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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: