New to Blu: Arrow Video: Ray Harryhausen - Special Effects Titan

Andrew reviews the delightful documentary about the special effects maestro.

Despite the overt influences by stop motion animator Willis O'Brien's work on King Kong and French filmmaker Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon, it goes without saying Ray Harryhausen is the grandfather of stop motion animation effects work in science fiction fantasy films.  Considered to be a legendary wizard in the special effects arena of the film industry from the 1950s and 60s and singular revolutionary who changed the face of visual effects artistry in the business worldwide, the work of his boundless imagination and benchmark for all visual effects artists of our generation to learn from and respect.  Over the course of a decade, documentary filmmaker Gilles Penso of Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex dove into the cornucopia of Harryhausen's archives, turned his cameras on the man himself and presented a dedicated overview of the man's art and life story.  

Compounded with a series of interviews from some of today's finest directors and visual effects wizards including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, John Lasseter, Joe Dante, John Landis, Ray Bradbury, Terry Gilliam, Guillermo Del Toro, Tim Burton and many, many more, the years in the making documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan presents arguably the definitive biographical treatment of the visionary stop motion animator which can't help but make you want to dig up your copy of Jason and the Argonauts or Mysterious Island from your basement to relive the stop motion animated glory all over again.

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Beginning from Harryhausen's youth and influences, we see Harryhausen narrate his life story as he takes viewers through each and every one of his film productions starting with his student test work which landed him a job assisting the animation for Mighty Joe Young to his first bona fide masterpiece, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.  Soon Harryhausen's one man magic show of Dynamation introduced with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms became the pedestal from which all of his future stop motion animated work would springboard from.  Eventually his unique stop motion animation cinematography process lead him towards such indelible classics of science fiction fantasy such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 20 Million Miles to Earth where the animation done entirely by Harryhausen himself bore a unique and identifiable personality absent from other visual effects driven films.  Arguably the When you saw a Harryhausen film, the animation was unmistakably his and shone a spotlight on an indomitable wunderkind who informed the imagination of dozens of visual effects artists working in the industry today.  Arguably the pinnacle of Harryhausen's career is Jason and the Argonauts for it's sophisticated skeleton fight sequence parodied in Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness and influence on modern special effects driven battles with the undead.  

The closest animator to Harryhausen is probably Phil Tippett, best known for his stop motion work on The Empire Strikes Back and Robocop, who also had a knack for putting his own singular touch on his stop motion animation work.  It's curious to note that most of the CGI effects work we see today were pioneered by stop motion animators, sparking a shift in the visual effects industry that led Harryhausen to retire in the mid-80s with his last work technically being the 1981 Clash of the Titans despite the eventual release of his years in the making The Story of the Tortoise & the Hare.  Eventually Harryhausen did win a lifetime achievement award at the 1992 Academy Awards and in 2003 he was awarded the Hollywood Walk of Fame star.  As Mr. Harryhausen's legacy stands now, he might in fact have been the first visual effects artist who bore the distinction of an auteur with an eye and voice that was no one else's but his.  Despite many of his films being overseen by other directors and screenwriters, at heart Harryhausen was in charge and people sought out his movies largely because of him.  As seen today, some of the acting and storytelling might be dated and even hokey, but as Terry Gilliam wisely said in the documentary, his films are populated with some of the finest and most unforgettable bits of filmmaking the cinema world has ever seen and ones that will be cherished by cinephiles for years to come!


- Andrew Kotwicki