Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2011)

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With the sad news that film special effects trailblazer Ray Harryhausen had died last week at the age of 92 at his home in London, I thought it was appropriate to pay a small tribute to the man by watching this low-budget documentary that I picked up just last month from the London branch of Forbidden Planet.

In fact ‘low-budget documentary’ is a bit of a misnomer, since there’s pretty much no budget to speak of at all and the whole thing broadly consists of a lot of movie clips interspersed with talking heads filmed in often less than ideal circumstances but with the subjects nonetheless fulsomely gushing over how great Harryhausen was, making this a celebratory hagiographic retrospective lacking even the slightest hint of critical analysis of its subject.

And you know what? When the fans lining up to laud Harryhausen are of the calibre of Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, John Lasseter, John Landis, Guillermo del Toro, Tim Burton and Nick Park as well as life-long friend and SF great Ray Bradbury, then I’m just fine with that approach. Their glowing tributes to the man, his pioneering special effects work and the magic that his ‘Super Dynamation’ brought to their lives and to all of ours, and how he inspired them to become the filmmakers they are today, give this plainly constructed film a heart and soul that is very hard to resist.

Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan is a well-paced overview that follows a simple chronological timeline of the man’s life and career making sure things move on at a fair clip and never flag or dip for a single moment of dullness, even as it dutifully ticks off each of his 15 or so films. There’s a title card of a poster showing the year of each film entry as we methodically work our way through lending the whole thing the air of an academic treatise, but every now and then when the opportunity arises it will also branch off onto brief thematic digressions on the subject of stop-motion animation – how it started, how it’s actually done, and later the future of this art and technique in an era dominated by computers.

If you’re a fan of Harryhausen’s work then you’ll already know his 1950s black and white creature features (It Came from Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) or maybe you came to Harryhausen through his Sinbad films (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger) or through one of his other stand alone dinosaur movies (The Animal World, The Valley of Gwangi, One Million Years B.C.) literary adaptations (Mysterious Island, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, First Men in the Moon) or mythological action blockbusters (Jason and the Argonauts and the original 1981 Clash of the Titans.) I confess I was surprised to find out his first cinema outing was as the technician controlling the on-screen representation of Mighty Joe Young (1949) having thought that film came earlier and was a follow-up by the same people behind the 1933 King Kong – itself the inevitable boyhood inspiration for Harryhausen’s career. But almost more charming even than his better-known, more accomplished later work are some of his early colour short films for TV adapting fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood, The Tortoise & the Hare, Hansel and Gretel and Rapunzel, which Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park in turn cites as one of his earliest inspirations.

One of the sad things about the low/no budget available to The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation charity which is behind the making of this documentary is that these films themselves are unfortunately under-represented in the retrospective – especially the 50s creature features. They were too expensive to get the rights to show clips and instead the documentary has to rely on using the original cinema trailers for what they can. It’s ironic that director Gilles Penso is in a better position to get clips from modern blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Spider-Man 2, Hellboy 2 and Avatar thanks to the makers of those films themselves being such huge Harryhausen fans and in a position to waive the fees, whereas Harryhausen’s own works are long since locked up in some film library owned by stone-hearted corporations without an inch of movie magic in their souls to do likewise.

Still, you can (and indeed really should) get the original films in their own widely available DVD release, so instead the film makes a virtue out of necessity by devoting the remainder of its screen time to something utterly unique: a visual trawl through Harryhausen’s own archives and workshop, revealing the original concept drawings and actual models together with animation test reels, film set dailies and photographic stills that he’s kept squirrelled away for all these years: bits of movie history that haven’t been seen for decades. The end of the 90 minute film has a short coda on the work of The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation in seeking to recover, restore and preserve these priceless cinematic artefacts, as well as describing the charity’s key work (of which this film is an unabashed part) in promoting the sadly slowly fading art of stop-motion animation.

For if there is a level of criticism and analysis in this film, then it’s not about Harryhausen, his work or his legacy but is instead reserved for the current state of the film FX industry and its reliance on cheap, fast but somehow diminishing returns CGI. And it is certainly very strange that while Harryhausen’s films retain a charm and effectiveness even 60 years after they were made, today’s films age poorly in just six and even when freshly minted have an air of unconvincingness about them. I’m reminded of a comment I saw on Twitter recently, where a father described his young daughter’s first viewing of The Empire Strikes Back (having already seen the prequels) at which point she suddenly exclaimed excitedly: “Oh, Yoda’s real in this one!” It seems that even children intrinsically understand the difference between something on screen that’s just a computer animation and something which real and physical being photographed, no matter how photo-realistic the former is and how hokey and deficient the latter by comparison.

The film makes a brief stab at offering an explanation at why this should be: my favourite is the idea that FX of old are analogous to a magic trick in which we know we are being played with and fooled but still take in delight in trying to figure out the secret for ourselves; whereas with modern CGI there’s nothing to figure out, we can simply shrug and say ‘it’s just computers’ and then it’s no more impressive to us than an average video game.

But there’s something else to it as well: looking at the dinosaurs for Jurassic Park it’s amazing how effective and real they still are even though they themselves are 20 years old now. The difference comes in the time, care and detail to attention that was put into them, the fact that Spielberg’s team was still pushing at the frontier of what was possible and themselves having to work their way round deficiencies in available computer technologies of the day much as Harryhausen himself had to with puppets and models. Despite Harryhausen saying near the end of the film that working at a keyboard wouldn’t have appealed to him, in fact you can see that if he’d been born a couple of generations later then he would have taken to the possibilities like a duck to water, and would have brought the same level of craft and skill in conjuring true artistic performances from pixelated creations just as he did from his old clay and metal armature collaborators.

The difference is skill, and also time. The methods of old required Harryhausen to lock himself away in his workshop for months even for relatively short sequences in low-budget B-movies; Spielberg’s own team took two years to produce the similarly limited sequences in Jurassic Park. But these days the FX are churned out for entire movies in a matter of weeks and it’s no wonder most of them look like they’ve come off the factory production line with the main focus on the profit margin rather than the artistic quality level.

It’s this difference in priorities that puts Harryhausen’s canon of work head and shoulders above so much other cinematic fare even today, and why it’s so very important to have a celebratory movie retrospective such as this to remind us that the best films are those that come from a heart and soul and which dare to dream of new marvels to put on the screen no matter how impossible they seem to achieve – and which are not just a matter of wrangling bits and bytes and pixels into empty spectacle to put bums and seats and satisfy the accountants.

Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan is available on DVD and Blu-ray, although to be honest the source material doesn’t need or benefit from high definition in this case. The DVD comes with a second disc featuring extensive additional interview and other footage not used in the film itself. Harryhausen’s films are available in a wide number of DVD releases both individually and in boxset collections.

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