Film School: The Ghost of Slumber Mountain

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Film School: The Ghost of Slumber Mountain

Welcome to Film School! This is a column focused on movie history and all the stars, filmmakers, events, laws and, yes, movies that helped write it. Film School is a place to learn—no homework required.

In our biggest movies, reality has become less and less relevant. I don’t mean dramatic realism, but the tangible actors, sets and props that take up the physical space shot by the camera. A-listers stand around in green-screen warehouses, talking to tennis balls and hoping that everything makes sense once the CGI sweatshop fleshes things out. From this, we get digital mush like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, or the uncanny video game worlds derived from Industrial Light & Magic’s real-time StageCraft backgrounds. While there have certainly been amazing cinematic feats blending practical effects, optical illusions and computer wizardry, there’s been an increasing shift towards relying on the latter in place of…anything else. It feels like a hyper-modern problem, but strangely enough, the first domino to fall in this fantastical sequence was way back in 1918, with The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain—the first movie where human actors and characters animated by stop-motion seem to share the same space on-screen—was the culmination of a series of shorts by special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien. After he’d made a handful of prehistoric-themed movies for Thomas Edison, O’Brien got hired by Herbert M. Dawley to write and direct a nice meaty follow-up mining the same vein. Paleontology was flourishing in the public eye; Barnum Brown had discovered the first T-Rex remains only 16 years prior. It was time to capitalize on dino-fever at the tail end of a historical boom period actually called “The Bone Wars,” and O’Brien was in the unique position of being able to bring these creatures to some semblance of life. Brown was even able to be a technical advisor on the film!

The 18 surviving minutes of The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, cut down from a lost 40-minute version, give us a wide range of dinosaur activity while also welcoming us into its world through human actors who, at times, seem to be in imminent danger from these ancient beasts.

The plot is contained by a framing device, heard by children. It’s a tall tale, told by a character who is effectively Calvin’s dad from Calvin & Hobbes: He and his fellow adventurer once found an abandoned cabin on Slumber Mountain, and looked through its ghostly former resident’s viewfinder-like device. This allowed him to see the distant past of Slumber Mountain, full of dinosaurs and other massive creatures from antiquity. The second half of The Ghost of Slumber Mountain reveals its menagerie: You’ve got a lethargic Brontosaurus, a bipedal bird snacking on a snake, a pair of dueling Triceratops and a hungry T-Rex.

Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur had come out just a few years prior, and was the first film to animate a dinosaur. Hell, it was one of the first films to animate anything. Gertie was also made using traditional, hand drawn 2D animation, which inherently made Gertie’s personality a little cartoonish. O’Brien, on the other hand, got to imagine how dinosaurs moved in 3D. He made them move like real animals, predators and prey. The muscular claymation critters are fun to watch—licking their chops and moving with a relatively lithe fluidity, O’Brien’s panning camera treating them just like any other part of the natural world—but then the T-Rex comes for our narrator.

Though it would still be years before O’Brien would eventually combine stop-motion and live-action footage into the same frame through rear-screen projection, most famously in his compositing work on King Kong, he convincingly cuts between his human explorer and clay carnivore in The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. The matching backgrounds, consistent lighting and cause-and-effect editing enhance the textured creature design, blending these realities together. The T-Rex even gets shot in the face by a panicked pistol blast. The smooth animation and camera moves—that never stop to frame its subjects as a gimmick, but track their movements like it does with people—make the chase click. The dinosaur is here, just beyond the ridge.

Years later, Ray Harryhausen, the stop-motion legend whose combinations of live-action and animation remain the most memorable sections of films like Jason and the Argonauts, would end up perfecting this iteration of fantasy and reality’s cohabitation. It’s no surprise that he picked the technique up from his mentor, O’Brien, starting with Mighty Joe Young. But before giant apes and young women were sharing the same frame, and long before Jurassic Park asked if it could rather than if it should, the detailed production of The Ghost of Slumber Mountain unlocked that particular neural pathway of our cinematic imagination.

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain was one step beyond the magic tricks of Georges Méliès, turning these illusions not only into film effects but characters—creatures that could eat our food, breathe our air, and threaten our lives. More than stop-motion dolls living in a stop-motion world (or the dead bugs and puppets that other animators were using as protagonists), these dinosaurs became worthy of our empathy. They lived alongside us, and therefore lived closer to us in our imaginations. Directors could long manipulate time. They could even dabble in unreality. Now, though, we could see that unreality walk right up to us. The Ghost of Slumber Mountain made a massive profit, continued O’Brien’s groundbreaking career and, most importantly, allowed movies in the future to detach themselves safely from our world without sacrificing humanity. A shame that some filmmakers have now taken this so far that there’s almost no humanity left.

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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