Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2011) – By Roger Carpenter

 

There are many documentaries about stop motion artist Ray Harryhausen and his remarkable films. Some are decent and some are, frankly, pretty terrible. So I was a bit wary when I popped this Blu-Ray into my player. I mean, I love Harryhausen and his films, but really, what else is there to say about him that hasn’t already been said? And, if there is more to be said, how do you do it in an impactful way?

Let me just say up front that shortly after starting this film, all my questions were answered. Indeed, there was a great deal of material still needing to be covered and director Gilles Penso does a very nice job covering that material. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen every Harryhausen documentary that has been made, but I’m also pretty sure this one is the definitive Harryhausen documentary to see.

More a love letter to Harryhausen, his estimable talents, and to his films, than a documentary, Penso organizes his film chronologically, beginning with the Harryhausen’s childhood and the now well-known story of his viewing King Kong which led to him meeting Willis O’Brien. This meeting fueled Harryhausen’s desire to create unique creatures and led directly to working in stop-motion effects. Though a well-known story for Harryhausen fans, its importance cannot be underestimated and, therefore, needs to be told once more to ensure each viewer understands Harryhausen’s path towards cinematic history. From this point, the film covers each of Harryhausen’s features beginning with 1949’s Mighty Joe Young and ending with his last feature, Clash of the Titans (1981).

Nearly every segment contains film clips, with some segments including rare, behind-the-scenes footage or photos rarely, if ever, seen. In fact, in a Q&A included as a special feature, the filmmakers explain that most rights-holders to the films were cooperative in providing film clips at no charge to the production. However, rights to a very few films were unable to be obtained. But this proved to be a blessing to the filmmakers as it allowed them to include some of this rare footage that otherwise might not have made it into the film.

While this retrospective of Harryhausen’s work was done exceptionally well, perhaps the most important choice by the filmmakers was the inclusion of other filmmakers talking about the influence Harryhausen had on their careers. When one speaks of someone who influenced others, one typically mentions two or three people who were impacted by a particular person. Not so in this case. There are more like two dozen filmmakers—many of todays’ greatest directors and special effects artists—who speak directly to a particular film, a particular creature, or a particular moment, that was a “light bulb moment” for them: Peter Jackson; Terry Gilliam; Guillermo del Toro; James Cameron; Tim Burton; John Landis; Steven Spielberg; Dennis Muren; Steve Johnson. The list goes on and on. Clearly Harryhausen made an impact on decades of youngsters who, remembering their amazement of these films, decided to become filmmakers themselves. Seldom has one person had such an effect on so many people or influenced an entire industry as did Harryhausen. The film is especially poignant as it features Harryhausen himself, along with science fiction author and lifelong Harryhausen friend, Ray Bradbury, extensively in the film—some of the last footage of these titans of fantasy, as both passed away shortly after the film was released.

And, for those viewers who just can’t get enough, this special edition Blu-Ray includes several hours of special features. There is a filmmaker audio commentary which, in full disclosure, I gave up on. There are far too many people talking, all talking at once, talking over each other, and interrupting each other in the midst of a story or a point being made. Frankly, it’s a bit frustrating though the information being presented seemed interesting enough. There are also plenty of interview clips that were left out of the film itself, including a featurette with interviews of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Peter Lord, and Rick Baker as well as a second featurette that includes unused excerpts from a dozen filmmakers including the likes of Joe Dante. There are around a half-dozen deleted or extended scenes with introductory commentary on why each scene was deleted. I particularly liked the explanation for each deleted scene as these explanations enlightened the viewer as to the filmmakers’ thinking for the removal of a particular scene. As someone interested in how a director thinks, I found the choice to include these written commentaries helpful. Also included are two short Q&A sessions at various film festivals that were fun. Some rare, behind-the-scenes 8 MM color footage of the first Sinbad film is included as well as a couple of other short featurettes and a trailer for the film. The package is rounded out with a fun Harryhausen trailer reel which included many of Ray’s films.

If you are interested in filmmaking, special effects, or stop-motion animation, or if you simply want to know more about Ray Harryhausen and his films, this is, in my opinion, the definitive Harryhausen documentary. You would do well to pick it up. The film is available through Amazon or you can go directly to Arrow Film’s website at: http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa