Archive for Mighty Joe Young

Ray Away Day

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2010 by dcairns

I can’t name everybody in this snap, but Ray is the very tall one at the back… also the one sitting down in front. John Landis, who did a fine job as MC, deploying every fibre of his weapons-grade affability, is at far left. Our esteemed host, Randy Cook, is behind the man in the green jacket (who is a big famous FX guy also). Peter Jackson, who jetted over specially, is behind Ray. Ray’s daughter is at far right, and beyond her are some very important people indeed but they’re not in the photograph.

So — through circumstances I would have to call miraculous, Fiona and I got to be guests of Randall William Cook, a special effects man and friend of Ray Harryhausen, at the event honouring Mr. H. upon the successful completion of his ninetieth year. I’ve been meaning to interview Randy, a regular Shadowplayer, for some time. I’d read his amazing CV on the IMDb, but hadn’t quite processed how significant his work has been. Where it lists him as visual effects supervisor on the LORD OF THE RINGS films, I’d thought “Wow. Still, I bet they have about eighteen of those.” But Randy was in charge of all the animation, including Fiona’s hero Gollum and her brother’s favourite the giant spider. I am impressed.

I saw two movies at the Film Fest on Friday, THE SQUEEZE (seventies retrospective) and RESTREPO (modern documentary about Afghan war) then hit the sack. We got up at four, made it to the airport by taxi and bus, and then found our flight delayed. This was kind of OK because it meant less hanging around London in the very early hours with nothing to do. We flew in on one of British Airways trained pteradons (“So old it’s new” goes the slogan) and shopped and rested until the big evening. Meeting Randy we then attempted to navigate the concrete labyrinth of the BFI Southbank, an Escher-like structure that seems to fold back on itself. Randy had unfortunately sprained his throat on some whisky the night before and was nursing an Ymir-sized uvula, but his good spirits never flagged. He was yanked away to prepare for the ceremony and we ate.

Taking our seats, we found ourselves behind the geniuses of Aardman Animation and next to Simon Pegg and Reece Shearsmith. It was fun listening to them go through their programme like little kids. When we weren’t doing the same.

What a fine show it was. Ray, expecting a typical Q&A, was surprised to be greeted by celebrity guests and video tributes from the likes of Frank Darabont, Guillermo Del Toro, John Lassiter, James Cameron… Steven Spielberg did his usual extemporaneous gibberish thing, something about a superhighway made of dirt… but the affection and enthusiasm were absolutely genuine. George Lucas made some remark about “the Melies brothers” which suggests he should brush up on his film history… but all these guys were certainly dedicated students of Harryhausen’s oeuvre. I can quibble with the phrasing, but both Spielberg and Lucas latched onto the idea that Ray’s work is part of a continuum stretching back to the origins of cinema, with his own work for Willis O’Brien on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG forging a crucial link with the past. O’Brien started in 1915 and Harryhausen has carried on his legacy and inspired this amazing roomful of people.

The most moving testimony came from Ray’s contemporary and namesake, Ray Bradbury, who spoke of their love and friendship which has endured since early youth. Boldly he urged Harryhausen on to age 100, with himself, slightly younger, following close behind. Nonagenarian artists are subject to the same rules and conditions as the rest of humanity — it’s only via they’re work, if beautiful enough, that they get a free pass to immortality — but I hope they both go on forever.

In person, the animators and effects guys made the best showing. Phil Tippett led the audience in a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday, then repeated the song in a short film in which one of “It’s” six tentacles crushed him to jelly before he could finish a verse. And there was much rejoicing. Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh, who completed Ray’s THE STORY OF “THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE” were there also, sworn to secrecy about which 8 seconds Ray contributed. Rick Baker, his impressive silver ponytail resembling more and more the tail of Pegasus, joined his buddy Landis on stage to pay tribute to the monster master who inspired them both.

When Cairney met Cairns.

The acting community showed their affection via Caroline Munro, still fabulously glamorous, and Gary Raymond and John Cairney spoke with moving nostalgia and affection of being chased across a golden beach by an invisible giant bronze statue. Cairney, a native of Glasgow, was the man I had to speak to afterwards. We formed a nice little Scottish enclave, myself, Fiona, John, and Ray’s son-in-law who hails from Killiekrankie and wore his kilt (a good fashion option in the sweltering heat of the concrete shoebox that is the NFT’s green room.

Reading Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, it was interesting to hear him acknowledge the influence of the Korda THIEF OF BAGDAD. It struck me for the first time that not only did Ray deploy a Pegasus and a Kali statue that comes to life in his work, but that Talos, who squashes John Cairney under his big bronze body in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, is following in the outsized footsteps of Rex Ingram as the Genie of the Lamp. Cinema really is a continuum… everybody who participates is part of it… it’s just that if you’re a tireless genius who reaches the age of ninety and inspires several generations of artists, you stake out a somewhat larger part of it than the rest of us.

Catchphrase of the evening: “We are all the children of the hydra’s teeth!”

Peter Jackson jetted in to pay homage, and screened his own childhood attempts at Harryhausen magic. His stop-motion cyclops didn’t quite measure up to the master’s, but was screened in all humility and humour. His skeleton fight got the best laughs of the evening. “I knew you were supposed to put the skeletons in afterwards, so I filmed myself fighting… but then I couldn’t figure out how to do that. So I’m fighting an invisible skeleton.”

Insights into the Harryhausen process were fascinating and funny. The image of Ray running about with a drawing of an eye on the end of a very long stick, to give the actors something to look at, is an indelible one. It’s something I would like to try myself, in private life. With or without the excuse of making a film.

We also picked up a booklet featuring tributes to Ray from sundry other parties, including actors Martine Beswick (ONE MILLION YEARS BC), Douglas Wilmer (JASON and GOLDEN VOYAGE) and Honor Blackman (JASON). Here’s what the relentlessly sexy Honor says:

“I think of Ray more as a magician than as a man of immense imagination and a brilliant technician. There we were, we thespians, acting our socks off in the ordinary world while he was holed up in his studio of magic, weaving his spells, hoping that we were all doing him justice.

I couldn’t possibly have imagined that forty-odd years later this classic, Jason and the Argonauts, would be enthralling not just youngsters but all ages, generation after generation. It was such a bang watching my very small grandchildren glued to the screen and sudden cries of ‘There’s Nonna’! Then they turn to look at you and can’t quite work it out. To be truthful, I think they recognise my voice rather than my person since (this is tongue in cheek) I don’t wear my hair like that now!

The location in Italy was great, as was dear Don Chaffey, our director, and I really fancied the idea of sitting up on high with Niall MacGinnis controlling the events on earth: my children tell me it was the role I was best suited to!

To have my bust sculpted (I use the term in the artistic sense) for the figurehead on the prow of the ship, the Argo, I was laid on a table in just my bra – above the waist – told to throw my arms backwards and raise my front off the table as far as I could while they took photos from all angles. It took ages. I wonder what happened to those photographs? Do you think they’ll turn up on eBay one day or might we find them in that wicked Ray Harryhausen’s bottom drawer?”

Well, we did learn from Ray’s daughter that he never throws anything away…

Also in attendance: Terry Gilliam, Andy Serkis, Edgar Wright, modelmakers, animators, paleontologists, deep thinkers and Sir Christopher Professor Frayling himself. And a host of others. “Obie” O’Brien, safely nestled in Kong’s palm, looked down from on high.

My own primal Harryhausen memories relate to TV viewings of JASON and 7TH VOYAGE. The TV show Screen Test used to show the Talos scene quite often, or else it would turn up elsewhere. At any rate, I remember tiny me hiding from the big monster on numerous occasions. Gradually working up the courage to watch a little more each time… Randy reports his own tiny daughter approaches monsters and scary stuff with similar caution. You want to build up a tolerance gradually… And once I channel-hopped between VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (a boring, non-Harryhausen movie) and 7TH VOYAGE, because stuff like the cyclops was just too scary for me. In fact, it took a lot of courage to get close enough to the TV, in those pre-remote-control, black-and-white set days, to actually turn the channel and get the giant goat-legged man-eater out of the room.

Later, I saw SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER on the big screen, where it blew away upstarts like THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT and AT THE EARTH’S CORE and all those Godzilla double-features we cheered through as kids. (Ray not only provided the spark for Godzilla himself, with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, an atomically-activated dinosaur, he introduced the giant monster fight scenario with the Ymir battling an elephant in 20,000,000 MILES TO EARTH, thus keeping the Japanese film biz afloat, with a single big idea, for decades.) And CLASH OF THE TITANS brought the Greek myths I’d enjoyed at school to life in an accessible way. A little campy, still a little scary, a lot of fun. And Fiona was enjoying those same movies on their first runs up in Dundee, all ready to compare notes when we’d eventually meet.

At WETA in New Zealand they scanned Ray’s entire body, and produced this perfect bronze miniature Harryhausen (just the right size to ride an eohippus), now the proud possession of John Landis.

For UK readers, here are two awesome books on Ray’s life and art:

Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life

The Art of Ray Harryhausen

And for US readers:

The Art of Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life

Once more, Twenty Million Thanks to Randy!

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The fur problem

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on June 28, 2008 by dcairns

So, at the Ray Harryhausen In Person event we got to ask questions, and I had fortunately thought one up. I knew the story about KING KONG and the fur problem. Animator Willis H. O’Brien (Obie) made a test reel for the 1933 KONG and was very nervous about the results because he had encountered a problem with the gorilla puppet — Kong’s fur got moved about by Obie’s fingers manipulating the puppet, so that when the film was run, although the figure moved in a lifelike-for-1933 way (everything was jerkier back then — look at Herbert Hoover) the fur shimmered and flickered about, betraying the impression of the animators fingertips. Obie showed the footage to producer Merian C. Cooper, fearing the worst.

But Cooper was delighted — “You even got his fur rippling in the breeze!”

In later films with animated furry creatures, like MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, on which Harryhausen did most of the animation, with Obie as supervisor, the fur does NOT ripple to the same extent. So I asked, “How did you solve the fur problem?” I presumed there WAS an answer…

“Unborn calf skin,” said Ray H. It seems that while Kong was coated with rabbit fur, which is very fine, later apes and other shaggy beasts got unborn calf skin, which is even finer and has a natural tendency to spring back into place, and could be rubberized. Also, Harryhausen would operate the puppets mainly from the back to minimise visible alteration of the fur.

It’s a little grisly, but now we know.

Puny Humans

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2008 by dcairns

Danger Island

It’s a real problem, the human characters in giant monster movies. They’re nearly always boring. KING KONG is the exception, as with so many things — in all three versions of KK, the humans are a bit more interesting than they absolutely need to be. The less-is-more economy and pace of the first film make it the winner, of course. Quasi-sequel MIGHTY JOE YOUNG also does OK — Robert Armstrong is even more ebullient and explosive than he is in KK. A shame he never played anything Shakespearian on screen. What do you think: Lear? Macbeth?

The ’70s KONG has Jeff Bridges as a sort of more passionate and committed version of the Dude from THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and Jessica Lange playing the character who’s most like herself (slightly dippy blonde actress). The Jackson version has lots of “characterisation”, but doesn’t really understand the basic principle of characterisation through action, which is a bit of a shame since it’s an action film. For example, Adrien Brody is a writer. Yet, once the drama starts (an hour in) he acts exactly like Indiana Jones. I accept that we might need him to be slightly more physical than, say, Truman Capote, but what’s the point of all that set-up if you’re just going to forget it once the running and jumping starts?

Similarly, Jamie Bell is established as a kid who’s never fired a gun in his life, yet soon he’s shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates with the skill of a veritable Lee Harvey Oswald (ah, if only L.H.O. had confined his marksmanship to shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates, how different the political scene might be today).

(I remember seeing the DJ-musician Moby introduce a GODZILLA movie on TV, with the words, “As kids, we were very keen on monster movies, because the alternative seemed to be movies without monsters, and who would want that?”)

I love Ray Harryhausen’s work (he’s coming to the Edinburgh Film Festival — we’ve bought our tickets), but few of his films manage to create endearing human characters to compare to the little rubber guys. The great Lionel Jeffries in THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is one (and that film is probably the best film qua filmof Harryhausen’s oevre) and Raquel Welch certainly makes her presence felt in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. but I’m not sure that’s anything to do with characterisation. I think she’s there to make the dinosaurs look more life-like by comparison. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is jam-packed with fascinating thesps, from Nigel Green to Niall McGinnis, and they’re always welcome, but they don’t make much impact as human beings, since their dialogue is a bit stiff and their scenes feel like between-monster padding. Harryhausen’s last opus, CLASH OF THE TITANS, populates Olympus with an improbable throng of thesps (Olivier & Andress! Maggie Smith and Pat Roach!) but they have little of the snazziness James Woods brings to the role of Hades in the Disney HERCULES — the high-water mark of Greek god impersonation in Hollywood cinema.

In a lot of monster attack films, like WAR OF THE WORLDS, the heroes, being unable to do meaningful battle with an enemy so much bigger than themselves, are reduced to running around helplessly and speculating about what might be going on. Spielberg’s version actually gets around this for most of its running time by putting the protagonist and his family in a lot of very dangerous situations, but he comes a cropper on the ending, in which the Earth is saved no thanks to Tom Cruise.

Actually, if we accept JAWS as a monster movie, which I suggest we have to, Spielberg and his writers deserve a bit of credit for serving up engaging, if 2D, characters who actually occupy far more screen time than the sea beast. Of course, his three leading men are very watchable anyway.

I’m going to throw in a mention of TREMORS as well, since that has enjoyable, affable lead characters also. Why is this so hard as soon as a monster rears its head? I suppose these films typically didn’t attract the best actors, as much of the budget went on special effects. And the directors were usually ex-designers, photographers and special effects men themselves, rather than “actors’ directors”. And the writers? Science fiction is full of authors whose ability to deal with wild ideas outstrips their ability to deal with human conversation, so that could be part of it. KRONOS has some decent ideas, but flat characterisation. Imagine a giant monster movie written by Harold Pinter. That would be GREAT. Giant lizard feet could trample Buckingham Palace during the pauses.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH THE SEA MONSTER, which we watched recently, suffers the same problems of boring scientists and passive protagonists. The film is the work of art director Eugene Lourie, who turned director and gave the world this thing and also GORGO, a man-in-a-suit monster movie much loved for its plot twist of the even larger mummy monster coming to rescue the baby. It’s the DUMBO of kaiju films. Oh, and he did Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, “suggested by” Ray Bradbury’s great pulp-poetry story The Fog Horn, which my mum told me about when I was little, sparking my imagination wonderfully (thanks mum!) and THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, which to my regret I haven’t seen.

The monster in BEHEMOTH is another of those radioactive dinosaurs, whose sinister emanations have the effect of turning bystanders into drawings of skeletons. Nasty stuff, that radiation.

The only human element in the film is Jack MacGowran, an actor incapable of being uninteresting for a second or of underplaying for a frame. Here he’s on good form, having not yet succumbed to the bottle altogether. By the time of Peter Brook’s glum and fusty KING LEAR, MacGowran, though still somehow able to remember his lines, was quite unable to remember what they meant. Some how he still compels attention in that film and in THE EXORCIST (that “cursed movie” which supposedly claimed his life), but he’s much better when he actually knows what he’s doing. It’s such a relief when he ambles into BEHEMOTH halfway through — an eccentric showstopper, a smirking onrush of tics and mannerisms — and such a shame when he and his helicopter are subsumed by a hungry saurian just minutes later. It’s arguable that MacGowran’s thespian rampage is far more damaging to the film than the monster is to London — he makes everything seem so dull by comparison.

The behemoth is played by a glove puppet for most of the film, turning into an animated Willis H. O’Brien creation in the last ten minutes. Too little too late, though all the rampaging provides the usual fun (only kids and monsters actually rampage. Native people go on the rampage, which seems to be subtly different). And we do get a few underwater shots, which for some reason is rare in these movies.

But apart from MacGowran and the above examples, human characters in monster films still seem like an endangered species.

I guess there’s always the Peanut Sisters from GODZILLA VERSUS MOTHRA. Their characterisation consisted of (a) the fact that they were very small, and (b) the fact that they were called the Peanut Sisters. Oh, and I think they sang a song.

That’s more than can be said for Tom Cruise.