When one thinks of stop motion animation, industry legend Ray Harryhausen (alongside, for Brits at least, Aardman’s Nick Park) would probably be the first name that springs to mind. Responsible for influencing some of the biggest fantasy filmmaking names in the business – and even immortalised by a specially-named café in 2001’s Monsters, Inc. – Harryhausen was responsible for some of the most wondrous spectaculars ever committed to celluloid. Spanning the dawn of time all the way through to humankind’s future space exploration, one thing remained consistent: it was Harryhausen who was regarded as the auteur – not his director(s).
Directed by Gilles Penso, Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2011) takes a rather structurally unremarkable – though undoubtedly watchable – chronological journey through the acclaimed animator’s remarkable career, from first feature Might Joe Young (1949) all the way through the much-aped Greek epic, Clash of the Titans (1981). Never one to decline a challenge, Harryhausen consistently pushed the envelope of visual effects, creating his own bespoke armatures (with the aid of his supportive parents) for almost every type of fantastical creature imaginable.
Thanks to this incredible legacy, the likes of James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg found the inspiration that would ultimately lead to their own ascent as modern masters of the Hollywood blockbuster. The aforementioned all provide glowing testimonies as to Harryhausen’s monumental impact, with some – Cameron, especially – going as far as to draw direct comparisons between their own creations and some of Ray’s greatest hits. Whilst certain interviewees provide precious little in terms of expert input (Guillermo Del Toro is remarkably limp when questioned about movie monsters), Penso’s one-on-one interviews with Harryhausen himself at his personal residence are as insightful as they are inspirational.
Incorporating choice cuts from such creature feature classics as Gojira forerunner The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and fan favourite Jason and the Argonauts, Penso’s Special Effects Titan is nothing if not deeply reverential to its charming subject. Whilst the doc doesn’t feel quite as definitive as it could have done – due, perhaps, to the duration spent with the film’s high profile quest contributors rather than Ray and his contemporaries – this is a great starting point for those looking for an introduction to stop motion’s finest exponents.
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