Archive for Ray Harryhausen

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.

You don’t know Jack

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on December 27, 2017 by dcairns

This is a magnificently awful thing.

JACK THE GIANT KILLER is a terrible film already, a cynical and actionable rip-off of Ray Harryhausen’s classic THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, with pretty much every set-piece, character and story point duplicated in an inferior way (it even casts the same actors as hero and villain).

But in the seventies, it was decided to turn it into a musical. Not by remaking it, like HAIRSPRAY or HIGH SOCIETY. Not by filming new musical numbers and cutting them into the original, like… no film ever, that I can think of, though I daresay it must have been attempted sometime. Tip-offs on this subject received with interest. No, the geniuses responsible simply wrote songs that could be dubbed onto the film, turning existing dialogue into lyrics and repeating shots in order to turn simple statements (“We have failed, master!”) into choruses.

Yes, this song appears to be called, “We Have Failed, Master,” and a more fitting title could hardly be imagined, unless it were “What Were We Thinking?” or “We Are the Stupid Men.”

We’ve all seen failed musicals where the songs caused the plot to grind to a halt. But we’ve never seen that concept literalized so spectacularly, with shots going magically into Cocteauesque reverse, and recurring on seemingly infinite GROUNDHOG DAY loops, in order to accommodate the musical styling of Mr. Moose Harlap Charlap. Yes, his name is Moose Harlap Charlap. Not actually the world’s worst songwriter, if you caught him on a good day. But with a tendency towards being on the nose. Which, in a medieval fairy tale about giants, could be an even bigger hazard than usual.

My Musical Theater Consultant tells me that Harlap Charlap was responsible for the Peter Pan musical that Mary Martin mad such a splash in, but that it was substantially worked over by greater talents. Harlap’s chief contribution of note was the number “I’m Flying,” which gives you an idea of the way his mind works. A song in which a character flies about and sings about how they’re flying about. As does the above number, which is extraordinary in its redundancy. Two characters sing at each other about what’s going on, but nothing is going on. And they’re not really singing. And the flag is billowing in curiously repetitive motions, time suspended in a listless loop.

But this is the crowning un-glory. Director Nathan Juran rips off the skeleton fight from SEVENTH VOYAGE, a movie he’s credited with directing (with the same hero and villain actors), but which BELONGS to Ray Harryhausen. The sequence also seems to anticipate the skeleton fight in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, released the following year, with deathless warriors grown from teeth, but I am unwilling to give the makers of this ugly film any credit — they must have somehow stolen that from Ray H also, either with industrial espionage or time travel.

What ole Moose does with the music is truly appalling, and he achieves the impossible: by dubbing on a jaunty comedy track, he actually makes this cheap-ass sequence disturbing.