A Tribute to the work of Ray Harryhausen, his Special Effect on me, public imagination, and the film industry. Plus a review of the 2013 UK release of Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan.
“This is Dynamation!”
Whenever that spark is reignited, when a distant memory resurfaces, it brings back all the emotions attached and warm sentimentality…
Surprisingly, I was walking through town, past our own chain newsagent to see a huge window display of the latest LEGO Minifigures. Big advertising hoarding passes most people by, with people not registering what they are seeing, unlike the near-future mass explosion advertising found in Transmetropolitan or Minority Report. But I digress… being the big kid I am, this advertising had one character front and centre staring back at me and I said ‘I MUST HAVE IT’. An unexplainable feeling that washes over you that words just couldn’t justify…
The Minifig in question was a Cyclops.
These Minifigs are out bi-yearly, available in most supermarkets and toy stores. Of course you may have one or two. But this was something special. I saw the Cyclops and recognized in it something but I couldn’t recall why. [Which by May 2013, and the releases of series 10 has a Medusa character. This leads me to believe that an impending collection of LEGO Myths and Legend sets are on their way, like they did with Monster Fighters.]
By some weird planetary alignment, scrolling through Instagram, ‘Coop’ [Artist Chris Cooper] had drawn a Cyclops portrait which further solidified my intrigue; I sat in my local bookstore, for my usual coffee and perused through some of the movie books on offer, chancing upon a certain book and opening up a certain page:
THE FIRST MAN
Now it all made sense. Of course it could only be the Special Effects Titan that is: Ray Harryhausen!
One of his films, Jason and the Argonauts was already in my DVD collection, it’s surely in the list of top 1000 films you must own and see before you die and we all remember the INFAMOUS skeleton fight scene that is beloved by many. But that wasn’t the whole story. Putting it all together made me realize how much I missed, or even how much of Ray Harryhausen’s work I needed. The skeleton fight was all well and good; it’s remembered throughout all film history as a classic. But it was the Cyclops that had a greater effect on me.
It’s also worth noting, that if it wasn’t for Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla may not have existed. The only difference with the special effects in the Godzilla movies was what would later become parodied as the clearly evident man in a suit.
If you couldn’t get to the movie theatre, most of the films you watched as child were the Saturday morning matinee movies that played on all of the four channels available. Imagine that! BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV, and Channel 4 were all we had that played on repeat most of the Carry On films, ye olde Hammer Horror, and moreover Westerns and war films. Plenty of war films, like we needed the reminder.
Why is CGI so useful and yet so unnecessary?
When you consider the prolific use of CGI in film and TV it harkens back to Harryhausen because of what he did and created. For example, Smallville, which without CGI and budget, it would not have transferred from the silver screen to TV. This means that although the acting would’ve been strong, Superman’s abilities would have been nigh on impossible in live action. I remember the Marvel live-action TV series of Spider-Man, Thor, and especially the Hulk. We all fondly remember the effects, meagre budget, and Lou Ferrigno and his anger with walls.
Admittedly, Harryhausen’s effects if used in live-action TV would take a year at best, making the shows out-dated upon release. Chicken Run by Aardman studios (the guys behind Wallace and Gromit – who could not mention them in reference to Harryhausen?) painstakingly took a long while to create the full-length feature, and with the release of The Curse of the WereRabbit, CGI was incorporated. The same goes for the recent releases of Frankenweenie and ParaNorman both homages to classic horror, and animation, the seamlessness of the animation was in most part due to the necessary addition of CGI effects.
But in film, up until the 2000s before the transfer to digital film, when classic film stock, as delicate as it was, the editing and post production process that Harryhausen endured lead him to become an auteur in his own right.
He became a one-man-band, and justly so. The concentration required for his art meant that although he could have worked with a team, he was faster alone. It also meant that even though he was animating inanimate objects, the characters came alive because he was acting through them with ingrained and slight idiosyncrasies and flaws and with that comes a sense of awe and wonder even at an older cynical age living in a time of CGI because ultimately, the sense of realism existed when your imagination plays a huge part. No matter how much CGI progresses, unless it’s used appropriately and not to replace human/animal actors completely, you can watch a CGI film and you can tell it’s hyperrealism is not good enough. At least Harryhausen himself stated that if you made the animated characters too real, there wasn’t a suspension of disbelief.
Peter Jackson, a huge Harryhausen fan, was quoted in saying that when filming the Lord of the Rings, Fellowship had 550 effect shots while Return of the King had 2,000+. The argument here is to whether it is good or bad in service to the original storytelling. The law of diminishing returns may prove that CGI will have its day, or maybe like 3D, a novelty that cycles every 30 years or so. I’ve personally been put off by movies in 3D, because it only offers the depth of field aspect and an extortionate price tag.
You have to envision the fact that without Harryhausen (or at least without the path laid out by him), you would not have Pixar, Rick Baker, Stan Winston, Lucasfilm, ILM, and therefore Jurassic Park, Aardman, and many more, people and studios that would not have had their imagination sparked by a Harryhausen effect flick; also, as stated before, these Special Effects teams and studios and vast teams of people which fill the end credits of almost any film these days. That’s not to say the work is not effective, but I personally am excited when I see the ONE credit at the start of a film that states [Special/Visual Effects by] Ray Harryhausen.
I know I’m extolling the virtues of Harryhausen’s work. Without a doubt CGI will continue in filmmaking, prime examples being Avatar and Sky Captain, but the difference for me is the sense of gravity. I will watch the creatures with a sense of awe and wonder because they followed the basic laws of physics.
There have been other influences of Ray Harryhausen on myself as well as others. Before I knew of his work on film, the films themselves had an impact. Take for example Earth versus the Flying Saucers (EVFS). I know that the shape and sound of the UFOs in that particular movie would have had a far reaching effect on the way I perceived such space craft. The evidence and effect is evident in the early reminiscences of early UFOlogical reports, which lead onto the whole UFOlogy subject becoming a movement as a whole. I look back in retrospect and wonder if the films out during the Atomic Age, affected after the World Wars impacted on society as a whole or at least certain groups/individuals. They may have been ashamed to admit their ‘UFO experiences’, due to the scorn they would receive and so attached themselves to escapism of film.
This may (and this is solely conjecture on my part as a theory) have led to the influence of the films such as EFVS and It Came From Outer Space etc. on the UFO culture and ultimately the rise in sightings of UFOs based on the look of these films. We can also add that in most part the fear of the ‘great Communist empire’ and Russia was also a large consideration, but that is a whole other essay. But what we did see was the homage Tim Burton put into his own films. Mars Attacks, based on the original Topps trading cards, includes a scene taken in jest directly from EVFS. It’s clear the inspiration was in effect on James Cameron. To think that Terminator was out in 1984, and Abyss in 1989, a few short years after Clash of the Titans, when Harryhausen had by 1981 pretty much retired from special effects that the introduction of CGI was in motion, and yet, the old tradition of using marionettes was evident, albeit renamed Animatronics.
There is so much more I could write about Ray Harryhausen and his films. I’ve yet to mention The Valley of Gwangi, First Men in the Moon with story by HG Wells, or Mighty Joe Young, but that part of the adventure is for me to discover as well as you. I have a deep-seated affection for all Harryhausen films, which is in part ironic for the fact that his films are remembered for him, and not the directors or actors. The only other names that I appreciate in reference to this are producer Charles H. Schneer and writer Ray Bradbury.
CLASH! A REVIEW
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan
Blu-ray | DVD
This leads to my review. A retrospective of Harryhausen’s career, it showcases his work in the usual chronological order expected of such a documentary. The world famous students of his work, the directors and special effects wizards of TV and film today, come together as talking heads for the piece. It should be noted that big names are used as part of the marketing for this movie, which is a shame. But anyway, particular attention for the course of the movie should be given to Peter Jackson, John Landis, Joe Dante, Guillermo Del Toro, and Steven Spielberg as the directors not ashamed to wear their hearts on their sleeves with Harryhausen’s influence rampant in a vast majority of their films. The joy with watching this documentary is the surprising revelations they come out with, that I will not go into detail here – watch it!
Some of the more interesting perspectives come from James Cameron, Edgar Wright and Terry Gilliam, which offers insight in a way that is refreshing for a documentary when some many talking head docs seem to kiss ass all the time.
Honorable mention goes to Simon Pegg, great as an actor, but as a geek is unashamed and knowledgably portraying what we think and it was clear that as he states, Ray ingrained onto Peggs mind and helped shape his love of Sci-Fi and Fantasy which ultimately lead him to Star Wars.
James Cameron states that had Harryhausen not retired, he wouldn’t have clung to the puppetry but have utilized the new emerging technologies to release his imagination, but then would it have had the same impact today?
I was sat in the Museum of Science and Industry café, editing this piece on the 8th of May in the early afternoon. Then whilst idly flicking through social networks on my phone, I saw the news and did not want to believe it.
Ray Harryhausen passed away on 8th May 2013 in London, his adopted home away from home.
I did feel a great sense of personal loss to feel that because of the influence of such a man on film, directors, art, and myself that he was a giant, a giant that was immortal.
He will always be immortal to me.
For more on this, please visit www.RayHarryhausen.com