Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan

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Stop the average man in the street and ask him to name the guy who did the special effects in Avatar, Avengers Assemble, The Hobbit or any other modern CGI-laden blockbuster and my guess is you’ll get a very blank look.  Ask him who did the special effects in Jason & the Argonauts and my guess is that you stand a good chance of being met with the answer: Ray Harryhausen.  Not only that but they’ll probably also be able to tell you the name of the technique with which he is inextricably linked: stop motion animation.  Almost certainly the most famous movie technician of all time, Harryhausen is a byword not just for a particular type of film but also for a bygone era of craftsmanship, quality and attention to detail.

In Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan some of the biggest and most successful film-makers in history queue up to pay tribute Harryhausen’s work and the influence it has had on their own careers.  Told entirely by talking head interviews and Harryhausen’s own recollections, interspersed with clips from his work, the film is not so much an analysis of film craft – although it provides some fascinating insights into his mind-bogglingly painstaking method – as it is an expression of deep appreciation and affection for a remarkable individual.

I suppose the test of a good movie documentary is how well it answers two key questions: does it tell you anything you didn’t already know; and, does it make you want to go back and re-watch some of the movies in question.  I’d say the answer to both of those questions is most definitely yes.  For instance, I had no idea that The Valley of Gwangi was originally a Willis O’Brien project that had been started in the 1940s but was shelved because of the war.  You can tell Harryhausen is fond of it as he talks wistfully of how it was a box office flop when it eventually made it to the screen in 1969 because the idea of ‘cowboys vs. dinosaurs’ was twenty years out of date.  It’s well worth another look I reckon.

A great attraction of this documentary is the fabulous access it clearly had to Harryhausen’s personal treasure trove of stuff relating to his career.  It’s one thing to see the original model of Talos still looking impassively terrifying fifty years on; it’s quite another to see the models of creatures Harryhausen made before he even began his professional career.  We’re told that Harryhausen is quite particular about referring to his creations as “creatures” rather than “monsters” and I think that’s because he saw it as his artistic duty to imbue his models with personalities, identities, life itself.  And I also think it’s because he was so successful at achieving that goal that his creations are so memorable and, further, so fondly recalled, certainly by people of my generation.

There’s an interesting moment when James Cameron makes the claim that were Harryhausen still working today he’d be using CGI like mad because he’s want to use the best available tools to get his vision on to the screen.  In the very next shot, Harryhausen poo-poos this notion by saying he’d still use his models and stop motion.  I think this goes to the very heart of the central idea behind this documentary: that models, as used by Ray Harryhausen and those he influenced, are really more meaningful and connect better with the audience than CGI effects.  Even some of the interviewees, especially Dennis Muren, who worked on Jurassic Park among others, make this claim themselves, despite the fact that they work in that digital medium.

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There has to be a reason why Harryhausen’s work has endured long beyond the point at which the methods he used ceased to be current and out of all proportion to the relative quality of the films themselves.  And I think this documentary ultimately comes to the view that it’s because Harryhausen was, in the final analysis, a magician:  using just simple tools and infinite patience he dreamed of the incredible and the impossible and brought them to life.

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