Ray Harryhausen, creator of the animation technique known as Dynamation, has done his many fans – old and new – a great service by sharing with us much of his early work in this recently released set. Old fans? Ever heard of Steven Spielberg? George Lucas? Peter Jackson? Tom Hanks?
These are only some of the most famous of Harryhausen’s devotees – as youths they saw a Harryhausen movie (Jason and the Argonauts and the fight with the skeletons seems to be the one that did it for most) and were so impressed that they were set on their life path as a result…much as Ray Harryhausen’s life was changed forever when he saw Willis O’Brien’s classic King Kong for the first time in 1933.
Harryhausen is most famous for his fantasy movies – The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad starring Kerwin Matthews, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad with John Philip Law and Tom Baker as the memorable Koura, and The Clash of Titans with Laurence Olivier as Zeus. But it was really his stop-motion animation that was the star of his movies, and which people remember to this day.
Disc 1 of this set features Harryhausen’s early work, as a teenager with experimental footage, training films produced while he was in the Army, and short films he made after he got out, which he sold to schools, etc. Disc 2 provides tons of supplements, which is worth the purchase price itself.
When I opened up this two disc set, it was Disc 2, the Supplements disc that I watched first. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in seeing Ray Harryhausen’s “juvenalia” on Disc 1, – far from it. These experiments and short films – from Mother Goose fairy tales to dinosaurs – were the “teething rings” that he used to hone his craft of stop-motion animation, to perfect his skills so that the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth, the Skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts, and Kali from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and so many more creations transported entranced audiences into a world of fantasy.
But I watched the Supplements first because I wanted to meet Ray Harryhausen “in person,” after having read about him practically all my life.
The Supplement disc consists of nine featurettes, three birthday tributes, an appreciation, and a tribute by visual effects artist, the late David Allen. Most of these featurettes were not produced with all the slick gloss of a major Hollywood production, but the staging and sound are perfectly adequate. It would have been fitting if they’d been filmed with a 16mm camera, but I suspect that this was not the case.
First we are taken to June 10, 2003, to the ceremony in which Harryhausen was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame…which is placed, fittingly enough, just a few yards away from Grauman’s Chinese Theater where Harryhausen first saw King Kong. Ray Bradbury made a speech, as did Forry Ackerman and Frank Darabont. Peter Jackson was filming Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, but he sent a video “love letter,” pointing out that without Ray Harryhausen there would have been no Lord of the Rings.
Next we learn of the story behind the statue of David Livingstone (of, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame) being attacked by a lion, which he designed in order to help stimulate tourism to the Livingstone Museum in Scotland. Harryhausen’s wife, Diana is Livingstone’s great granddaughter.
April 16, 2004. The Clifton’s Cafeteria Reunion features Ray Harryhausen, Forry Ackerman and Ray Bradbury huddled around a table in the Little Brown Room of Clifton’s Cafeteria, where their friendship solidified over 65 years ago – where meetings of the first science fiction fan club, the Los Angles Science Fiction League, were held. The stories they tell may be well-known to many fans, but now you’re not reading the words on paper, you’re seeing the men themselves tell the stories, and their affection and love for each other are palpable.
Arnold Kunert then interviews Ray for a documentary series called In the Credits, and we’re shown excerpts from that.
This is follwed by An Evening with Ray Harryhausen, hosted by Leonard Maltin, at the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Academy, and in addition to hearing Ray again it was such a joy to see him get a standing ovation from the audience as he went on stage after his introduction.
Harryhausen then tells the stories of the bronze statuettes he made of some of his favorite characters from his movies – Talos, Medusa, Cyclops, Ymir, Kali, etc.
There’s an interview with Ted Newsom (writer for various documentaries of a horror and/or science fiction theme), in which Ray discusses the genesis of his Fairy Tales. Much of it he also says in his commentary on Disc 1, but it’s interesting nevertheless.
The Academy Archive Restoration features Mark Toscano, one of the restorers of the Fairy Tales. It was a joy to watch and listen to his enthusiasm as he explained how the various “elements” that Harryhausen brought in were handled.
Finally, Dr. Rolf Giesen, curator of the Filmmuseum Berlin which opened in September, 2000, explains that the museum decided to have a permanent display of Harryhausen artifacts, and describes them all with enthusiasm (and a charming German accent!)
Don’t forget to click on the “Dracula-ish” looking character (from the “King Midas” fairy tale) to hear Sam Calvin of FXRH list the top 10 things he learned from watching Ray Harryhausen movies. They’re a hoot.
The tributes were fun. There are three animated birthday cards, created by admirers for Ray’s 80th birthday on July 13, 2000, held at the Visual Effects Society: Stumbling Skeletons (Pyros Pictures), Coffee Break (Flat Earth Productions) and Harryhausen the Time Traveller (a sort of MTV Celebrity Death Match with 2 skeletons – too funny).
The “An Appreciation” featurette has dozens of directors and special effects people paying tribute to Ray’s genius, and explaining how he had been their inspiration. Quite touching.
Finally David Allen, a special effects artist, read his tribute to Ray. Allen died from cancer just a month later.
Then there are the Galleries, and you absolutely must view them. There are lots and lots of photos of Ray in his garage-studio, towering over his miniature puppets and sets, peering into his camera, as well as photos of the Filmmuseum Berlin exhibit.
Now we come to Disc 1.
The joy of a DVD is that you can pick and choose which chapter you want to watch first. So when you decide to watch Disc 1, I suggest starting with the Special Features, and in particular, The Making of The Tortoise and the Hare.
Ray made four fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, Rapunzel, and King Midas), which he had sold to schools, and started work on a fifth, The Tortoise and the Hare. He completed only 3 or 4 minutes of it when he got the call to go to work on The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and the short was never completed. Then, in 1992, two fans – and professional stop-motion artists – wanted to complete the work. Harryhausen agreed to help. He sent them his models (he’s lived in England for years, they lived in California) and they got to work.
The Making of the Tortoise and the Hare explains all this, and we get to see just a little of what it’s like to work in stop-motion. In fact, Harryhausen even animated a scene, although unfortunately we are not told which one. More than that, he didn’t let Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh – or a camera – watch him while he did it! I have to admit I was disappointed at this, but apparently Harryhausen’s secrecy when it came to his animation techniques still extend to this day.
Once you’ve watched the “Making of “feature, go straight into the Fairy Tales. Make sure you select the “Play All” feature so that you get Harryhausen’s commentary on each one.
His Mother Goose Stories consist of Little Miss Muffet, Old Mother Hubbard, The Queen of Hearts and Humpty Dumpty. His father (using the name Fred Blausauf) designed the armatures (the poseable ‘skeleton’ inside the puppets) and his mother (using the name Mary Bleske) did all the costumes.
The Mother Goose stories were all fairly short. They move along at a good clip and are quite entertaining. There’s no dialogue (nor in the Fairy Tales), just voice overs.
The Fairy Tales were more ambitious. They consist of:
Little Red Riding Hood
Hansel & Gretel
The Tortoise & the Hare
Harryhausen made changes in each of the stories – or rather collaborator Charlotte Knight did. Since the films were intended to be sold to schools, he eliminated some of the more “frightening” aspects – Granny eludes the Wolf, rather than being eaten in “Little Red Riding Hood”, there’s no evil stepmother in “Hansel & Gretel.”
Many of the Tests & Experiments are very short, but they are exceedingly fun to view. I was particularly struck – first of all with the Dinosaurs but also with the brief shot of an unrealized feature, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen “and Harryhausen’s animation of a dying Martian which would have come at the end of The War of the Worlds if he’d ever gotten around to making the film. The expression on the dying Martian’s face is priceless and it’s as realistic as the dying Martian from the new War of the Worlds!
The footage of Cave Bears & Dinosaurs is one of the highlights of this DVD – I’m betting most people will check it out even before they watch the fairy tales. (I confess…I did). These were made before Harryhausen got his break on It Came From Beneath the Sea, but they certainly show his interest in dinosaurs (but then, Harryhausen and Bradbury had been fascinated with dinosaurs forever).
When Ray went into the Army, in 1942, he animated a couple of shorts to try to show how the technique could be used to do training films. When he got out, he did a commercial demo for Lucky Strike cigarettes, and then, a real hoot, there are three versions of a commercial for Lakewood, a housing complex. It’s fun to see the different ‘takes’ on the selling points of the houses, not to mention the fact that you could buy a 2-bedroom house for $43 a month, and a 3-bedroom house for $53 a month. And veterans didn’t have to make a down payment.
Unfortunately, there is some stuff missing. According to Roy P. Webber (author of the recently released Dinosaur Films of Ray Harryhausen, McFarland), “The dinosaur experiments footage seen on this DVD is mainly recently uncovered footage, featuring the cave bear, mammoth and brontosaurus models.
But there is other footage, glimpsed in the documentary ALIENS, DRAGONS, MONSTERS & ME, which is in the possession of David Massaro and unfortunately not included on this disc. Much of this features the ubiquitous “creature from Jupiter”. The EVOLUTION and split-screen films are wonderful but also do appear on THE HARRYHAUSEN CHRONICLES DVD as well.”
Despite the omission of “the creature from Juptiter”, however, practically every fan of Ray Harryhausen, or of the art of stop-motion animation, will love this set.