AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY: Now
RUNNING TIME: 90 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
The career of the legendary Ray Harryhausen, the special effects genius who perfected the art of stop-motion and whose monstrous creations in films like Jason And The Argonauts and The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad have thrilled both children and adults for decades and inspired virtually two generations of filmmakers……
The first film book I ever read was called The Saga Of Special Effects by Ron Fry and Pamela Fourzon, which belonged to my stepdad, whom I really credit with getting me seriously into movies, and movies of all ages, from a very young age. I was about 6 or 7 years old, and not only an avid reader of myths and legends but mad about dinosaurs. I can just about remember the thrill of opening the pages of that book and finding out that films about the subjects I was crazy about actually did exist. I didn’t really want to know how they were made – that would come later- and didn’t actually read much of the words till a year or so later [maybe I wanted to preserve the magic and the mystery] but I was fascinated by not just seeing a Brontosaurus and a Cyclops existing in films that that most of the coolest stuff seem to be the work of one man, a certain Ray Harryhausen, who seemed to be interested in exactly the same things I was!
Not long after that they showed the 1960 The Lost World on TV, my first dinosaur film, and seeing lizards with things stuck on them pretending to be dinosaurs just made me laugh. But Lo and Behold, the Harryhausen films gradually turned up, the first one being One Million Years B.C., and they more than exceeded my expectations. Sadly the only one I got to see at the cinema was Clash Of The Titans which was his last picture, though a decade or so later The Museum Of The Moving Image in London had a display of Harryhausen’s creatures and it was so thrilling. Harryhausen remains the only special effects maestro whose name sells his films. You don’t think of Valley Of Gwangi as a James O’ Connolly [the director] picture or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad as a Kerwin Matthews [the star] film, you think of them as Ray Harryhausen movies. The importance and time given to the special effects, with quite often the story being written round planned ‘highlights’ [something which is not actually uncommon; Jackie Chan did much the same thing, only he was the special effect] meant that there was there was little room for a director who wanted the final say about everything or money for big stars. Harryhausen was the director and his creations were the stars. He was the real auteur of his own body of work.
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, which has been made over the course of five years, is the definitive documentary about, and tribute to, Harryhausen, far superior to the [still pretty good] Ray Harryhausen Chronicles which can be seen on the DVDs of some of his films. For a start they got [take a deep breath] Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, James Cameron, Nick Park, Phil Tippet, Peter Lord, Terry Gilliam, Dennis Muren, John Lasseter, Rick Baker, John Landis, Ken Ralston, Guillermo Del Toro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Robert Zemeckis, Tony Dalton and other directors and special effects people to talk about Harryhausen’s work and they impact it had on their own stuff. If you think this might be overstatement, the documentary provides brief clips from films as diverse as Starship Troopers and Toy Story where you can see immediately that a Harryhausen scene or creature [he doesn’t like to call them monsters] has been a distinct inspiration.
These luminaries, and Ray himself [he was born in 1920!] pop up constantly as the documentary goes through Harryhausen’s career from working with George Pal on the Puppetoon shorts to his first big break working with his hero, King Kong creator Willis O’ Brien, on Mighty Joe Young all the way through to Clash Of The Titans, after which he retired as he felt that his type of film was becoming outdated. Harryhausen’s face is cleverly merged into the poster of each film as the documentary races through the pictures at top speed. Some films are not talked about very much and things temporarily veer off into other matters. The film and trailer clips [some films are only represented by trailer clips, which is odd] are very brief which is fine, because it you’ve been unlucky enough not to have seen a Harryhausen picture you will have been given enough tantalising clips to whet your appetite. If you have seen some, or indeed are like me and have not only seen them all over twenty times but have read a great deal of material about him including his own books, you won’t learn much that is new, but you will be thrilled to visit Ray’s study, to see that most of his work has been preserved, and see some previously unseen test footage and on-set shots which Peter Jackson is aiding the digital restoration of. I will be counting the days until these treasures are released.
Of course a distinct sadness creeps in. Some of today’s special effects geniuses almost seem to lament the fact that anything is now possible with CGI and that the “wow” factor, where you see something on a cinema screen and wonder how they did it, is fading away. James Cameron says that if Ray was still working today, he’d be using all the modern technology at his disposal, but Ray thinks he’d still be doing things his way, working alone in his garage, often taking a day to shoot just one second of film, but at least having total control, and in the process adding some of his own personality to a living skeleton, or a giant walrus, or a six-armed living statue, rather than it being the work of hundreds of people and coming out rather soulless. Often the idea of ‘realism’ takes away from the feeling of magic, but to me a lot of CGI doesn’t look anywhere near realistic anyway. I suppose it depends what you grew up with, but I doubt that anyone could see the roping sequence from Valley Of Gwangi even today and not be amazed.
This is a very good documentary whose only major flaw to me [I’ll forgive Ray’s dismissal of Japanese ‘man-in-suit’ monster movies!] is its fairly short length; the deleted material which can be seen on the extras disc should mostly have remained in the film in my opinion, and I could have done with a bit detail on a few things, but quite often the best things leave you wanting more. If you don’t know much about Harryhausen or had little experience with his magic, check out Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan and learn about one of the Gods of fantasy film-making.
THE DVD AND BLU-RAY FROM ARROW FILMS HAVE THE FOLLOWING SPECIAL FEATURES
– Audio Commentary with Gilles Penso, Alexandre Poncet, Tony Dalton and Tim Nicholson
– Featurette “A Treasure Trove” 13’36
– Q&A at the Cinémathèque française 18’05
– A Chat With…
– Edgar Wright 4’13
– Peter Lord 2’20
– Rick Baker 4’55
– Simon Pegg 3’35
– Colin Arthur 2’33
– Dennis Muren 4’59
– Greg Broadmore 4’01
– Joe Dante 5’41
– John Lasseter 4’44
– Ken Ralston 3’24
– Martine Beswick & Caroline Munro 2′
– Nick Park 6’35
– Phil Tippett 4’41
– Randy Cook 3’41
– Steve Johnson 7’26
– Vanessa Harryhausen 3’17
– 8 Deleted Scenes
– Intro 33”
– First Take 1’15
– Sharp Stars (with Douglas Trumbull and Jean-Pierre Jeunet) 2’03
– Nathan Juran 45”
– Dino on Wires 28”
– Chaffey & Cooper 29”
– Hessler & Rozsa 59”
– Fighting Kali 46”
– The Touch of Harryhausen 52”
– Special Effects Titan Trailer (2’30)
– On the Set of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (3′)
– A Message to Ray (2’15)
– Trailer collection : Mighty Joe Young, The Beast From 20 000 Fathoms, It Came From Beneath The Sea, 20 Million Miles To Earth, Earth Vs The Flying Saucers, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, Mysterious Island & Jason And The Argonauts.