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Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2011) - Blu-ray Review

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Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan - blu-ray Review

4 stars

There are few other visual effects artists that I know of who continually inspire filmmakers as significant to the medium than that of special effects guru Ray Harryhausen.  His name alone conjures up images of giants, sword-fighting skeletons, monsters, and, hell, Medusa herself.  He is the crowned king of Stop Motion animation.  He was always more than just another technician on a film set.  He worked alone.  He worked quickly.  He was meticulous and understood his craft.  No director EVER got in his way.  Ray Harryhausen is a true auteur and the films he worked on became HIS films.       

Giles Penso’s well-studied documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, originally released in 2011 and only now celebrating a release on blu-ray, spends its time wisely, serving as an overview of Harryhausen’s work with the likes of Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Guillermo Del Toro, Joe Dante, John Landis, Terry Gilliam, Henry Selick, and James Cameron weighing in on the maestro’s technique and influence.  Cameron admits the origins of skeletal Terminator came from Harryhausen’s influence.  

Framed around the history lesson of special effects is an extended interview with Harryhausen who reflects candidly about his work on each film.  For about 5 to 10 minutes, each film gets highlighted.  It is a low-key affair but a good one nonetheless.  And, seeing as how the legend has passed away, this movie becomes a profound artifact on the importance of his work.  This is a good document to own for ANYONE interested in filmmaking or visual arts. 

Harryhausen – whose involvement with feature-length films began with Mighty Joe Young and ended with Clash of the Titans – made just under 20 films with his Stop Motion efforts but his overall impact is measureless.  We would be nowhere without his take on how dinosaurs move and eat and fight.  You can forget about Jurassic Park.  We would be rudderless with our science fiction without First Men “in” the Moon or Earth vs. The Flying Saucers.  Completely without hope if The Valley of Gwangi did not exist and don’t even get me started on what the medium would look like if his Sinbad trio of movies had never seen the light of day. 

While there is little talk specifically about the use of CGI in filmmaking, it is interesting to note that the whole computer-based movement debuted a mere year AFTER Harryhausen retired.  That was 1981 and he had just finished the stop-motion effects for Clash of the Titans.  According to the documentary, it was the first time he had to divide and conquer his art, hiring new hands to animate Bubo, the mechanical owl.  Maybe he saw the writing on the wall when Tron was released a year later.  If that’s the unreality people wanted to see, I wouldn’t blame him for hanging up the towel.  He confesses that he’s never be happy behind a computer.  He is a hands-on talent. 

Throughout the documentary, the information concerning Harryhausen and his work is a literal goldmine.  There are a lot of technical issues involved in Stop Motion animation (including many discussions on its different names throughout his lifetime) and Harryhausen doesn’t shy away from being honest about the work.  Grueling hours were spent in creating his fantasy and bringing to life the monsters and aliens and fairy tale characters he made so memorable.  To this day, I clearly remember seeing – for the very first time in an uncrowded theater – the seven skeleton warriors in Jason and the Argonauts come to life and start fighting.  It was cool and it was frightening and it made me come back to see it again the very next day.  He too remembers everything and, of special note, still had – at the time of the filming – the majority of his models close by.  Seeing them removed from the familiar surroundings of their movie is a visual treat. 

If only the visuals and the overall production held up to the valuable information this film stores inside.  It is shocking to witness just how OLD the documentary appears.  It’s as if the majority of the film was shot on VHS.  I know it wasn’t but that’s EXACTLY how it looks.  Very shoddy tags and all; like something out of 1986.  Arrow Video, who usually handle B-movie rescues, is releasing this on blu-ray but not even their loaded supplemental items can save the overall quality of the film.  It looks dated and rough and, much like Harryhausen’s work, of another era.  Was this a conscious decision by the filmmakers?  I honestly don’t think it was but, man, it’s a scrappy-looking documentary.  Enough said there. 

Ultimately, it’s about the content and that, my friends, is where Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan wins.  He remains an important figure in the business and, I’ll venture to guess, will continue to inspire a whole new generation of talents – especially when they become sick of today’s CGI overreliance.  It might cost more in the long run, but there does seem to be a shift away from the slinky look of computer graphics (see the failures of The Hobbit) toward a more practical mix (as seen in Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and I couldn’t be happier about it. 

We don’t need things to look realistic.  

We need our imagination. 

We need the fantasy.

And so did Mr. Harryhausen, may he rest in peace.

Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan - blu-ray Review

MPAA Rating: Unrated.
Runtime:
90 mins
Director
: Gilles Penso
Writer:
Gilles Penso
Cast:
Ray Harryhausen, Peter Jackson, Terry Gilliam
Genre
: Documentary
Tagline:

Memorable Movie Quote: "Working with Ray Harryhausen was the most amazing experience for me."
Distributor:
Arrow Films
Official Site:
Release Date:
No theatrical release
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
June 28, 2016
Synopsis: The life and work of the renowned film visual effects artist and producer.

Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan - blu-ray Review

Blu-ray

Blu-ray Details:

Available on Blu-ray - June 28, 2016
Screen Formats: 1.78:1
Subtitles
: English SDH
Audio:
English: LPCM 2.0
Discs: Blu-ray Disc; Single disc (1 BD-50)
Region Encoding: A

Released by Arrow Video, Ray Harryhausen is presented in a 16x9 aspect ratio.  It is not a great-looking transfer.  I understand how some of the Super8 footage looks as grainy as it does but the actual interviews themselves are just not up to par.  The sound is presented in a limited stereo 2.0 track and, while clear enough to suffice for a talking head format like this documentary is also a disappointment.   

Supplements:

Commentary:

  • One commentary with the filmmakers is included.

Special Features:

This release might be for die-hards only but it certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the supplemental material.  You’ve got everything here and there are quite a lot of unexpected surprises, too.  The most notable one being the featurette in which the filmmakers unearth some of Harryhausen’s monsters for the first time in a very long while.  From interviews with Simon Peg, Rick Baker, Edgar Wright, and Peter Lord to a good collection of deleted scenes, there is plenty to watch and salivate over.  The Bonus Materil is largely on the second disc in the set and includes extended interviews with Nick Park, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and more; a nice collection of deleted scenes, Q&A footage from festival screenings and plenty of other offerings.  A reel of trailers including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, The Mysterious Island, One Million Years BC and more is a definite highlight. 

  • A Treasure Trove (13 min)
  • Edgar Wright, Peter Lord, Rick Baker and Simon Pegg Interviews (16 min)
  • Interview Outakes (55 min)
  • Deleted Scenes (8 min)
  • On The Set Of Sinbad (3 min)
  • Paris Cinematheque Q&A (19 min)
  • Original Trailer (3 min)
  • Ray Harryhausen Trailer Reel (22 min)