'Skyline': FX Triumphs Over Plot – Review


My greatest regret about seeing SKYLINE is that I paid full price ($12.50), and I took a date. So it was $25 to see a 1950’s Saturday matinee movie on CGI steroids.
It was actually fun, in a mindless sort of way. If I was 14 years old, I probably would have thought it was cool. Some of the things that transpire are fairly interesting and somewhat surprising, even halfway clever—though none of it has any significant payoff, emotional or otherwise.
30-something characters with no discernable last names, Jarrod (HAVEN’s Eric Balfour) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson, NCIS) have come from NYC to Los Angeles for Jarrod’s friend Terry’s (SCRUBS’ Donald Faison) birthday party. Terry has made good, apparently in the field of special effects, or as far as I can make out. This allows him to lead a lavish, somewhat libertine lifestyle in the penthouse of a fancy high-tech highrise.
 After a night of heavy partying, they’re woken early to discover that strange blue lights are attracting people who are then snatched away by invading alien spacecraft. Jarrod nearly becomes one of them—more than once, and this light causes purple spider web blotches to appear on one’s face and body. They fade if the victim is pulled away from the light, but the characters are left to wonder what the effects might be.
There’s not much time for introspection, however— because though stuck in the building, there are various attempts to escape, lots of bickering between not-all-that-likeable people, and plenty of action with wild alien devices, creatures, and giant monsters. And it’s only a hair over 90 minutes long.
target-earth-robotSKYLINE reminds me oddly of a cross between TARGET EARTH (1954) and INDEPENDENCE DAY, with little bit of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS mixed in. There are odd mechaniods that look like something from THE MATRIX, and monsters with a mix of tentacles and vaginal mouths that might resemble a nameless horror from H.P. Lovecraft’s nightmares. There are a lot of “borrowings” from various other productions, I suspect they even picked up a gimmick from THE OUTER LIMITS’ “The Architects of Fear”.
It really is very much like an old, low budget sci-fi B-movie—only instead of a modest handful of special effects, everything including the kitchen sink was tossed into the FX budget.
This shouldn’t be surprising, as SKYLINE is directed by FX artists The Brothers Strause (ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM). It apparently cost a half million to shoot, with around ten million spent on special effects. And on that budget, the FX are pretty damn good.


When was the last time a film with that low a budget played on so many screens? 28 DAYS LATER? LAND OF THE DEAD? Both of those are much more visceral and powerful films than this one, and they pretty much make sense. However, if you’re in the mood for action and spectacle while munching on popcorn, SKYLINE is reasonably entertaining.
Just try to avoid paying $12.50 to see it. I hear it’s going to Netflix right after it finishes its run. That could be soon.
Then again, I also hear they’re planning a sequel.

Avatar re-release: August 27

Here is the trailer promoting the re-release of AVATAR on Friday, August 27. The film will be showing exclusively in Digital 3-D and IMAX 3-D, with no 2-D screenings. Writer-director James Cameron has restored nine minutes of footage, all of it computer-generated, raising the running time to nearly 170 minutes (the maximum capacity for analog IMAX 3-D screenings). Additional footage includes a hunting scene, more action, more creatures, more battle scenes, and a love scene in the glade.
Obviously, the re-release is an effort to milk more money out of the blockbuster film, but the story behind the re-release is interesting: AVATAR made 80% of its profits from 3-D engagements, which represented less than have of its total venues, and the film was still pulling good numbers at IMAX theatres when it was pushed out by ALICE IN WONDERLAND, resulting in a precipitous drop. Distributor 20th Century Fox realized that there was still audience interest in seeing AVATAR in 3-D, so plans for a re-release were born.
For fans of 3-D, AVATAR’s reappearance will be a reminder of what the process looks like when done right. Since AVATAR’s release, ticket buyers have been ripped off by a succession of 2-D movies converted to 3-D in post-production, with results that run from disappointing to disastrous: CLASH OF THE TITANS, THE LAST AIRBENDER, PIRANHA 3D.
Avatar re-release August 27, 2010

Clash of the Titans (2010) Blu-ray review

The transfer of the film onto Blu-ray is excellent, and the interactive exploration of the behind-the-scenes experience is more interesting than the film itself. 

I will likely be pilloried for stating that I consider Ray Harryhausen’s version of CLASH OF THE TITANS to be one of his lesser films (down there with THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER). I am not sure if his intention was to do a sequel to JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS or what, but at the beginning of a decade when effects went into hyperdrive, I found it a weak note on which to finish his career.
Needless to say I was less than enthusiastic when Warners announced they were doing a high-budget remake. I think my reaction at the time was “Why?” Fortunately, the new version has lots of redeeming qualities: a great cast, a thin but engaging story, state of the art special effects, and competent direction. Best of all is an economical running time during which the action just seems to rip along. I was also fortunate enough to see the new CLASH OF THE TITANS in 2D in the theater (not with the much-criticized post-production 3-D face-lift).
The transfer of the film onto Blu-ray is excellent as you would expect. The HD picture quality and surround sound are stunning, bringing the movie theater experience to the living room. Although the DVD version is a bare bones release with minimal extras (deleted scenes anyone?), the Blu-ray offers up a Maximum Movie Mode feature that allows us to explore the entire filmmaking process in one window while the film plays in an another. Instead of a simple narrated audio commentary, this format offers a truly interactive experience that I found more interesting than the film itself. We get to see CLASH OF THE TITANS as it evolves through the hands of the director Louis Leterrier (THE INCREDIBLE HULK), his art director and effects team, and finally the cast.

Director Louis Letterier did the motion-capture performance for the Kraken
Director Louis Leterrier did the motion-capture performance for the Kraken

Watching the MMM version is worth it just for the scenes of Leterrier directing while dressed in a hooded green screen costume and acting the part of the Kraken. I was also impressed with the design of the film; the epic scale of the story is captured using large sets and panoramic scenery instead of just green screen and CGI.
As impressive as the MMM feature is it still does not answer some of the fundamental questions that CLASH OF THE TITANS raises, specifically why the humans had declared war on the gods in the first place.
Apparently, CLASH OF THE TITANS did so well at the box office that Warners is developing a sequel, though I can’t imagine where they will take the characters next (I suggest Hawaii and a surfing motif). However, it is good news for Sam Worthington (AVATAR, TERMINATOR: SALVATION), who now has three major franchises to keep him busy for the foreseeable future.

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.

Harry Knowles to run Famous Monsters.com

Congrats to Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News! He’s revealed that he’ll be running Famous Monsters.com for new owner Philip Kim.
HARRY_KNOWLES Knowles has been a devotee of the late Forrest J Ackerman, long-time genre fan, literary agent, and Editor of the original Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, the seminal Horror/Science Fiction publication. Aimed at youngsters, that magazine paved the way for all the genre magazines that came in its wake. You either tried to be like FM or proved you were different than Famous Monsters to make your mark.
What does the AICN guru have in mind for FM?

The types of articles will be different from what you see at AICN… And tonally different from most of what you see in the Horror Blog world. For one, FAMOUS MONSTERS wasn’t just about Horror. I’ve also been talking with a great deal of filmmakers and effects professionals about bringing you some very special content like only FAMOUS MONSTERS should bring us.
What you’ll see is a lot of PASSION for the classics, the faces and names behind the scenes that too often are ignored by a media that is fixated upon Big Stars & Big Directors and don’t celebrate the myriad of artists that contribute to the kind of work that made us geek out to that magazine. FAMOUS MONSTERS taught us to know the names of folks like Lon Chaney Sr, Jack Pierce, Paul Blaisdell, Bob Burns, Rick Baker, Stan Winston, Rob Bottin & on and on. We’ll look back at those and many more even as we focus to find the new creators of Famous Monsters – be they practical, digital or some unique form that I can barely understand.

And that sounds to me like he’s got a good grasp on the Famous Monsters tradition. Best of Luck!

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

Supernal Dreams: Academy Boosts Visual Effects Nominees to Five

Inception (20100
INCEPTION, a likely nominee for visual effects

As I’ve suggested here for the last two years, limiting the Academy Award for “Best Visual Effects” to only three nominees seems quite unfair, since all the other categories (except make-up) have five nominees. Given the overwhelming number of films that feature superlative effects work these days, it has become increasingly obvious that this is a change that has been long overdue. Last May, the Visual Effects branch finally acted, when their three Governors (Richard Edlund, Craig Barron and Bill Taylor) chaired a meeting and recommended that the change be made to five nominees.  According to an article on the meeting in Variety by David S. Cohen, the change actually met with some heated resistance from Academy members.
The two main objections cited in the Variety article were that four additional names (for each of the two additional films nominated) would have to be read on the Oscar show, and that if five movies were nominated, the final award might not go to “cutting-edge” effects work. Such objections seem silly at best, and luckily wiser heads prevailed, so this years award for “Best Visual Effects” will indeed feature five contenders for the first time since 1979 when ALIEN won the final prize.
Since we are still only seven months into the year and there are already more than five worthy nominees, (among them:  INCEPTION,  IRON MAN 2,  ALICE IN WONDERLAND,  THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE,  ROBIN HOOD,  CLASH OF THE TITANS and even THE LAST AIRBENDER),  this is obviously a change for the better.  Likewise, last year several worthy films, such as 2012  and TERMINATOR SALVATION failed to make the cut because there were only three slots available.
The Academy explained the change in their official press release:  “Since 1963, when the Special Effects award was discontinued and new separate categories for achievements in visual effects and sound effects were established, the only period during which it was possible to have five visual effects nominees was 1977 through 1979. In only one of those years (1979) were five achievements actually recognized. Between 1980 and 1995, two or three productions could be nominated; since 1996 the rules have dictated there be exactly three nominees.”

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.

The Making of Metropolis: Special Effects by Gunther Rittau

Metropolis (1927)In this 1927 article written by cinematographer Gunther Rittau, he discusses the many groundbreaking special effects that were devised for the film.  Metropolis took an astounding 310 days to shoot in 1926, requiring the services of hundreds of technicians, and Gunther Rittau shared the camerawork with Karl Freund, who like Lang came to Hollywood where he photographed many memorable movies, including  Dracula and Murders in the Rue Mougue.


By Gunther Rittau

The shots which use the Eugen Schǘfftan process make up a special chapter in the area of special effects. Had all the colossal constructions needed for Metropolis been built on the intended scale, the costs would have been astronomical and most of all, precious time would have been lost. The Schufftan process offered the only possibility for a practical solution and this was used a great deal. With the help of partially finished constructions and miniature Shufftan models, not only were parts of the overwhelming street scenes shot, but the atmospheric cathedral scenes as well. With Schufftan shots, the visual trademark is dictated entirely by how the camera is adjusted, and how lighting is used for model constructions. Unusually difficult were the visionary shots of the Moloch-machine, also produced with the help of the Schufftan process. Other shots occurring with the course of movement, for which the Schufftan process was not applied, were completed using model constructions. These included the shots of the traffic-congested main thoroughfare, the explosion in the heart machine room, and the blanket of dust.
Whether shooting model constructions or building models; whether lighting a scene or setting adjustments for equipment, the utmost precision was necessary. To illustrate the difficultly involved in making such shots: it took nearly 8 days to make 40 meters of film capturing model-generated scenery, since every frame had to be shot individually, and 40 meters of film contain approximately 2,100 frames. In the actual film, this amounts to 10 seconds of footage (By these figures, it is clear that Metropolis should be projected at 20 frames a second.)
By far, the cameraman’s most interesting job was designing the light effects for the scene in which the android is brought to life in the laboratory of the inventor,  Rotwang.  In the film this occurs during a transfer of electric currents that pass between the android and Maria’s human form. Electric currents of this kind usually remain invisible. Here, however, to emphasize this fantastic-secretive process, they had to be visible to the eye. Making this shot work called for weeks of preparatory experiments in the laboratory, and making equally long calculations connected with the shooting. The photographic chemistry was anything but unimportant, and while preparing this shot the strangest of technical aids were used.
An in-depth description of the process would too time consuming here, as well as counter productive. It should only be kept in mind that concealing iridescence, soft soap, vignettes, and complicated technical constructions of one’s own design played a decisive role. For days on end, workers had to be versed in operating equipment that demanded accuracy based on dealing with fractions of seconds. Individual filmstrips were exposed as often as 30 times and people with knowledge of photography know exactly what this means. With works of this nature, everything depends on meticulous calculations, highly precise working methods and equipment and most of all, on the nerves and patience of the cameraman. I can safely assume that shots like these were never shown before.

Supernal Dreams: Ray Harryhausen on the original CLASH OF THE TITANS

Perseus (Harry Hamlin) battles giant scorpions.
Perseus (Harry Hamlin) battles giant scorpions.

With the re-make of Clash of the Titans hitting theaters this week, Warner Bros. has released the original 1981 film on Blue-Ray disc. To celebrate, here is part V of my interview with Ray Harryhausen, discussing his hand-crafted approach to creating the film’s special visual effects.
Mr. Harryhausen, who will celebrate his 90th birthday in June, will be having a retrospective exhibition of his original stop-motion models and related items at the Academy of Motion Pictures Gallery the same month.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you supply the original story for CLASH OF THE TITANS?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: No, it was Beverly Cross who came up with a 25-page outline called Perseus and the Gorgon’s Head, taken from Greek mythology. Beverly has worked with us for some time. He also worked on Jason and the Argonauts and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and had written a picture for Charles (Schneer) called Half a Sixpence. We had quite a good relationship with him on all of those films. He is also a Greek scholar, which was important and rather rare. In his college days he studied all the Greek classics, so he also knew all the stories of ancient Greece. Beverly also lived in Greece for quite some time and he told me that while he was living on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, he felt he could develop something with Perseus. I had always wanted to do the Perseus story, in fact right after Jason I wanted to make it, but I never clearly saw the development of the story. So Beverly came up with quite a good outline of how we could get a progressively good story out of the tale. Then I went my way and made some drawings of what I thought the visual elements should look like and Beverly enhanced his treatment, incorporating my visuals, because in our type of picture we have to start with the visuals.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You took certain liberties in adapting the Perseus myth to the screen, didn’t you?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, because most mythologies are rather fragmented, with many of the climaxes occurring in the first reel. In Greek mythology, the stories are so episodic you have to rob from one legend and put it into another. You can’t just take the Greek myths the way they are. You have to shape it and glamorize it. I like to glamorize my skeletons and I like to glamorize my dinosaurs. I think if you just took Greek mythology and put it on the screen you’d find it would be a big bore to everybody, because you don’t have a natural development of what is needed for a screenplay. We don’t like to tamper with the myths, but for example, in CLASH OF THE TITANS, we found that according to the legends, Pegasus is supposed to come from Medusa’s blood. Well, if we left it that way, we couldn’t have Pegasus come into the picture until reel eleven. Since we wanted to use Pegasus throughout the story, we had to develop another concept to account for him, which we did by having Zeus explain that Calibos was once a normal person, who was given a certain area to control on Earth and he slew all the herds of Zeus’s wonderful flying horses. That accounted for the fact that Pegasus came into the story before Medusa got her head cut off.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: The idea of the Gods playing with the life of the human characters was an idea you carried over from Jason and the Argonauts, wasn’t it?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, we really needed a transition between the Gods and the mortals, like the chessboard we used in Jason. You’re dealing with an almost surrealistic type of film that needed to depict the Gods, so I came up with the idea of a miniature amphitheater where the Gods could put these miniatures figures into the arena and shape their destinies.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: On CLASH OF THE TITANS, you had your biggest budget ever. Did you still find you had many shots that could have been improved?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Oh yes, many. You always run into that problem. You see, there’s this delusion, where people on the outside of filmmaking think you take a camera and just put it down under ideal conditions. But when you’re on location, taking 80 people from country to country, there are many compromises you have to make, because of the weather, because of accommodations in the summer, because of many things. For example, we had to shoot some plates in very bad weather, and I regretted that, but we’re not in a position to keep re-shooting scenes until we get it perfect. On all the pictures we had to compromise, because we usually had very tight budgets, especially compared to pictures that are made today. Today a picture can cost $100 million dollars and you don’t even see half of it on the screen, or if you do see it, you can’t understand the story. But as somebody once said, “these are the conditions that prevail.”
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What about the seagull that appears behind the opening titles of CLASH OF THE TITANS. Were you satisfied with that?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Well that was done mostly with high contrast mattes in the optical printer. After we had filmed the seagulls, we took them out and put them in a different background, simply because we were in no position to find a talented seagull to take with us to the Amazon jungle and put them in the proper background we had chosen for the trip to Mount Olympus.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: If you were offered the chance to make a film with a $100 million budget, what would you do?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I think I would faint! Seriously, working as I did on mostly very tight budgets it made you think about cheaper ways of doing things. I had to do that right from my first solo effort, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which only cost $200,000, so I had to devise a simplified way of combining the models with a live action background. Even with a bigger budget, you still have to find short cuts and make compromises.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Is that what happened with the Kraken scene in the finale of CLASH OF THE TITANS? It looks like there is a background plate of the sky that is missing.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, I had always planned to have dark and threatening storm clouds behind the Kraken for the sacrifice of Andromeda, along with lightning effects to suggest the wrath of the Gods, but because of time and budget considerations, we were never able to complete the scene to my satisfaction.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: The Kraken is actually taken from Scandinavian mythology, isn’t it?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: The name is, but the sea monster is from the Greek myths. However, in the Greek stories, the sea monster was never actually named which is why we borrowed the name from the legends of the great giant squids of medieval times, when sailors didn’t have a name for a giant squid, so they called it a Kraken. John Wyndham wrote a story called The Kraken Wakes (1953) and several other stories have been written using that name, as well. But the Kraken is definitely a much later name than the sea monster that is supposed to devour Andromeda in the Greek legend. And since we had to give our creature a name and we didn’t want to call it Leviathan or Behemoth from the Bible, we decided to settle on the Kraken.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Was CLASH OF THE TITANS the first time you had assistance on the animation?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, because we had deadlines and had to get the film out by a certain date. As I result, I had to take on help. So I asked Jim Danforth to come in and animate Pegasus, because I had seen a horse he had done for a commercial some years before, while he was at Cascade. It was a commercial for a floor wax that showed a herd of horses that went rushing across the floor, so I felt he would be the right man to do the flying scenes of Pegasus. He also animated Dioskilos, the two-headed dog. Then we hired a young English animator, Steven Archer, because I had seen some of his work with clay figures. He had done three or four test subjects on his own, just for fun, but under very distressing circumstances, so I thought he would work out well. Steven ended up doing most of the animation for Bubo, the owl. Then both Jim and Steven did bits and pieces of the Kraken, because we had spasmodic pieces of film shot for each sequence of the Kraken.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You mentioned earlier that one of the keys to your long collaboration with Charles Schneer was that you never agreed. Couldn’t that be a real problem if you and Jim Danforth or Steven Archer had differences of opinion on how to animate a sequence?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Not really, because most of the sequences had already been laid out in storyboard form, so there was already a broad outline for both Jim and Steven to follow. Of course, any animator has to use his own judgment, because while you are animating on the set, so many things can be suggested. Once you are on the set, one pose suggests another, so most of the animation has to be done right there on the spot. So what I tried to do was to focus everyone’s attention towards the one specific channel that I thought would work for our overall purpose.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Earlier you said you never wanted to do a scene like the skeleton fight in Jason again, but you didn’t make things very easy for yourself when you gave Medusa all those snakes in her hair.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Well, with Medusa we needed to have a lot of snakes in her hair, otherwise she wouldn’t look right. After all who wants a Gorgon that’s skimpy on snakes! We ended up giving her twelve snakes, plus one on her arm. Each snake had a head and a body with a ball and socket armature, so I had to animate twelve snakes for each frame of film, plus the rattle of her tail, keeping all of that in synchronization. Then, because she plays opposite Harry Hamlin in a ten-minute scene and had to shoot arrows, we had to have an intricate model that was fully jointed. The final puppet had 150 joints throughout her body. Each of her fingers was jointed as well, so she could shoot arrows. We also built a much larger Medusa model, but it didn’t photograph with as much detail, so it wasn’t used in the final film.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What was your inspiration for the design of Medusa?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I did a lot of research, and looked at Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze sculpture in Florence which shows Perseus holding Medusa’s head up at arm’s length. But I found that most of the classical Medusa’s were simply a rather attractive looking woman’s face with snakes in her hair. That wouldn’t turn anybody to stone, unless I miss the point of Greek mythology. Most artists, other than Cellini, all pictured her as a normal woman who simply had snakes in her hair. That wouldn’t be very dramatic for a motion picture, so I gave her a scaly face, and a more evil face than most of the classical concepts. Then I thought that the serpentine motif could be extended, by making her into a snake woman, which is something you find in German Gothic concepts. They used to combine the snake and the woman—no reflection on womanhood—but many of the early Gothic concepts involved that type of idea. Maybe that came from my Germanic background.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: The Snake woman in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD was sort of a early version of Medusa, and there’s a beautiful color sketch of her in The Art of Ray Harryhausen (on page 158).
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: That was just a simple tinted watercolor. The Snake woman was a forerunner of Medusa, but she had a bra. For Medusa we also started out by giving her a boob tube, but we didn’t like it, we thought it would look too vulgar, so we just decided to light her very discreetly. We wanted her to appear in a very mysterious kind of lighting to maintain the mood.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In An Animated Life you talk about the film Noir type of lighting in MILDRED PIERCE (1945) that influenced the Medusa sequence.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, I was very impressed by Mildred Pierce which I had seen years ago, and how they did the lighting on Joan Crawford’s face where she was moving in and out of shadows. So I tried to get that type of lighting on Medusa. That lighting was all dictated by what was going on in the background plate that had already been shot by our cameraman, Ted Moore. We had flames flickering throughout the sequence from braziers on the full-size live-action set, so I had to have a flicker effect on Medusa to match it, otherwise she would look like she had just been pasted on. I did all the lighting myself and devised a red and orange color wheel that cast colored light on the Medusa puppet, so it appeared as if she was lit by torch fire.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: And Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) inspired Medusa’s initial entrance.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, I remembered seeing FREAKS, which had a man in the circus with no legs who had to pull himself along the ground with his arms. So when I began animating Medusa that image came to my mind, because she has no legs either. I thought it would be a good way to have her enter the scene—having her pull herself along with her arms. It gives a very weird impression when you first see her. She seems like a freak, so you feel a bit sorry for her.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did you achieve the effect of having Medusa’s arrow knock over Perseus’s shield?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: On the live-action set we had a long wire going up to the shield, and off camera we had a man who shot the arrow. The arrow rode along on the wire, and we put hydrochloric acid on it so it would smoke as it went by. Then when I went to animate Medusa, I put her in the right position, so when she releases the miniature arrow it matched the rear-projection plate that was behind the model.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: After Perseus decapitates Medusa what did you use for the ooze that comes out of her neck?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: That was done with wallpaper paste tinted red. It was quite effective and originally it was supposed to poison anyone who touched it. But we found we didn’t want to go into that kind of extreme detail for the scene, so in the end we didn’t use it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you ever think about having Medusa speak?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: No, because then you’d be getting into the realm of the puppetoon, and we didn’t want that. It’s all right for puppetoons, but it’s never convincing for an animated character. No matter how carefully you animate a creature like Medusa, if you attempt to use dialogue you are really trying to play God, and that’s not my mission in life.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Is that why you decided to use an actor for Calibos, alongside the stop-motion model?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, because we initially started out with Calibos as being only a bestial character, with one cloven hoof and a tail. Naturally you can’t find an actor with a cloven hoof and a tail, so originally Calibos was just going to grunt and groan, a la ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C. Then we decided in the final screenplay that we would need to have some exposition and dialogue from him, in order to keep him from being a dull character.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Calibos also has a touch of pathos about him. When he gives Andromeda the necklace, it invokes the memory of their past love and what he once looked like.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, Desmond Davis, the director was trying to get the feeling of Jean Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST into those scenes. Calibos was simply the victim of circumstances. Zeus turned him into this apparition of horror because they were whimsical Gods who were created in man’s image and they seemed to like revenge, which is really not very God-like. But in those days the Gods had many whims.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: CLASH OF THE TITANS was the first and only time you had a cast of big name actors to work with.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, we never really had stars in our pictures. We didn’t think we needed them because the pictures didn’t have star parts. Instead we tried to keep a minimum of dialogue and stress the fantasy aspects of the pictures. CLASH OF THE TITANS was the only one where MGM felt it was necessary to have some star names. We got some notable actors, mostly to play the Greek Gods. Beverly Cross had written a section into the script that glamorized the Gods, which I think worked out quite well, because who else could play Zeus, but Laurence Olivier? Maybe Charlton Heston, since he played God*, but Laurence Olivier was ideal. Although he wasn’t very well at the time—he was sort of on his last legs, and in rather poor health, but he gave a good performance. So I was most grateful we had at least one picture with a lot of stars in it. Of course, the stars got more money working for two weeks than I got for working two years! But that’s the way the cookie crumbles and you can’t worry about it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In your earlier films, although you didn’t have star names, you always had excellent British character actors, like 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 it 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 THE ARGONAUTS, and we used him again in THE VALLEY OF GWANGI.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What led you to retire after making CLASH OF THE TITANS?
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

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 OF THE TITANS 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.

  • Actually, Heston played Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and John the Baptist in THE GREATEST STORY EVERY TOLD, but not God himself.