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Posts Tagged ‘Ray Harryhausen’

R.I.P. Ray

May 7th, 2013 No comments

Much of what I have to say about special effects master Ray Harryhausen–who died today at the age of 92–was already covered in this post from 2009, so I’ll wait here ’til you get back.

I can recall one time–I’m guessing that it was sometime around 1978–sitting down with a big sheet of paper on a kitchen table and meticulously drawing a mural that included at least one monster from every one of Harryhausen’s films. I thought that it was pretty good at the time. I wish that I still had it.

Growing up a fan of monster and sci-fi flicks, Harryhausen loomed large. It wasn’t just because of his talent or because of the near monopoly of his chosen profession he enjoyed throughout the ’50s and ’60s. He made quality fantasy films, and he made a lot of them. After apprenticing on 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, he worked on fourteen more, from 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to Clash of the Titans in 1981. Twelve of them were with producer Charles H. Schneer, whose own contributions should not be underestimated. If there was a science-fiction or fantasy spectacle made during the middle of the 20th Century, odds are it either came from producer George Pal–who also started out as a stop-motion animator–or from the team of Harryhausen and Schneer.

Harryhausen wasn’t just the special effects guy for hire, he was the one dreaming up the action set-pieces around which those stories were built. Admittedly, the scenarios tended to be episodic, with dramatic scenes existing mostly to fill the time between monsters. But what monsters! The seven-headed hydra, the cyclopean centaur, the tragic Venusian Ymir, and the vicious dinosaur Gwangi were only a fraction of his large and varied menagerie.

Ray retired after Clash of the Titans, and never returned to filmmaking. I’m sure that he could tell that the days of the lone animator meticulously animating puppets by hand over a period of months would be ending, due in no small part to the incoming generation of people that he had inspired.

These days, there are vast hordes of anonymous effects artists filling out the endless credit rolls of our modern blockbusters. And this is not a knock on them, but none of them can ever be Ray Harryhausen. For a time, he wasn’t just one of a few, he was one of a kind.

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How To Train Your Kraken

April 4th, 2010 No comments

Despite my lifelong love of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, I must confess that I’ve never had that much affection for his final film, Clash of the Titans. The story, based very loosely* on the Greek myth of Perseus, was a bit of a muddle. More damningly, the special effects–with the exception of the suspenseful confrontation with the gorgon Medusa–didn’t impress me that much either. And then there was that damned robot owl.**

Harryhausen’s retirement was well-timed. He not only went out with a box-office hit, he never had to confront the reality that his groundbreaking techniques would have appeared increasingly outdated in the Age of Industrial Light & Magic.

In turn, ILM gave way to the Age of Silicon, in which anything that can be imagined can be brought to three-dimensional life provided that one has the computing power. These days, even a Roger Corman sized-budget can produce a passable Dinoshark. And $125 million–about seven times the cost of Harryhausen’s last hurrah–can buy you the convincing mythical menagerie seen in this weekend’s remake of Clash of the Titans.

What I found most surprising about the new Titans is the extent to which it hews to the original.***  There’s an added subplot about an attempt by Hades to oust Zeus from Mt. Olympus, but otherwise it hits many of the same story beats. The Kraken returns, as does Calibos the beastman. There’s another brood of giant scorpions, even though their appearance in the middle of a Greek myth makes no more sense this time than it did back in ’81. The damned robot owl, however, only rates a cameo.

Early trailers for the film suggested that it would resemble 300 with a pounding rock soundtrack, but this proved not to be the case. While the action sequences display modern sensibilities, alternating between quick cuts and slow-motion, at its core Clash is rather old-fashioned. When you get right down to it, it’s a movie in which paycheck-cashing famous actors dress in shimmering togas and play with tiny statues of their mortal pawns, while buff heroes battle harpies and ride flying horses. It’s the stuff of countless Saturday matinees.

The weak spot in this new Clash is Sam Worthington, who, it must be said, is no Harry Hamlin. Worthington seems to be the go-to guy if you want someone to Make! Short angry pronouncements! And with his inexplicable buzz cut, he seems to have walked in from an entirely different movie. Harryhausen flicks weren’t exactly known for their strong central characters, but at least Sinbad and Jason seemed to be having more fun than Worthington’s Perseus, who spends most of his screen time pissed off.

There’s another kinda, sorta mythological movie out right now: How to Train Your Dragon, the latest offering from Dreamworks Animation. Despite a terrible title (an unfortunate remnant of the children’s book series on which it’s based) and one of the worst marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen, it’s an utterly charming story about a studious, imaginative boy who forms an unlikely friendship with the most mysterious of the dragons that assault his Viking village on a nightly basis.

Unlike most Dreamworks cartoons, Dragon avoids pop culture references and emphasizes character over comedy. That’s not to say that there isn’t humor: the dialogue is at times intentionally anachronistic and, for some reason, the Vikings have Scottish accents. Yet the overall effect is far less wacky than the commercials suggest.

At its center, it’s a boy-and-his-dog**** story in parallel with a sweet tale about a child trying to win the affection of his father while charting his own path among his more bloodthirsty kin.

I think that the highest praise that I can give How to Train Your Dragon is that it’s a Dreamworks film that displays the heart I usually associate with Pixar. And while it (thankfully) never goes ventures into Old Yeller territory, it does make one decision in its final scenes that was darker than I would’ve expected from the company that gave the world Shrek.

*Fidelity to mythology wasn’t one of Harryhausen’s priorities. For example, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad intermingled Arabian, Greek and Hindu elements. And in his version of Clash of the Titans, Cerberus the three-headed dog got shortchanged a head.

**Bubo was a magical, clockwork bird intended to pander to the Star Wars generation. In the ’80s, not even Greek mythology could avoid the cute robot sidekick.

***And, just as in the original, the Titans themselves never put in an appearance.

****The animators get a lot of personality out of “Toothless” the dragon. Maybe it’s just because I’m a cat person, but Toothless’ facial reactions struck me as more feline than canine.

31 Monsters #13: The Cyclops

October 13th, 2009 No comments

On those rare childhood days when I didn’t want to grow up to be a paleontologist, I wanted to grow up to be Ray Harryhausen. He was one of the few motion picture special effects artists to become a brand name. While he never appeared above the title, there was never any doubt that Harryhausen and his stop-motion animated monsters were the stars of the show.

Ray was an acolyte of early movie wizard Willis O’Brien, the pioneering artist responsible for the creatures in the original versions of The Lost World and King Kong. After assisting O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young, Harryhausen embarked on an epic, twelve film collaboration with producer Charles Schneer ranging from 1955’s It Came from Beneath the Sea to 1981’s Clash of the Titans.

Many fans claim that Harryhausen’s masterwork was Jason and the Argonauts, which concluded with a duel between live-action sailors and seven stop-motion skeletons. From a technical standpoint, they may be right. However, I find Jason a little slow and ponderous as a film.

For my money, his greatest motion picture was 1958’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Very loosely based on the Middle Eastern folk tales, it starred Kerwin Matthews as the sailing hero, Kathryn Grant (Bing Crosby’s wife) as his beloved princess, and the eminently hissable Torin Thatcher as the dark magician Sokurah.

Sinbad first encountered Sokurah on the island of Colossa as the wizard fled from one of the native cyclopses. The sailor and his men drove off the monster long enough to save Sokurah, but not his magic lamp. Unwitting of the magician’s schemes, the Caliph of Baghdad invited him into the palace. But when the ruler refused to mount an expedition back to Colossa to recover the lamp, Sokurah shrank his daughter, knowing that the only cure required the shell of the gigantic roc birds that nested on the island.

Many adventures ensued, and the film packed a lot into its 88 minutes. There were treacherous mutineers, screaming demons, a friendly genie, a fire-breathing dragon, another dueling skeleton and, of course, the aforementioned cyclopses.


The goat-legged cyclops demonstrated the characteristic gait of many of Harryhausen’s humanoid monsters, a distinctive arms-back, knees-forward shuffle that was allegedly easier to animate. This walk had the side effect of giving the creatures a personal touch not often seen in today’s special effects epics, which typically involve hundreds of faceless computer animators.

Taking a page from Homer’s Odyssey, the cyclops trapped Sinbad and his men in a cave and threatened to roast them on a spit. Fortunately, the heroic sailor also knew his Greek literature and blinded the beast before leading it off a cliff.

During the climax, a second cyclops–distinguished by a pair of horns atop its head–showed up just long enough to wrestle with the dragon that Sokurah loosed on the fleeing heroes. It didn’t fare any better than its cousin.

Sixteen years later, Harryhausen and Sinbad were back for seconds in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. The giant centaur in that one was a cyclops too!