Weekend Retrospective - A Wizard Did It


There are a lot of fine old school movies to sit through on a miserable wet Sunday afternoon, but it remains a treat to see some of the swashbuckling adventure stories that feature the creations of effects genius Ray Harryhausen, a great loss to film fans who passed away in 2013. Harry who? I seem to remember asking this as a youngster - but realising it was that film with the cyclops in it the deal was sealed for a few hours transfixed before the television. The realistic look of physical puppets hooked me instantly, the level of movement and detail. I kind of feel bad for the directors involved but in a way it's also pretty cool to know that an artist like this got such recognition; they are his films in the memory of anyone reminiscing about this stuff. It's funny seeing all the hyperbole in the opening credits or the posters for them, a "miracle" they called it - but it feels right I guess whether they use the term "Dynamation", "SuperDynaMation" or "Dynarama". This style of hand animated effect has great appeal to me, a kind of lasting charm.

Despite the obvious look of shots that feature two layers of film; the live action and the animated characters, much of it remains very mysterious in it's methods as I watch them - there must be so much time and effort involved in sequences that become more and more elaborate in each film. The lighting gets more interesting, a sword fight with a single skeleton becomes a whole melee, and the monsters get more arms or heads as things progress. Watching The 7th Voyage of Sinbad - the first made in colour - it's also so impressive how much charm and personality some of the creatures have. A wounded cyclops seems so irritated by getting hit with a spear or having his treasure stolen, the expressive quality of the animation goes beyond the basic materials that each model is made from and brings them to life. Removing this completely has another effect - moving statues like Talos in Jason and the Argonauts and Kali from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad have no moving facial features at all, and become infinitely creepier because of it. They are cold and emotionless. The divide between which ones are straight horror creatures and which are more like real characters is a lot of fun to see in action. The final culmination of this uses both though - the last film and in many ways the most impressive creation, Medusa from Clash of the Titans. A masterclass in lighting, tense pacing and creepy design. Real magic. 

The acting may be endlessly hammy in some of these pictures, the hair and the accents are bad, and as I mentioned the double exposure techniques are dated, yes the plots are usually simple quest stories; but it makes them no less entertaining and impressive considering their age. Ray's imagination and skill levels are unlikely to get old any time soon after so many years (I recommend getting his book of illustrations and concepts here) and though his legacy is diminished slightly by modern computer graphics I can always get into a movie sequence with some stop motion, go-motion, or classic dynamation. I would have liked to see the originally conceived version of Jurassic Park, without the CGI. It's fitting that the best of his projects are all about ancient Greece, genies in bottles or undiscovered continents. Stories about myth have become cinema legend, the animation is on-screen sorcery. Now if you'll excuse me, it's getting dark outside and I have a date with The Mysterious Island...