though the effects do look dated now, they still have a personality that the latest CGI efforts have yet to come close to emulating, and I can only put it down to the time and care invested in their creation.

The exhibition is running into next year (I should be on commission for plugging it, but alas, I'm not) and well worth a visit if you're in the area.


 

Comments

Susan Price said…
Skeleton warriors all the way!

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