Archive for Clash of the Titans

Dynamation Emotion

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2021 by dcairns

Yesterday was spent, much of it, at the Scottish Museum of Modern Art, strolling through the extensive Ray Harryhausen, Titan of Animation exhibition. Which was basically heaven. Of course I’m going to criticise it a but because I’m an ingrate, but —

The silhouettes are animated. A really nice effect.

I’d seen a few of Harryhausen’s models in the flesh (or fur and steel and latex) at various times. Once, at the late, lamented Lumiere Cinema at the Scottish National Museum, there was the magical moment when he produced a skeleton, complete with miniature travel coffin, and within an instant every child in the auditorium teleported down to the edge of the stage to get closer to it, each perhaps imagining that Ray would hand over the precious figurine for them to play with, or perhaps make a very short movie with.

And Berlin’s fantastic film museum had several of the creatures on display (we don’t call them monsters).

But this was much more extensive and just better. The addition of drawings and home movies elevated it.

I really wanted to see the planned WAR OF THE WORLDS. The tiny bit of test footage is mouth-watering. I suppose we’d have to trade it off — George Pal’s beautifully-mounted version couldn’t exist in the same version as Ray’s — but we’d have tripods and tentacled Martians and, I submit, it would be worth it.

The exhibition features several specially-made bits of animation which show sketches coming to life, and so on, and this is nice, but it really needed more video. I think galleries generally are not very good at dealing with film. I remember a Saul Bass exhibition in London which presented pan-and-scanned versions of all the widescreen title sequences, on tiny little screens.

Today, pan-and-scan is happily dead, but we have the opposite problem. So here’s a clip from KING KONG in 16:9 (and of course it’s the Empire State sequence, the most vertical thing in the film). That wasn’t a very promising start.

The Harryhausen films are much better presented, WHEN they’re presented. There just wasn’t enough — it was up to me, every room would have a screen showing reasonably long clips of each of the creatures represented by drawings or armatures or full figures in that room. Because when you see the Medusa, it’s absolutely wonderful but you want to see her MOVE too.

The solution, of course, was to dash home and watch one of the movies, which we did.

Maybe the Gallery had a philosophical question it never quite resolved about this exhibition. As a sketch artist, Harryhausen wasn’t good enough to merit a show in anybody’s national gallery, even though his drawings are delightful. But the sketches were a means to an end, and they were absolutely good enough to get him there. The puppets or figures or whatever you want to call them are marvelous, but they’re not intended to be consumed the same way as stationary statues. Again, they’re a means to an end.

Mighty Joe and friend.

The end, of course, is the film. And the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art doesn’t really do film. What the exhibition doesn’t QUITE do fully — even though it helpfully explains and illustrates stop motion animation and rear screen projection and glass paintings — is show the sequences alongside the ephemera (we get Ray’s copy of his chum Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and revealing behind-the-scenes photos, and so on) and the drawings and the models so that the REAL art — the art of animation, literally imbuing with life, is foremost in the spectator’s mind.

But this is high-flown quibbling. The exhibition is a carnival of wonders and we were very, very lucky to get to see it.

Culture Clash

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 6, 2019 by dcairns

Here’s Donald Benson on CLASH OF THE TITANS — just the kind of thing I like to see in a mini-blogathon!

I got to know Harryhausen films on television, not seeing one on the big screen until THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, after which I saw several more at UCSC and at some revival houses. I also took to browsing sci-fi and film magazines at the campus library. This was just before STAR WARS ushered in a special effects revolution.

My second-hand amateur guesswork: By the time of CLASH OF THE TITANS, Ray Harryhausen films had become a little like Disney animation features. They were marvels of craftsmanship and artistry, still the gold standard for new generations of animators and effects wizards inspired by dueling skeletons. But somehow they were less relevant as movies. They were generally well-written and directed, and looked better than their modest budgets, But they were of a style that felt increasingly old hat no matter what new wonders Super Dynarama wrought, just as Disney’s 60s animations settled into a rut despite unmatched character animation. 

Part of this was dictated by necessity. Harryhausen and Schneer would get Columbia to put up some money and go make the movie. Everything on the live action shoot had to be precisely pre-planned because of the budget and the effect requirements; no room for auteur directors (I believe they were brought on when much had already been set in stone).

Harryhausen certainly had artistic ambitions. He wanted to do War of the Worlds and a Baron Munchausen feature; test footage for both projects can be seen in a DVD documentary. Would these have broken the mold, or turned out as solid but predictable additions to the Harryhausen canon? As it was, there evidently came a point where the only projects they could get financed were two more Sinbad adventures. They weren’t sequels and Harryhausen was still pushing forward — SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER has a prince turned into a baboon, and the animated baboon delivers a character performance — but the subject matter must have felt like a clear retreat.

By 1981 films like JAWS and STAR WARS revolutionized effects AND created the blockbuster mentality. Harryhausen’s hand-wrought magic may have paled slightly next to technological breakthroughs (the way older fantasies paled next to Harryhausen), but they were oddly buoyed by same eager suspension of disbelief that allowed the Muppets to star in movies. More problematic was the blockbuster mentality. Harryhausen and Schneer were comparatively minor players; their fantasies fell into a weird dead zone between gigantic studio epics and low-rent matinee fare. Ray Harryhausen decided to go big … and then go home.

COTT was billed as his farewell performance, which meant something because he was finally being recognized as the guy who made all those films kids grew up on. It revisits the Greek myths of his most highly regarded film, “Jason and the Argonauts”, and brings back the same scriptwriter, Beverley Cross (his wife Maggie Smith plays a ticked-off goddess). There are ambitious effect sequences and an interesting experiment: the beast-man Calibos is an actor in close shots, and an animated creature in longer shots; an effect managed with editing as I recall. More money was spent, there were big names in the cast, and Harryhausen had a little more help in his animation studio. 

My main memory is that the effects were nifty, and the usual Harryhausen vibe was there under the glitzier trimmings. What I wonder is, how much of their usual control did he and Schneer give up to make their exit with a would-be blockbuster? 

As late shows go, it can be counted as a happy ending. Harryhausen did better and more memorable films, but COTT was a showy final bow and presumably a nice bundle for retirement. And after a lifetime of painstaking stop-motion work he spent his remaining years as a beloved elder statesman to the now somewhat-glamorous special effects industry, taking bows and at some point doing a heroic sculpture of Dr. David Livingstone, an ancestor of his wife. Better than going out on the frankly minor Sinbads, and probably better than trying to compete with his own proteges and/or CGI.

Donald Benson

The Sunday Intertitle: Death Match 1,000,000 BC

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , on May 12, 2019 by dcairns

Hilariously delicate design for this intertitle from the Super-8 release of DINOSAURUS, a title I always pronounce to rhyme with “rhinoceros.” Try it, it’ll make you smile!

Why do I own a video copy of the Super-8 version of DINOSAURUS (remember, emphasis on the NOS)? Or any version at all? I don’t know. Why does a T-Rex have such tiny arms?

I have mixed feelings about this movie’s mixed-up special effects. It alternates between stop-motion animation and puppetry. This makes a kind of sense, arguably, with the two techniques being used whenever one or the other is easier or cheaper or more effective. You can rig a glove puppet or rod puppet to drool, for instance, whereas animating the lizard spittle would be a long and thankless task (well, *I’d* thank you, but you probably didn’t get into this business for my gratitude alone). Even the great Ray Harryhausen did a version of this alternation, in CLASH OF THE TITANS, where the character of Calibos is played by Neil McCarthy in close-up, because actors are better at face acting, and by an animated figurine in wide shot, because those guys are way better at having goat legs. (Goat legs and Frank Tuttle are the unconscious theme of the blog this week –see how many occurrences YOU can spot).

CLASH OF THE TITANS is very much like THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, only with hircine extremities.

But switching FX techniques in mid-roar can be distracting. If the object of the exercise is to fool us (“Trick photography” was my parent’s set answer for any whiny Land of the Giants-inspired “How did they do that?” inquisitions) then we’re not fooled anyway. If the object is to be artistic, animation is the way to go. Puppetry, of course, can be a wonderful art, but I can’t think of many monsters done that way who didn’t feel tacky compared to the magestic creatures (not monsters, mustn’t call them that) of Ray H.