It would be interesting to note how many of the modern, younger cinema audience would, if asked, recognise the name Ray Harryhausen. Certainly, a good amount of them would be able to recall the names Spielberg, Cameron, Lucas or Jackson, but it’s fairly safe to presume not many would be able to name the man responsible for igniting so many of the imaginations of those recently wowing cinema audiences with computer generated Na’vi, ring corrupted Hobbits and velociraptors. And yet those pixellated creations find their origins in, relatively speaking, simple rubber puppets, photographed and brought to life one frame at a time, by one man.
Clearly a labour of love, Gilles Penso’s documentary on one of cinema’s most important pioneers has taken some time to complete its journey to the big screen, taking in Harryhausen’s career, film by film, shown through interviews with the great man himself and also with those who have found careers in cinema themselves through their love and understanding of both the medium and Harryhausen.
Structured in a very simple and linear fashion, the film begins with Harryhausen’s first encounters with stop-motion through the work of Willis O’Brien and the majesty and tragedy of King Kong (clearly a landmark moment for the future animator) and treats us to an unprecedented amount of unseen footage from his first home movie attempts at animation.
This is one of the more special elements of the film; it seems Harryhausen himself has been very co-operative with Penso, providing a vast amount of personal footage and artwork from his productions, spanning his entire career. We are given an intimate look at how Harryhausen learned his craft, from his first dinosaurs to recruiting his parents into his productions; his father made the internal ball and socket skeletons for most of the creatures Harryhausen animated throughout his career and his mother created the costumes for his early puppets.
On to Harryhausen’s first professional steps with O’Brien (visiting “Obie”, as he is referred to, with a trunk full of his homemade dinosaur puppets) and then observing his progression from animating TerryToon puppets to animating the movie creatures and characters that thrilled countless minds from the 1940s right up to his last hurrah in 1981, Clash of the Titans.
Characters from each film are given their moment, explaining origins and appearances (Medusa’s serpentine body was more to do with the problems inherent in animating clothing) and we even get to see them in their current forms, some sadly at various stages of degradation, as Harryhausen and his family and friends go through his personal archives with the ultimate aim of adding to the Ray Harryhausen Foundation, a charitable trust set up in 1986 to preserve his lifes work for future generations.
Luminaries from the film industry also contribute, from Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson and James Cameron to effects maestros less known by the average viewer, such as Phil Tipper, Denis Muren and Randall William Cook, many giving their own time to be interviewed, some being caught at red carpet events by the filmmakers, the documentary’s low budget roots showing through occasionally as a result. At one point it seems as though Tim Burton has been filmed on a camera phone on the fly, but this lends itself to the love for the subject matter. This is no fawning network television piece, rather a statement of love and appreciation by a core audience of fans and colleagues.
However, an interesting counterpoint is made between those modern filmmakers who cite influence and Harryhausen’s own thoughts on modern techniques. Harryhausen makes no secret of his disappointment at current innovations, wondering if the heart has gone from current computerised animation while Jackson and company insist that Harryhausen’s legacy lives on in modern animated characters, even if they are created through fundamentally different technology. More could have been made of this, but that is perhaps not the point of the film, which is a celebration of the life and career of a film pioneer, and questions raised by current special and visual effects and their uses are for another time.
What is not up for debate is the influence Harryhausen has had on modern cinema, and every participant in this documentary is in agreement that cinema culture is richer for having such an original contributor as Ray Harryhausen.
Ray Harryhausen – Special Effects Titan is currently on limited release