Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: Ray Harryhausen – Special Effects Titan

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet (to enlarge, click on image)

Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan
Directed by Gilles Penso
Frenetic Films / Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation /
Arrow Video / MVD Visual
92 minutes, 2011 / Blu-ray 2016

I grew up with Ray Harryhausen (d. 2013 at age 92); well, not personally, but on his work. After Willis O’Brien (d. 1962), who created stop-motion pixilated films like the The Lost World in 1925 and the original 1933 King Kong, Ray Harryhausen (RH) would pick up O’Brien’s mantle and become the leading and deservedly most renowned stop-motion photographer in the world with his own spin, called Dynamation. In fact, he would take mixing this type of animation mixed with live action to levels that could only be bested by digital effects.

Ray Harryhausen and friends
There is nothing but an abashed “we’re not worthy” to the man and his family… and rightfully so. There is rightfully a reason why he has the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation named after him to preserve his legacy and to teach others how to do the craft, his materials are preserved in a museum (sponsored by director Peter Jackson), he has won both an Oscar and an honorary BAFTA (he moved to England at some point), and even a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (certainly more deserving than so many over the past few years, such as the Olson Twins, but I digress…)

This documentary is broken up into chapters by each of the dozen films he has made (I have come to realize I have seen all but two: The Animal Word from 1956, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, from 1977), and while this goes into detail about how they came about around his contribution, it also takes the entire time to talk about how his craft was honed, accomplished, and of course there are tons of testimonials to praise the Maestro, such as directors Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro, John Landis (and his crooked glasses), Peter Jackson (of course), Joe Dante, special effects wizards (especially those who have done stop animation, such as Henry Selick, who directed the likes of Coraline in 2009), and those who have appeared in his films, including the lovely Martine Beswick and Caroline Munro. There is also some footage of reminiscences by one of RH’s nearly lifelong friend, Ray Bradbury (d. 2012). Some of the clips are directly for this; others are culled from convention presentations or press conferences. But all of these were donated, including the film clips, donated for free by the companies and people in honor of RH. That is a lot of respect.

There are plenty of shots from all RH’s films, but what is also entrancing is the clips from those that followed which built upon his work, such as Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), Splice (2009), and Jurassic Park (1993). Also shown are many of the original models in their modern state, some in sore disrepair thanks them being built in latex rubber, which is infamous for breaking down over time.

One of the more interesting discussions that crops up once in a while through this release is the difference between stop motion and CGI. It is correctly pointed out that both are “tools,” but stop-motion usually takes one to three people (in the case of Harryhausen, with one exception, all his work was solo), but computer generation takes dozens, often with one person working on a single aspect of an image, such as an eye or tail). But what struck me the most as accurate is while people tend to marvel at pixilation, computer generation tends to be dismissively viewed as “Oh, it’s just CGI.”

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms
While one of his first jobs after World War II (where he worked with the likes of Frank Capra) was doing most of the animation of Mighty Joe Young (1949; though Willis O’Brien received nearly all the film credit, RH was O’Brien’s “assistant”), RH’s first real solo feature credit begins with a film oft seen on TV in my youth, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). The filmmakers in the documentary make the same connection I made, in that it led to the direction in the formation of Godzilla (1954) in Japan. RH’s opinion of that film was smile-inducing.

One of my favorite and completely accurate comments in this is that whomever directs the picture, it’s still described as a ”Ray Harryhausen” film. It’s similar to how many early ‘60s songs were considered “Phil Sector” records.

Included here are clips of some of RH’s hearly test works that he did for himself to learn his craft just after the Second World War, and his first professional releases, which were based on Grimm’s Fairy Tales that were still playing on television in my youth in the early ‘60s. They also show many of RH’s original storyboard sketches. He was quite the artist with a pencil and paper, as well as on the screen where he also built his own creatures, usually in his home in a room that was his workshop, fired in the kitchen oven.

Jason and the Argonauts
One of the discussions I enjoyed were when some of the SFX professionals and directors discussed their favorite scenes from RH films. For me? The skeleton fight scene in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Actually, I love that whole film, which I saw in the theater in my youth, and many times after on TV. Most of his films I saw on television, and I’m grateful to have been able to do that; as far as I know, they don’t play older films like this anymore.

As with all of Arrow’s rereleases, there is a teeming amount of extras. First up is the mandatory commentary. While there are many good tidbits of info given, the problem is there are too many people on it, and I have no clue who is talking, and they often talk over each other. Honestly, this is a commentary pet peeve of mine. But yes, I watched the whole thing.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers
Next up is the 14-minute “A Treasure Trove” that follows the director and producers opening up some of the boxes in storage for an exhibition that include original models such as the UFO from Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956; a film I’ve always liked) and Pegasus from HR’s last film, Clash of the Titans (1981). It’s interesting but more for the close-ups of the models than the ooo-aaah commentary. Then there is “Interviews” at 16-minutes, with director Edgar Wright (e.g., Shaun of the Dead [2004]), Terry Gilliam, Peter Lord (one of the directors of stop-motion Wallace and Gromit), make-up maven Rick Baker (including American Werewolf in London [1981], Videodrome [1983]), and actor Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead), all discussing their fanhood, and how it affected and effected their own careers.

“Interview Outtakes” are 13 interviews over 55 minutes that are either extended pieces from the film, or outtakes by filmmakers who worked with him, were inspired by him, or were just fans of his canon. Also included is his daughter, Vanessa, who is the Trustee of the Foundation. “Message to Ray” is a two-minute collection of six people, including Ray Bradbury, Guillermo Del Toro, James Cameron, and Vanessa, to send a message of thanks and love, probably played to him at a celebratory ceremony, talking directly to the camera. My fave part was Cameron asking, “What ever happened to the first six voyages of Sinbad?”

“Deleted Scenes” is a collection of nine sections totaling 8 minutes that feature different excised clips for reasons of timing or redundancy. The original cut was 15 minutes longer than the final. Thankfully, they put text at the beginning of each clip to explain why that particular one was snipped. All seem right to be removed, but still glad they kept it, even in its rough-cut version. While some of the next one was used in the main feature, “On the Set of Sinbad” is a 2-minute sort-of-behind the scene of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad footage shot in silent 8mm. Damn, the late 50s camera looks better than my Super8 from the early ‘70s.

The original Kraken from Clash of the Titans
The 18-minute “Paris Cinemtheque Q&A” is from December 2012, in which the filmmakers answer questions from the audience about the film, and about Ray. Half of it is in English, half in French (with subtitles), and mostly interesting. The month before, the 9-minute “London Gate Cinema Q&A” was filmed after a showing, but in this case it included RH himself, Caroline Munro, and John Landis, among others. Landis asks a question I actually thought throughout the film, which is, “Where is Sam Raimi?” (a clip from 1993’s Army of Darkness is shown in the documentary, however). I also wonder, is this the last public appearance of RH?

The last two items are the “Original Trailer” for this film, and the “Ray Harryhausen Trailer Reel,” which includes the coming attractions of nine his films in 22 minutes, short clips of which are included in the documentary, but it’s good to see them in their totality.

This documentary – and the extras – excellently shows on so many levels why the history and legacy of Ray Harryhausen is important to keep fresh, because his influence keeps growing. In 2016, a new stop-motion animation picture has hit theaters to success, Kubo and the Two Strings. This Blu-ray explains the reasons for the adoration all quite nicely.

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