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Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan

-Review by Nic Brown (photos Courtesy of Mark Mawston and the producers of "Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan)-

Rick Backer, John Landis, and Peter Jackson pay tribute to RayWhen moviegoers think of special effects, the first thing that often jumps to mind is the amazing array of computer generated images populating some of modern cinema’s biggest blockbusters. From the lifelike dinosaurs of Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” to the fantastic alien landscapes and creatures of James Cameron’s “Avatar”, these films take the viewer into a world of imagination using both their stories and their special effects. But can you name the people who made the dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park”, the aliens of “Avatar”, or even the CGI half shark/half octopus of Syfy’s “Sharktopus”?

Probably not. Now talk to some of today’s biggest names in film, names like John Landis, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, and Tim Burton, and ask who inspired them with movie magic when they were growing up. They all say the same name: Ray Harryhausen. In his new documentary: “Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan” director Gilles Penso takes a look at the man who has been called the father of modern special effects.

The documentary skillfully combines interviews, rare outtakes, home movies, test reels, and a collection of conceptual art and original models to tell the story of the man who brought to the screen creatures the likes of which had never been seen before. Medusa, Talos, the Kraken, Cyclops and a host of other mythical beasts came to life in Harryhausen’s skilled hands. From the unimaginably huge squid that destroyed San Francisco in “It Came from Beneath the Sea” to the table-top sized prehistoric horse, an Eohippus, in “The Valley of Gwangi”, Harryhausen used his talent as a filmmaker to bring his creatures not just to the big screen, but to life.

The documentary starts with a look at Harryhausen’s early years, the inspiration he got from “King Kong”, and the work visual effects artist Willis O’Brien did to bring Kong to life. It also covers his friendship with science fiction legend Ray Bradbury, and his first creations, stop motion home movies showing dinosaurs, far better than those seen in most Hollywood films of the day, roaming a miniature set. The film also shows the role that Harryhausen’s family played in his success. Harryhausen’s parents not only encouraged their son to pursue his dream, but actively helped. His father used his skills at crafting and engineering to help Ray create the armatures and machine components for his models, while his mother made clothing for the creations that  required costuming. In fact, Harryhausen’s father continued to help in the creation of Ray’s creatures until his death in 1973.

Some behind the scenes pictures (click to enlarge)

Penso then takes the viewers on a wonderful trip through Harryhausen’s film career, looking at each of his works for both the big and small screens. Along the way, filmclips and interviews with filmmakers show how Harryhausen’s work inspired them and how he helped shape modern cinema.  Starting with Harryhausen’s ‘home movies’ and moving through his early work with his long-time hero Willis O’Brien on “Mighty Joe Young”, the documentary covers all of his films, including some rare concept footage from projects he wanted to do such as “War of the Worlds”.

Harryhausen himself often speaks in the documentary, and although the effects legend is in his early nineties, it is clear that his mind is as sharp as ever. In fact his wit comes out particularly well when talking about some of the disappointments he’s had to deal with, and the way many of today’s Hollywood elite filmmakers think they know how Harryhausen really feels about CGI.

One of the things that makes this documentary so complete is that it was made with the support of the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (http://www.rayharryhausen.com). The Foundation provided access to its collection of original art, models, and miniatures. The Foundation also allowed them access to Ray’s workshop and unseen test footage found during the clearing out of Ray’s garage in his old Los Angeles home. It is because of this collaboration that the documentary is able to open windows into so many rarely viewed aspects of Harryhausen’s genius. 

“Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan” pays touching tribute to the man’s contribution to cinema. Although he made fewer than twenty films, each of his works is known as much, if not more, for the creatures he brought to life than for the stars who shared the screen with his creations. The film follows his career through the decades up until his last film: “Clash of the Titans” and shows the viewers the bittersweet side of this Hollywood legend’s career. It is worth noting that during the screening I was privileged enough to attend at the 2012 Monster Bash in Butler, Pennsylvania, there were more than a few teary eyes at the film’s end. 

If you have ever spent a Saturday matinee watching Sinbad battle skeletal warriors, cowboys lassoing dinosaurs or flying saucers leveling Washington DC then you’ll love “Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan.” From unseen footage of Harryhausen’s ideas for “War of the Worlds” to his seldom seen forays into children’s fairy tales, the documentary’s eye for detail is flawless. The film’s pacing is so good that the documentary’s 90+ minutes seem to float by. So if you want to see the heart and soul of film effects and to learn why each of Harryhausen’s creations is referred to as a creature , not a monster, check out “Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan”. When it’s done, your only regret won’t be that the film is over, but that Harryhausen isn’t still making movies today, movies where the effects don’t just steal the show, but steal your heart as well.


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