At one point during the 73-minute documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, someone points out that the films Harryhausen worked on are commonly referred to as “Harryhausen films,” as if the directors had nothing to do with them. That’s admittedly unfair to those directors, but it’s a sentiment that speaks volumes about Harryhausen’s stature in the special effects world. He achieved a prominence that won’t be equaled again, since so many of today’s films require an army of effects artists (another point remarked on during this documentary).
I know I’ve always viewed the Sinbad films, Jason and the Argonauts, and even Clash of the Titans as Harryhausen works. I doubt many of those movies would be well-remembered today if not for his groundbreaking stop-motion effects work, which always had a distinct style that differentiated it from other visuals of the same ilk. I never considered why that was the case, but someone remarks during this documentary that Harryhausen put a lot of thought into how his creatures moved, which gave them a verisimilitude that was lacking in other effects work, except the achievements of people like Phil Tippett who viewed Harryhausen as a mentor.
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan covers his entire career, starting with the rough dinosaur movies he made as a teenager and progressing to the storybook fable shorts he made early in his professional days. Harryhausen’s first major film was 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, on which he worked with pioneer , who had done the stop-motion work on King Kong. He spent the 1950s and 60s working on many science-fiction and fantasy films that are well-remembered more for his effects work than for their stories and acting. He worked on a couple movies in the 70s and ended his career with the big budget Clash of the Titans, which was released in 1981.
Nearly 30 interviewees contribute their thoughts about Harryhausen’s work and what it means to them, including Peter Jackson, Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro, James Cameron, Tim Burton, Ray Bradbury, Steven Spielberg, Tippet, Joe Dante, John Lasseter, Nick Park, Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston, and many others. Harryhausen was interviewed too, and one amusing moment occurs when Cameron says that Harryhausen would have undoubtedly moved forward with the times and created CGI creatures if he was still working in the 1990s and 2000s – director Gilles Penso then cuts to Harryhausen saying that he would have preferred to keep doing traditional stop-motion effects.
Penso participates in a commentary track with producers Alexandre Poncet and Tony Dalton, along with Timothy Nicholson, who says that he’s only there to talk about clearances for the many movie clips used in the film. (Licensing fees were waived for all of them.) It’s a reasonably interesting track if you care about the nuts and bolts of documentary filmmaking.
The rest of the bonus features on this Blu-ray disc lead off with 15 minutes of interviews with Edgar Wright, Peter Lord, Rick Baker, and Simon Pegg, who were all cut from the film, along with 55 minutes of outtakes from the interviewees whose comments made the final version. There are also eight minutes of deleted scenes with introductions explaining why those segments were cut – Douglas Trumbull and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, neither of whom made the final film, show up during those sequences.
The rest of the bonus features include two minutes of Bradbury, del Toro, Ralston, and others offering tributes to Harryhausen, three minutes of on-set footage from 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and 13 minutes of the filmmakers opening boxes of Harryhausen’s models (it’s the ultimate unboxing video for film nerds). Q&As from 2012 events in Paris and London round out the platter.
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan is a labor of love that took 10 years to make. It was released in 2011, just two years before its subject passed away, so it’s fortunate that the filmmakers were able to create a complete chronicle of his life and talk to so many influential people before he was gone. If you’re a fan, you’ll love this film, and you’ll enjoy going through the copious bonus materials too.
– Brad Cook (@BradCWriter)