Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects TitanOverview -
The remarkable career of the movie industry's most admired and influential special-effects auteur, the legendary Ray Harryhausen, is the subject of Gilles Penso's definitive documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan. Leaving no doubt as to Harryhausen's seminal influence on modern-day special effects, the documentary features enlightening and entertaining interviews with the man himself, Randy Cook, Peter Jackson, Nick Park, Phil Tippet, Terry Gilliam, Dennis Muren, John Landis, Guillermo del Toro, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and many more. These filmmakers, who today push the boundaries of special effects movie-making, pay tribute to the father of Stop Motion animation and films such as 'The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms', 'It Came from Beneath the Sea', 'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad', 'Mysterious Island', 'Jason and the Argonauts' and 'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad' - the films that enthralled them as children and inspired them to become filmmakers in their own right.
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
Fun, inspiring, and informative, ‘Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan’ is a must-see for film historians, special effects enthusiasts and aspiring filmmakers. Released in the UK in 2012, the movie's US debut on home video apparently has been a longtime coming, so I jumped at the chance to give this Blu-ray a spin. It’s a tribute to a craftsman whose style is immediately recognizable, and whose creativity is pure genius. Don’t look for gossip, speculation, sensationalism, controversy, or even critical analysis in this documentary. Most of the movies spotlighted here are admittedly entertainment for the masses, and not high art. Still, this feature is all about celebrating a master and his works, and writer-director Gilles Penso lets nothing spoil this party.
Ray Harryhausen himself is interviewed throughout most of the film, compiled from different sources at different times, and usually centered on a movie’s release date like ‘Mother Goose Stories' from’ from 1946, or ‘Clash of the Titans’ from 1981. The documentary follows the progress of Harryhausen's career based on the year of any particular release over for six decades. He recounts his early Hollywood aspirations, directly inspired by the original ‘King Kong’ and evolved from modeling and photographing his own amateur projects including an ambitious film called ‘Evolution’ (even Ray Bradbury took early note of his teenage talent!). He eventually breaks into Hollywood doing puppetry work with animator George Pal and participating in genre filmmaking like the ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," and then makes his way into larger and more prolific productions with other notable special effects pioneers of that time. While the chronology of Harryhausen’s creations is told at a rather fast pace, the refinement of his craft and the honing of his techniques are given sufficient attention so that we become well-acquainted with artistic progress.
Accompanying the “life story” of Mr. Harryhausen are comments and stories told by numerous film industry professionals, all of whom are clear fans of his work. The interviewees are introduced and identified by large white captions and an accompanying graphic (for example, Phil Tippett has the ‘Jurassic Park’ logo, while Dennis Muren is identified by a small sketch of the Millennium Falcon). Words of high praise and enthusiasm are delivered by directors, technicians, and actors and actresses before they offer examples of how they were was influenced and affected by the master. In particular, I was fascinated by how David Johnson described the design of Doc Ock from ‘Spider-Man 2’ as being inspired by the octopus from ‘It Came Beneath The Sea’ and he provides some of the more interesting insights into how such movie magic is accomplished. It truly is ipressive to see so many renowned professionals taking the time to talk onscreen. But truth be told, I was most excited by the reappearance of Caroline Munro, a British sexpot perhaps best known for her moments of eye-candy in the 1980’s music videos by Adam Ant. She who comes off as charming and appreciative when discussing her work from ‘The Golden Voyage of Sinbad’ and her presence was a nice surpise.
The documentary shows more than just clips from Harryhausen’s films. Comparisons of his work with other modern films are explored visually, such as the skeleton sword fight from ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ being recreated in ‘Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,’ ‘Army of Darkness,’ and ‘The Mummy.’ James Cameron even reveals how his Terminator figures were influenced by Harryhausen's designs and style of movement. The documentary also makes a point to mention Harryhausen’s own influences, especially the work of Georges Melies and his famous ‘A Trip to the Moon’ released in 1902. As for the Special Effects Titan himself, Mr. Harryhausen is articulate and detailed enough to deliver his own oral autobiography without visual aids, but all the still photos, blueprints, models, storyboards and numerous excerpts add immensely to his narrative.
The films of the interviewed directors are oftentimes displayed in brief excerpts, and include ‘Avatar,’ ‘Hellboy’ and ‘Starship Troopers’ just to name a few. Apparently, most of the clips were provided by studios without demands for payment or royalties, and the wealth of source material truly enriches the viewing experience. Interviews and footage were obviously compiled specifically for this presentation, but the documentary also show footage from events such as the Ray Harryhausen Myths and Legends Exhibition, British Academy of Film and Television Awards, and press conferences spotlighting other directors like Steven Spielberg. 'Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan' is clearly a labor of love by Director Giles Penso and his Producers Alexandre Poncet and Tony Dalton and I'm glad to have reviewed it.
The movie ends on an affectionate note, with tributes being paid to the man by awards from industry associations, dedications by the filmmakers, and even acknowledgement of his ninetieth birthday. The breathless accolades and endless worship may be typically Hollywood, but the sincerity is genuine and truthful.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats:
‘Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan’ is delivered on a BD50 disc and packaged in an eye-catching, clear case which is thicker than most standard cases, and shows off the reversible cover art which is jam-packed with his creations. One sleeve is photorealistic and colored with teal and orange, while the appear is painted and spotlights the subject like comic book art and features a profile of the master himself. There are no booklets or any other supplements to the packaging. The Blu-ray itself opens up to a partially animated menu duplicating the reverse cover art.
As expected, the overall video quality varies depending on the sources used, especially during interviews which have taken place at different times, and at different places. However, the high definition transfer looks great overall. Naturally, Harryhausen’s work is all about the visuals, and no other currently popular media format delivers them like Blu-ray. (I would gladly by an Ultra High Definition copy of this movie if it used 4k elements). There are many still pictures and illustrations which look rock solid and display fine details impressively, but I was also pleasantly surprised by how clean and crisp the archived footage looked, especially with movies from the 1940's and 1950's. The black and white scenes from ‘Mighty Joe Young’, the Technicolor clips from ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’ and the test animation reels from the filmmaker’s early efforts all look like they were handled with tender loving care and worthy of such scrutinized presentation.
Aspect ratios change depending on what clips are being excerpted, with most older trailers shown as 1.33:1, and more modern films displayed at 2.35:1 letterboxed Of course, there is a certain amount of excessive grain, print damage, and dirt which litter some film clips, especially that which may not have been shot in high definition, but that’s to be expected from such material.
‘Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan’ delivers a solid two-channel soundtrack, where the human voice is everything in taking us through his history. Here, all the narration and dialogue come in clearly and articulately, even when mixed or overlapped with the scores and soundtracks of other films. The commentary track has four speakers with three different accents engaging in lively conversation, but each personality remains distinct. Voices are strong in the mid-range, while notable highs and lows are heard only occasionally. The audio maintains its modest dynamic range and monophonic quality even when showing scenes from modern movies, where again, the visuals are the main focus. Overall, the Dolby Digital soundtrack preserves the integrity of the original sound source and presents it without artifacts or distortion.
Most of the supplements are expansions of material and information found in the main feature, such as the "behind the scenes" color footage of 'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" which had been briefly excerpted. The Blu-ray divides the supplements into separate sections, and a written introduction usually precedes each scene. The audio is in 2.0 stereo or two channel mono depending on the source, and picture quality also varies according to the materials used in the high definition transfer.
Audio Commentary - Director Gilles Penso, Producer Alexander Poncet and Tony Dalton, and Timothy Nicholson provide a detailed and enthusiastic running discussion of the video. Several anecdotes and observations expand on what appears onscreen, giving viewers a greater appreciation of what it took to put this project together.
A Treasure Trove (HD 1:37) - Composed of videos and photos, this footage documents the unveiling of models and figures which had been previously held in archives. While not quite as dramatic as Nazis exposing the Ark of the Covenant, those monster and creatures which are unboxed prove to be quite fascinating.
Interviews (HD 15:43) - Comments and opinions from Edgar Wright, Peter Lord, Rick Baker and Simon Pegg are available to the viewer individually or through a "Play All" option on the Blu-ray.
Interview Outtakes (HD 55:24) - Nearly an hour's worth of material which didn't make the final cut is available for playback, again for individual or continuous playback. Included in this impressive line-up of speakers are Dennis Muren, Joe Dante and John Lasseter.
Message to Ray (HD 2:17) - Ray Bradybury, Ken Ralston, Randall William Cook, Guillermo del Toro, James Cameron and Vanessa Harryhausen offer their thanks and respect to Mr. Harryhausen.
Deleted Scenes (HD 8:19) - This chapter is prefaced with an explanation of how the original cut of the documentary had a running time of 106 minutes, before a decision was made to speed up the pace. Since those segments never made the final cut, some of the referenced footage is not displayed due to lack of final copyright clearance. One of the more interesting cuts include an interview with Douglas Trumbull ('Blade Runner') who references his work in '2001: A Space Odyssey' though his words are not directly related to the subject at hand. Each segment last from a few seconds to just over two minutes in lenght.
On the Set with Sinbad - (HD 2:59) - Nearly three minutes of Super 8 milimeter production footage of 'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad' is shown here, provided by the father of special effects artist Sacha Feiner. The scenes take place on a beach with crew and cast at work. It is shown in its original 'square" ratio with no sound but full color.
Paris Cinematique Q&A (HD 18:40) - Taking place in December of 2012, the director and his producers answer questions regarding the purpose and making of their documentary. The answers are in French with subtitles and in English depending on the speaker.
London Gate Cinema Q&A (HD 8:58) - Held on November 9, 2012, this featuette is entitled "An Evening with Ray." It features Mr. Harryhausen answering questions about his creations and explaining the process of making the effects.
Original Trailer (HD, 2:48) - A nicely-assembled preview of the main feature which shows off its product very well.
Ray Harryhausen Trailer Reel (HD 22:15) - This collection of previews spotlights older films featuring his work, and include 'The 3 Worlds of Gulliver' and 'Mighty Joe Young." Of the nine trailers included, my favorite, of course, was 'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad' where the slogan "This is Dynamation" sells the film's most breathtaking qualities.
“I think if you make fantasy too real, I think it loses its quality of the nightmare, of the dream.” - Ray Harryhausen
Personally, my most vivid memories of Ray Harryhausen’s work come from ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,’ a film which would show up every once in awhile on independent TV stations (Hello, KTVU San Francisco!) interrupted endlessly by commercials for cheap (or so they boasted) adjustable beds and cheaper warehouse carpeting. Still, the laborious viewing experience was worth it because prior to 1977, this film was my 'Star Wars'.
What struck me the most about Harryhausen’s work was the jittery and jerky movements of the characters, which gave their presence an eerie, otherworldly style and quality. The documentary mentions that the Cyclops is the most favored of Harryhausen's creations, and it's easy to see why. He would lunge back and forth like a spastic puppet, making an already scary looking creature all the more alien in behavior. Seeing him in action was both unsettling and thrilling. Truly, Mr. Harryhausen's style made these movies unique and unforgettable, and this documentary is a fitting tribute to the man responsible. This title is highly recommended.
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