Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan
Arrow Video // Unrated // $19.95 // June 28, 2016
Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 15, 2016
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version
Take a look at the end credits for any fantasy movie over the past decade. Chances are that you'll be bombarded by the names of hundreds of technicians behind those dazzling visual effects. Contrast this with, say, Mysterious Island or Jason and the Argonauts -- films whose wildly imaginative special effects continue to inspire such awe these many decades later. You'll just see the name of just one man: Ray Harryhausen.

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Despite following in the footsteps of such greats as King Kong's Willis H. O'Brien, Harryhausen is for many the first name that springs to mind when thoughts turn towards stop-motion animation. The fantastic creatures and inventive imagery he contributed to so many films ultimately defined them. It's telling that despite never being credited as a director of a feature-length motion picture, every movie to which he contributed his mighty talents is rightly thought of as a Harryhausen film. If Harryhausen had purely been a technician, he'd still be revered as a legend: his unparalleled gift for bringing the inanimate to life and for the stop-motion techniques he innovated. His artistry extends so far beyond that, however. The very premises of these films emerged from within Harryhausen's imagination, and he remained as central a presence throughout every stage of production as any auteur director would. The screenplays were written around the effect sequences that Harryhausen envisioned. The creatures were entirely of his design. He was intimately involved in every aspect of these sequences: sketching, sculpting, animating, editing, and even directing the actors on-set. Up until his final film, Harryhausen didn't even have an assistant aiding him with the animation; every subtle adjustment for the months demanded by each of these films was made by Harryhausen alone.

That itself would be worthy of honoring in a documentary. Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan is indeed very much a celebration of Harryhausen and his illustruous career, beginning with early, homebrew stop-motion experiments and then delving into each of his films in chronological order. As this documentary was produced before Harryhausen's passing, we learn much from the man himself, along with those members of the cast and crew that are still with us. Special Effects Titan unearths a treasure trove of rarely-glimpsed and never before seen material for each film, including Harryhausen's conceptual sketches, animation tests, dailies, behind the scenes photos, home movies, storyboards, and even handwritten sheets of Bernard Herrmann compositions. Harryhausen invariably has one of the creatures from each film within arm's reach, and it's such a thrill to see them up close and personal, often still looking marvelous after these many decades.

The documentary is titled Special Effects Titan for a reason, making it a point to convey how far-reaching Harryhausen's artistry and influence remains. Through an astonishingly long list of contributors -- among them his close friend Ray Bradbury, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro, Terry Gilliam, John Lasseter, and several founding members of ILM -- we learn about how Harryhausen's work shaped the visual effects spectacles of today. It's his animation that color how we imagine dinosaurs moving today, and that's reflected in Jurassic Park, among many others. It's a joy to see so many direct homages to Harryhausen, such as Revenge of the Sith's General Grievous being inspired by the Kali sword fight in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

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"Celebration" really is the right word for it. There are no arcs to be had in the traditional sense -- no dire adversity to overcome, no devastating blows to his career, no rising like a phoenix from a low point -- because that's not the way Harryhausen's life unfolded. He's enormously talented. He worked incredibly hard, investing so much of himself and an inconceivable amount of time into his films. Time and again, he accomplished what should be impossible in a way none of his contemporaries could come close to capturing. He's universally beloved for a reason. Special Effects Titan doesn't try to find drama where there is none, and it's better for it. The documentary further benefits from having Harryhausen's filmography to provide shape and structure as it explores aspects of his resounding influence. The wealth of behind-the-scenes material is astonishing, including an animation test for a never-produced adaptation of War of the Worlds (!). For a documentary about someone often thought of as a technician, I love how human a story this is. There are too many terrific anecdotes to count, such as stealing backing plates in a bakery truck for It Came Beneath the Sea (the city of San Francisco thought people might lose confidence in the city if a gigantic octopus was shown leveling the Golden Gate Bridge) and how Harryhausen baked the latex for his creations in the family oven, leaving Sunday chicken dinners with a not entirely pleasant aftertaste.

One doesn't have to be a longtime admirer of Ray Harryhausen's work to appreciate Special Effects Titan. It succeeds as an introduction to Harryhausen's films and in conveying how enduring his influence on cinema remains after all these years. There's much to inspire awe in Harryhausen's massive, devoted fanbase as well, from the extensive interviews to the rarities its filmmakers have unearthed. Admittedly, Special Effects Titan is a fiercely independent production, and it's not polished to any sort of gleaming sheen. Given how long ago production started, much of it was shot on standard definition video, even. In a lot of ways, I'd say that contributes to the documentary's charms. Harryhausen's work was handcrafted...borne of passion and enthusiasm. It's only appropriate that much the same can be said about this documentary. Highly Recommended.


Video
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan defies the traditional formula for a Blu-ray review. Production on the documentary began before high definition photography became standard practice. This is reflected in the majority of the interviews, and even the excerpts from Harryhausen's films have been culled from standard definition trailers. Certain interviews have been conducted in HD, and footage from the more recent effects spectacles inspired by Harryhausen (Avatar and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, for instance) shine on Blu-ray as well. Previously unseen test footage from Harryhausen's archives look marvelous, as do the high resolution scans of photographs, conceptual artwork, and the like. Given the nature of this very independent production, I have every certainty that it's represented as faithfully as possible on Blu-ray. Just go in knowing that this is not native high definition from start to finish.

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This documentary and its hours of extras span both layers of this BD-50 disc. The aspect ratio is variable, depending on the film being featured at any given time, but it's typically 1.78:1.


Audio
The documentary's 16-bit, uncompressed stereo audio hits all of the marks I'd hope it would. Its original score is rendered well, and the battalion of enormously talented people interviewed here are heard cleanly and clearly enough, even if the quality of the recordings can vary a good bit.

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It's very much worth noting that Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan boasts a set of optional English subtitles. Also included is a commentary track that I'll touch on in just a moment.


Extras
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan doesn't have all of the physical bells and whistles I've come to expect from Arrow. Though there is a set of reversible artwork, there is no slipcover, no booklet, and no accompanying DVD this time around. Running over four hours all told, the extras on the disc itself more than make up for it.

  • Audio Commentary: Writer/director Gilles Penso, producer/composer Alexandre Poncet, producer and frequent Harryhausen collaborator Tony Dalton, and associate producer Tim Nicholson contribute a fantastic commentary track. It's made clear how rare some of what's seen in the documentary truly is, including the only known footage of Harryhausen at work animating. The four of them also speak extensively about the many, many clearances needed to realize this film (and the generosity shown by so many filmmakers and studios in making this possible), how Warner's insistence on asking exorbitant sums for excerpts from Harryhausen's work ultimately helped this documentary, a great deal about Poncet's original score, and producing something of this scale and scope with no budget to speak of. They also touch on about how much it meant to Harryhausen to be lauded by John Ford, mull over what Harryhausen's reaction to CGI would be if he were starting out today, and how shy a man Harryhausen actually is. Well worth a listen.

  • A Treasure Trove (14 min.): Look on as box after box of Harryhausen's iconic creations -- including the allosaurus from The Valley of Gwangi, the kraken from Clash of the Titans, and Kali from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad -- are opened at the London Film Museum.

  • Interviews (16 min.): Filmmaker Edgar Wright, his frequent collaborator Simon Pegg, Aardman Animation's Peter Lord, and makeup effects legend Rick Baker didn't make it into the finished film, but their interviews have thankfully still found their way onto this Blu-ray disc. Wright's, unsurprisingly, is far and away my favorite, beginning with how Harryhausen is the only crew member to ever be better known than any of his directors and from there exploring his influence. Pegg's interview is equally informed and enthusiastic. It's a shame that the audio for Baker's interview rendered it unusable as there are some wonderful comments in there as well.

  • Interview Outtakes (55 min.): Even more extensive is a nearly hour long reel of additional comments by Dennis Muren, Joe Dante, Caroline Munro, Nick Park, Phil Tippett, Randy Cook, and Vanessa Harryhausen. Among the highlights are Dante noting that the characterizations that Harryhausen infused into his creations transcended the films' fairly formulaic plots, a terrific story by Tippett about meeting Harryhausen at the Ackermansion in the '60s, Cook pulling out a dead-on Harryhausen impression, and Harryhausen's daughter Vanessa having no reason to think it was the least bit unusual as a child to pass the time with these legendary figures in her playroom.

  • Message to Ray (2 min.): A legion of enormously talented friends, collaborators, and filmmakers inspired by Harryhausen's work express their love and admiration.
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  • Deleted Scenes (8 min.): There are eight deleted/extended scenes in all, each with a card indicating why this footage had to be removed. Sometimes it's because of pacing and other times because of repetition. Particular attention is paid towards Harryhausen's collaborators, among them directors Nathan Juran, Don Chaffey, and Gordon Hessler as well as cinematographer Wilkie Cooper and composer Miklós Rózsa. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and the legendary Douglas Trumball are interviewed here as well.

  • On the Set of Sinbad (3 min.): How brilliant a story is this? Sacha Feiner was originally tapped to craft a stop-motion introduction for this documentary, but that idea had to be scuttled due to budgetary limitations. Feiner did contribute something key to this documentary: a reel of Super 8 footage shot by his father on the set of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

  • Q&As (28 min.): Clocking in at 19 minutes, the first Q&A is from a screening at the Paris Cinematheque. Among the topics of discussion are the documentary's structure, that any proceeds from Special Effects Titan will go to preserving Harryhausen's archives, a collaboration with Frank Capra (!), clarifying what Harryhausen meant when criticizing Hammer's The Gorgon, whether or not Harryhausen ever considered remaking King Kong, and why exactly the models are so small. Harryhausen himself joins in on the more star-studded Q&A at London's Gate Cinema, speaking about which of his creations is his favorite and how George Lucas was involved with the documentary but couldn't be interviewed on-camera due to schedule conflicts.

  • Ray Harryhausen Trailer Reel (22 min.): Though the quality is no great shakes, this Blu-ray disc also offers trailers for The Three Worlds of Gulliver, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Jason and the Argonauts, Mighty Joe Young, Mysterious Island, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

  • Trailer (3 min.): A high definition trailer for Special Effects Titan rounds out the extras.

The Final Word
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan is a loving tribute to one of the most talented and wildly influential artists in the history of cinema. For the uninitiated, this documentary serves as a terrific introduction to Harryhausen's body of work, skillfully illustrating how his techniques and unrivaled imagination resound in visual effects spectacles these many decades later. Established admirers will certainly appreciate the opportunity to connect with Harryhausen as a man as well as through the enduring images he brought to the screen, and the wealth of test footage, conceptual art, behind the scenes photos, and the like are such a thrill to discover. Even if the contents of this Blu-ray disc were limited to the documentary itself, Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan would still come heartily recommended. This lavish special edition elevates it towards an essential purchase for those great many of us who love and admire Harryhausen's films. Highly Recommended.


Further Reading
Much of Ray Harryhausen's work has been lovingly remastered on Blu-ray, and DVD Talk has reviewed every last one of these releases to date:


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