Video Q&A: Ray Harryhausen on Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

On April 23, 2006, Ray Harryhausen attended a screening of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California. The screening, courtesy of the American Cinematheque, was billed as “The Two Rays,” because Harryhausen’s friend Ray Bradbury was scheduled to attend. Harryhausen, of course, provided the stop-motion special effects that brought the prehistoric beast to life; Bradbury’s short story “The Foghorn” was the source of inspiration for the screenplay. Unfortunately, Bradbury had to drop out due to illness, leaving Harryhausen to regale an appreciative audience with behind the scenes tales of making the film, which you can hear in this video, originally posted at Hollywood Gothique.

Ray Harryhausen has passed on to "the land beyond beyond"

Ray Harryhausen graced the cover of Cinefantastique magazine no less than three times - a tribute to his monumental contribution to horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema.
Ray Harryhausen graced the cover of Cinefantastique magazine no less than three times - a tribute to his monumental contribution to horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema.

Ray Harryhausen, the special effects genius who used stop-motion effects to enchant a generation of film-goers, has passed away. According to The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation Facebook page, Harryhausen died in London today, May 7 (less than two months short of what would have been his 93rd birthday).
Harryhausen caught the filmmaking bug after watching a screening of the original, black-and-white version of KING KONG (1933), which used wire-armature models, photographed one frame at a time, to bring the giant ape and his prehistoric reptilian adversaries to cinematic life. For each frame of film, a miniature model of Kong, a T-Rex or some other dinosaur would be positioned, then photographed; then O’Brien would reposition the model, and shoot another frame. After several hours of this process, there would be enough frames to portray a few seconds of a Kong pounding his chest, attacking an opponent, or climbing the Empire State building.
Ray Harryhausen animated Mighty Joe Young.
Ray Harryhausen animated Mighty Joe Young.

As a child, Harryhausen experimented with the technique at home (at one point, famously scavenging his mother’s fur coat to provide a skin for a wolly mammoth). His early efforts earned the approval of Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion pioneer whose work on KING KONG had inspired Harryhausen. O’Brien hired Harryhausen to provide animation for MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1948), a sort of kinder, gentler verion of KING KONG. If anything, Harryhausen was an example of the student surpassing the master. O’Brien had a genius for engineering how special effects could be achieved, but Harryhausen had a deft touch as an animator, imbuing Mighty Joe Young with a touching personality. This characteristic would carry over into later films when Harryhausen branched out on his own.
The fiery death of the Beat from 20,000 Fathoms
The fiery death of the Beat from 20,000 Fathoms

In 1953, producers Jack Dietz and Hal E. Chester needed someone to bring THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS to life. Harryhausen adapted O’Brien’s old and somewhat expensive technique for low-budget filmmaking, using split screen effects to mix the monster with live-action footage, instead of crafting numerous miniature sets and matte paintings.
The film was a hit, which led to Harryhausen joining forces with producer Charles Schneer, a partnership that led to the subsequent films IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956), and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957).
Harryhausen animated the dragon from the 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Harryhausen animated the dragon from the 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

In 1958, Harryhausen and Schneer switched from black-and-white science fiction to color fantasy with THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, a colorful adventure film filled with amazing visual delights: a snake-woman; a one-eyed cyclops or two; a fire-breathing dragon; and, perhaps most famously, a skeleton that comes to life and engages in a sword-fight with Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews). With its childlike, almost naive tone, the film is perfect entertainment for children and families – one of the best in Harryhausen’s career.
Later collaborations between Harryhausen and Schneer included THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960), MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964), and THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969), the later of which was based on an idea by Harryhausen’s mentor, Willis O’Brien. There were two Sinbad sequels, THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973), which is possibly even better than the first, and SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977). Harryhausen also provided dinosaur effects for Hammer Films’ remaking of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966).
The giant crab from MYSTERIOUS ISLAND
The giant crab from MYSTERIOUS ISLAND

The last Sinbad film was a bit disappointing. In the new era of science fiction films, inaugurated by STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, Harryhausen’s style was starting to seem a bit quaint, both in terms of effects and story. Harryhausen’s films typically were showcases for his effects process, which he dubbed “Dynamation” (short for “Dimensional Animation,” because he was animating three-dimensional puppets, not two-dimensional drawings).
In spite of the occasional dramatic deficiencies, several of his films do stand up as solid movies, in particular MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. But regardless of whether they were sophisticated cinema, Harryhausen’s films could always enchant, engendering a wide-eyed sense of wonder that could last a lifetime (typified by Tom Hanks, declaration, upon presenting a lifetime Oscar to Harryhausen, that “JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is the greatest movie ever made”).
Ray Harryhausen with the Medusa model from the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS
Ray Harryhausen with the Medusa model from the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS

Harryhausen wrapped up his film career with CLASH OF THE TITANS (1980), which featured a bigger budget and a more stellar cast than his previous movies. Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, and others presided as the gods over Mount Olympus, while Harry Hamlin provided the human heroics as Perseus. The film captured an appropriate sense of grandeur in its early sequences, but the later portion is marred by some ill-conceived pandering to the kiddie market (in the form of Bubo, the mechanical owl, who sounds like R2D2). Nevertheless, CLASH OF THE TITANS featured what may be Harryhausen’s greatest set-piece, the length and quite suspenseful cat-and-mouse encounter between Perseus and Medusa, set in the terrifying Gorgon’s shadowy lair.
In his retirement, Harryhausen kept his legacy alive through DVD releases of his old titles, sometimes in new colorized editions and through authoring and/or collaborating on such books as RAY HARRYHAUSEN’S FANTASY SCRAPBOOK and THE ART OF RAY HARRYHAUSEN.
Harryhausen brought dueling skeletons to life in 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.
Harryhausen brought dueling skeletons to life in 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.

As a technical matter, the stop-motion process required precision and patience. Harryhausen possessed both patience and precision, but also something else – the soul of an artist. As much an actor as a technician, he did not not simply execute special effects; he crafted performances. In a figurative sense, he “animated” his creatures according to the original definition of “animate” – breathing life into them.
With today’s more sophisticated computer-generated effects, stop-motion has fallen somewhat out of fashion, but many of Harryhausen’s old fans work in the industry, and some keep the technique alive. Recent examples of stop-motion films include Tim Burton’s FRANKENWEENIE, Henry Selick’s CORALINE, and Nick Park’s WALLACE AND GROMIT: CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT.
The Facebook post announcing Harryhausen’s death is filled with tributes from George Lucas, Peter Jackson, Nick Park, Randy Cook, Phil Tippett, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. However, Terry Gilliam says it best:

“What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before but without computers. Only with his digits.”


Have you noticed how photos for SCARY MOVIE V have pushed the participation of Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan, even though they're in only a few minutes of the film? Simon Rex (left) and Ashley Tisdale (right) are the actual stars. (That's Christopher "Critter" Antonucci in the center.) -Scary-Movie-5_350
Ignore those shots of Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan. Simon Rex (left) and Ashley Tisdale (right) are the actual stars of SCARY MOVIE V. (That's Christopher "Critter" Antonucci in the center.)

SCARY MOVIE V opened this week! Yeah, us neither. So instead of delving in depth into this weekend’s big release (takeaway: A HAUNTED HOUSE was much funnier), Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski and Dan Persons deliver a quick capsule review, and then Lawrence French joins them for a fiftieth anniversary discussion of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen’s epic fantasy (actually directed by Don Chaffey), JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. Featuring such wondrous creatures as winged harpies, a deadly hydra, and an armed troop of bloodthirsty skeletons, the film stands at the pinnacle of Harryhausen’s career, and well worth discovering if you’ve never seen it before. But if you’re still faltering: SCARY MOVIE V sets a baby on fire. So there’s that.
Plus: What’s coming to theaters this weekend.


[REC] 3: GENESIS & V/H/S: CFQ Spotlight Podcast 3:36

Are You Eating the Bride's or the Groom's Side?: Leticia Dolera gets the most important day of her life hijacked in REC 3: GENESIS
Are You Eating the Bride's or the Groom's Side?: Leticia Dolera gets the most important day of her life hijacked in REC 3: GENESIS

[REC] 3: GENESIS, the third installment of the Spanish zombie franchise, distinguishes itself in several ways: It’s the first to move the location away from the building of the first two films, cleverly choosing a wedding reception as the site for its carnage; the narrative takes a decisively more humorous tone; and the director, Paco Plaza, has decided after the opening few minutes to abandon the found-footage format that was the primary calling-card for the series. It also distinguishes itself by being close to indistinguishable, an enjoyable-but-not-particularly-groundbreaking exercise in walking dead chills for fans of the genre. Which leads to a bit of a problem for the Cinefantastique Online crew, whose mandate to analyze what makes a film unique gets sorely tested.
So after Steve Biodrowski and Dan Persons make quick work of [REC] 3, Dan weighs in on the definitely unique indie found-footage horror film, V/H/S, and Lawrence French gives his opinion of the upcoming documentary, RAY HARRYHAUSEN: SPECIAL EFFECTS TITAN. Plus: What’s coming to theaters and Southern California Halloween haunts.

Bumpin' Gullivers & More J-Horror: Cinefantastique Post-Mortem 2:1.1

Gabby, stunned at the life-like might of a rotoscoped hand in the Fleischer Bros.' GULLIVER'S TRAVELS
Gabby, stunned at the life-like might of a rotoscoped hand in the Fleischer Bros.' GULLIVER'S TRAVELS

Having roundly belittled the recent, Jack Black-infused version of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons turn their sights to other, earlier versions of the fantasy classic. Of a slate that includes an animated version from the Fleischers, a kid-oriented take from Ray Harryhausen, and the Halmis’ encyclopedic TV adaptation, which towers Brodignagianly over the others, and which are mere Yahoos? And while we’re at it, why are the prince and princess of the Fleischer version so camera shy?
Then Steve gives us his thoughts on David Kalat’s ambitious survey, J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge, and Beyond; and Dan & Larry wax nostalgic for Looney Tunes presented the way god intended them: at a full, six minute running length. Plus more tangents and digressions than you can shake a Lilliputian at.


Ray Harryhausen Receives Accolades from BAFTA on his 90th Birthday!

Ray Harryhausen with the Medusa model from the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS
Ray Harryhausen with the Medusa model from the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS

Watch the Video of the BFI and BAFTA special achievement award presented to RAY HARRYHAUSEN on the occasion of the master animator’s 90th birthday:
This fabulous 42 minute minute video includes comments from:

  • James Cameron
  • Steven Spielberg
  • Guillermo Del Toro
  • Nick Park
  • Frank Darabont
  • John Landis (Host)

With guest speakers:

  • Sir Christopher Frayling
  • The Tortoise and the Hare Animators
  • Randy Cook
  • Colin Arthur (mask-maker)
  • Gary Raymond and John Cairney
  • Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren & Ken Ralston
  • Tony Dalton & Vanessa Harryhausen
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Peter Jackson

(Jackson shows his rare amateur film inspired by Harryhausen and presents a special BAFTA Award to Ray.)

LAWRENCE FRENCH: In your earlier films, although you didn’t have star names, you always had excellent British character actors, such as Douglas Wilmer, Laurence Naismith and Patrick Troughton. In fact, all those actors appeared in Sir Laurence Olivier’s film version of Richard III. Did you see Richard III when in came out in 1955?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Oh yes, although that was many years ago. And as you say, we always had very talented actors, even if they were not what today you would call stars. But they were all very competent actors: Douglas Wilmer was brilliant as King Pelias in Jason and later we used him in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad as the Grand Vizier. Laurence Naismith was also in Jason, and we used him again in The Valley of Gwangi.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What led you to stop making movies after Clash of the Titans?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I had enough of spending my time in a dark room after everybody else went home. I spent most of my life in a dark room, painted black, which can be depressing if you are aware of it, although I was never aware of it. I also felt that tastes had changed. After Clash of the Titans, we were going to do a follow-up and I helped Charles develop a script with Beverly Cross called Force of the Trojans, although a lot of the effects work would have been farmed out to someone else. But even though Clash had made a lot of money for MGM, they didn’t want to back it. They felt costume pictures weren’t suitable and the pictures the studios wanted you to make all had to have explosions in them every five minutes. So I’m grateful that I got in on the tail end of the great days of Hollywood.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: So once MGM passed on making Force of the Trojans, you finally decided to retire?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, pretty much. I was able to spend most of my time doing the things I had always wanted to do for a long time. I began making bronze figures of some of the characters used in my films, and doing many other things, including getting re-acquainted with my family. Unfortunately, when you devote too much time to a film, you have very little time to see your family.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Now that all your fairy tales and early films are out on DVD, are there any animation scenes that got cut which might be included on future DVD releases—such as the Ghoul fight from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: There’s not a great deal and once I finish a picture it’s out of my hands. I don’t recall the Ghoul sequence having been cut that much. It couldn’t have been that important, because I’ve looked at the picture on DVD and it didn’t bother me. I did have a sequence we cut from Jason and the Argonauts during the skeleton fight. After Jason cuts off one of the skeletons heads, the skeleton got down on his hands and knees to look for his head, but it slowed the whole pace of the scene down, so we decided to cut it out. Unfortunately, I never kept that footage. I should have saved it, but once you finish a film, you are so glad to be done, you don’t think about those kinds of things.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What are you thoughts about the current state of the movie business compared to Hollywood in the forties when you were first starting out?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Well, today everyone is saturated with all sorts of entertainments, where in the good old days you looked forward to going to the movies on Saturday night and it was a big event in your life. The people who made pictures in the forties, the big studios and producers had great imagination. When you look back at some of those pictures, you see that they knew how to make the average person see things bigger than life for two hours. It was a relief or an escape that we all loved. But today, you are bombarded with so many different things: DVD’s, Television, the Internet, and everything else, so I think people become rather jaded. That means you have to go over the top, in the sense of showing more, to make it bloodier and more ghastly in order to top all previous productions. Where that will eventually lead, I have no idea. At the rate some of today’s horror films are going, only people who work in the slaughterhouse would care to see them. I think also, that today, the fantastic image is so overdone it no longer amazes you and they tend to do overly violent things. It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes—you have to disguise the fact that there’s nothing really there in the story with smoke, loud noises, 8-frame cuts and zoom-in and zoom-outs—all the techniques that cover up the fact that there’s no story. In some of today’s movies, you don’t even know what you’re watching. I saw The Matrix and I didn’t know what the picture was all about. When I see a picture I want to know what I’m looking at. When characters are introduced I want to know who they are and what relation they have to the hero. But today there are no more heroes. There are only anti-heroes. So it’s a different world. Everything is so negative I don’t even feel like I’m part of the film business anymore.

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver: A Celebration of 1960 Retrospective

Produced during Ray Harryhausen’s most fruitful period, THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER is one of the special effect artist’s most overlooked films, obscured by the fact that it arrived in between such famous titles as THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (my two personal favorites of Harryhausen’s). Partly this is due to the minimal use of stop-motion animation (limited to a squirrel and a crocodile), though effects are otherwise plentiful, and partly it’s because the source novel, poses a number of difficulties, many of which the filmmakers here fail to overcome.
First off, those who have read Jonathan Swift’s complex and satirical classic Gulliver’s Travels know that the titular hero traveled to four different lands; this film contains only the first two (the 3rd world in the title being England, which is briefly presented in the opening). Like many previous adaptations (such as the famous Dave Fleischer animated version), Swift’s story is greatly simplified and presented more as a children’s adventure tale. This adaptation by Jack Sher and Arthur Ross is to be commended for at least retaining more of Swift’s satire than most, but still it descends into farce and cuteness rather than confronting the implications of Swift’s story.
In fact, rather than originating with Harryhausen (as did most of his films), THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER was a project that producer Charles Scheer took on, based on Sher and Ross’s script. Sher was retained to direct the film as well. The amiable and appealing Kerwin Mathews was hired to play the main character, Dr. Lemuel Gulliver, whose name is meant to suggest someone who is gullible. Whereas Swift’s Gulliver starts off as a something of a conceited, clothes-obsessed naïve fool who lacks self-understanding, Sher’s Gulliver is a frustrated idealist who decides that he must make his fortune to get anywhere in the world, much to the consternation of his fiancée Elizabeth (June Thorburn). (In the book, Gulliver is already married and his wife is barely present, but for commercial concerns, the filmmakers decided to add a love interest whose potential nuptials can make for a traditional “happy ever after” ending).
The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)
Gulliver’s Travels implicitly poses the question of what should be the governing factor in social life: physical prowess or moral righteousness? In his voyage to Lilliput, the first and most famous part of the story, Gulliver has physical might as a giant in Lilliput, where he can defeat the Blefuscudian navy by virtue of his immense size; however, it becomes readily apparent that “might does not make right.” Gulliver does not share the Lilliputian emperor’s (Basil Sydney) appetite for the destruction of his enemies and quickly loses favor when he refuses to accede to the emperor’s demands that the Blesfuscudians be wiped out.
While Sher and Ross eliminate much of Swift’s satirical dialogue, they do at least retain some of Swift’s ironic commentary. For example, the emperor admits he doesn’t need a prime minister to wage a war, “but I need one to blame in case we lose it.” Gulliver discovers that the basis for the war with Blesfuscu is over which end of an egg should be opened first (the Lilliputian emperor favors the small end); the source of the disagreement is a passage in their holy book, rendering the seemingly ridiculous question a religious and moral issue that justifies, in their eyes at least, the warfare it has sparked. The Lilliputians’ moral beliefs easily lead to a very immoral result.
The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)
Naturally, as a family-oriented children’s film, THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER eliminates Swift’s scatological humor, which is present throughout the novel. Swift uses this excremental motif to drive home the point that humans are not wholly spiritual or mentally transcendent figures (a typical Enlightenment notion), but are governed by crass, vulgar physical needs. The film version replaces Gulliver alienating the Lilliputian empress (Marian Spencer) by urinating on the palace to effectively put out a fire with him spewing a mouthful of wine to extinguish the flames, and soaking her gown in the process. (Naturally, references to Brobdingnagian flies defecating on Gulliver’s meals get excised entirely).
What THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER does retain is the portrait of Lilliputians as very small, petty people who imagine themselves to be quite grand and glorious. They are filled both with immense pride and also backbiting and conspiracy. Though they are pumped up with self-importance and national pride, Gulliver comes to see that they are actually quite puny and pathetic. When the Emperor accuses him of being a traitor, Gulliver responds, “I stop wars, put out fires, feed people, give them hope and peace and prosperity — how can I be a traitor?”

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)
Gulliver finds himself playing chess in a land of giants

Conversely, Gulliver experiences life at the opposite end of the spectrum in Brobdingnag where he encounters a land of giants. Initially, his first encounter with the Lilliputians was one of entrapment, as the tiny people tie the giant Gulliver down with many ropes. Similarly, the book, Gulliver becomes enslaved by a Brobdingnagian farmer who later sells him to the royal family.
However, in THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER, Gulliver is found by Glumdalclitch (Sherri Alberoni), who takes him to the Brobdingnagian king (Gregoire Aslan), where he is re-united with Elizabeth, who had stowed away on the same boat on which he set sail. Most of the Swift’s Brobdingnagian episode is eliminated in favor of a simple story wherein the king (a very serious and philosophical character in the original) becomes a comic villain whose pride is wounded when Gulliver happens to best him in chess. Swift’s Brobdingnagians represent how the coarse, physical side of human existence cannot really be ignored, as Gulliver encounters difficulties with the flies they ignore, and is repulsed by their enormous pores and their stench and their sexual appetites.
The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)Instead, Sher and Ross add the character of Markovan (Charles Lloyd Pack), the court alchemist, who accuses Gulliver of being a witch and imposes a test designed to turn Gulliver blue. As a physician, Gulliver knows enough chemistry to make himself acidic, turning his clothes red instead, but Markovan continues to advocate against him until the formerly benevolent king orders Gulliver be attacked by a pet crocodile (the main stop motion setpiece of the film). Glumdalclitch helps Gulliver and Elizabeth escape by placing them in her basket and tossing it into a river that leads out to the ocean.
At the end of THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER, the couple wash up on a shore that turns out to be England (we see a normal-sized basket in the background rather than a Brobdingnagian-sized one), and the dialogue suggests that the whole experience might have been a dream (a la THE WIZARD OF OZ), but the end result seems to be that Gulliver has learned the folly of ambition and will be perfectly content to settle down with Elizabeth after all, a rather unsatisfying conclusion to the tale. (After all, Harryhausen didn’t get to be a master of his craft by being unambitious).
Harryhausen pulls off most of his effects fairly seamlessly, though one sequence in which Gulliver pulls fish from the sea using his hat is wildly off-scale. Bernard Herrmann’s musical score for THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER is one of the composer’s finest, though the two songs in the film by Ned Washington and George Duning are negligible. Kerwin Mathews hero is suitably decent and appealing. The addition of the fiancée to the storyline probably prompted a similar addition to Harryhausen’s adaptation of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON. Overall, though overshadowed by other Harryhausen’s fantasies, THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER is just what it was meant to be—a reasonably entertaining family-friendly fantasy adventure, lacking Swift’s bitterness and complexity, but still possessing some satirical jabs as the satire has been leavened by farce.
THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960). Director – Jack Sher, Screenplay – Jack Sher & Arthur Ross, Based on the Novel Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, Producer – Charles H. Schneer, Photography – Wilkie Cooper, Music – Bernard Herrmann, Visual Effects Supervisor – Ray Harryhausen, Art Direction – Derek Barrington & Gil Parrendo. Cast: Kerwin Mathews (Dr Lemuel Gulliver), June Thorburn (Elizabeth Wesley), Sherri Alberoni (Glumdalclitch), Gregoire Aslan (King Brobdignag), Lee Patterson (Reldresal), Basil Sydney (Emperor), Charles Lloyd Pack (Makovan), Martin Benson (Flimnap), Marian Spencer (Empress), Mary Ellis (Queen), Jo Morrow (Gwendolyn Bermogg), Peter Bull (Lord Bermogg)
three_worlds_of_gullivercroc 3 croc 4a

Jason and the Argonauts (1963): Blu-Ray special edition

The concept of a single artesian working away in monkish solitude might seem quaint by today’s standards – think of the end credit roll on Avatar with its thousands of digital effects technicians – but Ray Harryhausen was able to create a wonderful world of monsters and myths using nothing more than his hands and his imagination. Sony has long recognized the treasure trove they have with their Harryhausen catalogue and are lovingly upgrading the home video versions to meet the digital standards of a new century. The new Blu-ray release of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS features what has to be the finest transfer of a Harryhausen film ever, in any format.
Although THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD may rank as the critical (and my) favorite among Harryhausen’s films, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is still his personal favorite. The film is fine vintage Harryhausen, with its roots in classic mythology and its effects state of the art, for the time. Harryhausen manages to tell an epic tale on a low budget in less than two hours without sacrificing grandeur. There are some pacing problems, but there is also some of Harryhausen’s best work, including the giant Talos and the Hydra which guards the Golden Fleece. Most people agree that the skeleton fight at the end of the film is the finest stop motion sequence in cinematic history.
In case you feared another Blu-Ray fiasco like THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD transfer – wherein the grain was so pronounced that it looked as if the film was made in a blizzard of black snow – you can relax. On the new JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS disc, the picture is sharp and vibrant, with the day-for-night scenes – most notably, the Harpy sequence – properly color corrected as they were first seen theatrically in 1963. For those who were lucky enough to see the film in the theater as I did in 1963, this comes close to recreating that experience.
As with the picture, the sound mix has been vastly improved and is presented in HD DTS 5.1. For the purist, the film is also offered in its original mono. However, in 5.1, Bernard Herrman’s music has never sounded so good.
This new Blu-Ray package is a little skimpy on bonus features, recycling earlier DVD extras; however, it does feature two commentary tracks: the first by Harryhausen and writer Tony Dalton; a second with director Peter Jackson (THE LORD OF THE RINGS) and special effects artist Randall William Cook THE GATE). For serious students of Harryhausen, neither audio commentary provides much in the way of new information (like which actor actually dubbed Todd Armstrong’s voice) but they are fun and entertaining.
Harryhausen and Dalton in their audio commentary take us through the film with the ease of a couple of old friends. Harryhausen at 90 sounds somewhat frail, but still has the mind of a master craftsman as he pulls the curtain open and reveals how many of the effects were created. His behind-the-scenes recollections create a fascinating guide of how to create a masterpiece with a smallish budget.
Jackson and Cook alternate between geeky reverence and interesting analysis of Harryhausen’s animation techniques. Both have a genuine love for the film while still being objective enough to point out its shortcomings. Most interesting are their personal antidotes including the revelation that Cook discovered a trove of Harryhausen’s animation dailies, which Jackson has had transferred to high quality digital masters. They hint that some, or all, of this material could be seen in a documentary that Harryhausen and Dalton are planning for the near future.
Features ported over from the DVD include the Skeleton Fight Storyboards, a John Landis’ interview with Harryhausen, the Ray Harryhausen Chronicles and The Harryhausen Legacy. Unfortunately, the special features are presented here in standard format, not remastered for high definition.

Jason slays the Hydra, which guards the Golden Fleece.
Jason slays the Hydra, which guards the Golden Fleece.

To say that Ray Harryhausen is unique among filmmakers is putting it mildly. No other behind-the-scenes movie technician has achieved the same iconic status. His vision and artistry have inspired succeeding generations of filmmakers, including most of the “A” list directors working in Hollywood today. He set the standard for what great special effects should be, no matter what the budget.
This JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS Blu-ray stands as a fitting tribute to a master. Hopefully, Sony will follow with other special editions of Harryhausen’s work especially MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and FIRST MEN IN THE MOON.

Happy Birthday, Ray Harryhausen!

— Stop-Motion Great Turns 90 —

Ray_Harryhausen_ClashToday, June 29th 2010, is Ray Harryhausen’s ninetieth birthday.
Special effects innovator, stop-motion animator, concept artist, story generator, producer, and a genre icon, responsible for many of the more imaginative science fiction films and fantasies that shaped 20th century cinefantastique.

Beginning (from the genre fan’s point of view) with 1949’s MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, Harryhausen’s work captured the imaginations of millions. Inspired by his mentor Willis O’Brien, the effects man was kind and intelligent enough to give the public a look behind the scenes of the once secretive world of film effects, often appearing in his friend Forry Ackerman’s FAMOUS MONSTERS, and  extensively in the pages of CINEFANTASTIQUE Magazine.
Some of his best known films are THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953, based in part by his friend Ray Bradbury’s The Foghorn), EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957), THE 7th VOYAGE OF  SINBAD (1958), JASON & THE ARGONAUTS (1963), FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964), ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966), THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974) and the original CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981).
Often, Ray Harryhausen would generate the basic ideas and storylines for his films himself, using his artistic skills to create pre-production concept art to map out his larger-than-life  imaginary adventures. 
He’s probably the very first genre film fan to become a filmmaker himself, and his own films would inspire many others.

Clash of the Titans: Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Pocast 1:8

We’re a day late but not a dollar short with this, the eighth episode of Cinefantastique’s weekly Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast. Due to technical difficulties, podcast host Dan Persons sits out this episode, but he joins regular contributors Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski in spirit as they analyze the new big-budget remake of CLASH OF THE TITANS. How does it stack up to the 1981 original, with stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen? Are the new computer-generated special effects an improvement? And what about the 3D? Also on the menu: news, home video release, and random recommendations. Enjoy!