Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan
directed by Gilles Penso
starring Ray Harryhausen
Arrow Films, Frenetic Arts
Before CGI, before Eight Bit Mario, before Polar Express we all relied on stop-motion animation. Clay covered armatures were adjusted frame by frame; a single frame might take an hour’s work. The champion of this style was the famed Ray Harryhausen; his work gave quirky yet life-like motions that looks just a bit creepy. Harryhausen was the 1950’s king of the style; he saw the original King Kong and said: “I can do better.” And better he did. Filmed at the end of Harryhausen’ s life (he passed in 2013) the film returns us to the wide range of his material and the even wider range of top directors that took the time to talk about Harryhausen’s influence. They offer up comparative clips between their work and the original Harryhausen sources, and discuss how CGI now goes even further. Few film makers people still use this method, only Nick Park of Wallace and Gromit fame still takes the time to build his worlds this slowly and carefully.
At the heart of Harryhausen’ s work is the extensive and clever use of armatures, and he then moved them to match his own footage of animals in motion. We see the raw dedication of a man who can conceive of a scene, break it down frame by frame, and then shoot it at a rate of a dozen or so frames a day. Along with the footage of Ray and the Famous Director’s Club the director’s commentary is equally as interesting and informative. The base material looks as good today as it did in 1950, we explore actual daily footage, visit an exhibition of his models, and learn his “Dynamation” process. The mechanics of making things look real is eye-opening. Harryhausen inspired most of today’s directors from Spielberg to John Landis to Peter Jackson; maybe this film will inspire still another generation.
Finally we inspect the back rooms of the Harryhausen Museum; it’s a warehouse in London and not open to the public yet. Check out the Pegasus model; feel the skeletons from Clash of the Titans, and pet the dinosaurs from Valley of the Gwanji. Yes, this is film geek movie; it’s filmed by film geeks, for film geeks. It’s a loving testament to a man whose work is still revered, at least by those in the know.