Like so many young artists and would-be filmmakers of his generation, Ray Harryhausen was inspired by 1933’s King Kong, and in particular the remarkable stop motion effects work of animator Willis O’Brien. But unlike so many of his peers, Harryhausen not only had an opportunity to meet his hero, but even worked for him as an apprentice; a few years after World War II, he helped O’Brien bring another screen gorilla to life in 1949’s Mighty Joe Young.
These were the formative years in Harryhausen’s long career, in which he himself would grow in stature, to become inarguably the most influential and respected special effects artist of the 20th century. The highlights of his life and work, from his earliest experiments in stop motion to his final feature, 1981’s Clash Of The Titans, are showcased in Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, director Gilles Penso’s 90-minute documentary.
With interviews from the master himself and those he’s inspired, including directors John Landis, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Terry Gilliam and Steven Spielberg, and other writers and artists including Ray Bradbury and Phil Tippett, Special Effects Titan lays out the debt modern cinema owes to Harryhausen’s painstaking work.
Enthusiastic talking heads are interspersed with clips from Harryhausen’s short films and features, as each is discussed and compared in turn. The familiar stuff’s all present and correct, of course, from the beautifully-wrought fighting skeletons and titans of Jason And The Argonauts to the wonderful bestiary of creatures in his Sinbad movies. But in among the expected, there are also plenty of surprises; anecdotes from Harryhausen’s daughter, for example, who recalls that her house was always full of dinosaurs to play with, and that her father’s habit of using the family oven to bake his creatures often left the Sunday roast chicken with a distinctive tang of latex.
Then there are all the concept drawings and storyboards – which really are a sight to behold – as well as behind-the-scenes photographs of Harryhausen diligently working away in his studio, and close-up images of his surviving models and armatures. If there’s one thing these moments make clear, it’s this: what we saw on the screen in his finished movies showed us only a fraction of Harryhausen’s hard work. So distinctive and magnetic were his creatures when they were moving, it’s all too easy to forget that, as well as a superb animator, Harryhausen is a master sculptor, draughtsman and engineer.
Some of the solutions he came up with for his pictures – often in conjunction with his father, who built the armatures on all of Ray’s films until he passed away shortly after First Men In The Moon – such as a wire rig for allowing his UFOs to pitch and hover in Earth Vs The Flying Saucers, were quite ingenious.
The film-obsessed are sure to love the wealth of history on display, and the clips of modern directors’ work, which are interspersed with their breathless praise for their idol, reveals further the debt they owe to Harryhausen’s pioneering animation. When a T-Rex flips over a vehicle in Jurassic Park, it suddenly becomes clear just how much it moves like dinosaur from, say, The Valley Of Gwangi. Once it’s pointed out, it becomes obvious that the swords of the multi-armed, living statue of Khali directly inspired General Grievous in Revenge Of The Sith.
If one were to pick fault with Special Effects Titan, it’s with its structure. Offering a rapid tour through the filmmaker’s career from one end to the other, its journey through history is perhaps a little too regimented, with a rigid pattern of anecdote, film clip, anecdote, film clip. As a tribute, it’s perfectly entertaining, but as a portrait of an artist and filmmaker, it’s quite soft-focus.
It’s also fair to say that the high-definition Blu-ray format shows up many of the discrepancies between the various sorts of footage – the movie clips themselves look positively sparkling, but the talking head interviews vary wildly from the pristine to the somewhat grainy and artefact-strewn. It’s a minor niggle, undoubtedly, but one which might prove a distraction for some movie buffs.
Maybe one day we’ll see a more candid account of Harryhausen, which digs beneath the surface of his film achievements, and looks in more detail in what life was like in his studio and his day-to-day triumphs and frustrations; there are instances like this in Special Effects Titan, admittedly, but the brief moments where we see or hear about the artist at work are tantalisingly brief.
As a loving tribute, an introductory guide to his work, and an impassioned plea to keep his creations and legacy preserved – something Peter Jackson clearly has enthusiasm for – Special Effects Titan is more than worthy of a purchase. Among the various extras, including extended interviews and additional footage, there’s what amounts to a lengthy unboxing video, where some of Harryhausen’s creations are carefully lifted out of crates and unwrapped by gleeful curator Tony Dalton and director Gilles Penso.
It’s further proof, of any more were needed, of the effect Harryhausen’s work has on his audience. His finest films left more than one generation of children awe-struck, and like Harryhausen himself after seeing King Kong, some of them went on to become artists and filmmakers themselves. As a timely reminder of this fact, Special Effects Titan does its job admirably well.
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan is out on Blu-ray and DVD now.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here