Weekend Retrospective - A Wizard Did It


There are a vast number of fine old school movies to sit through on a miserable wet Sunday afternoon. But even today it remains a treat to watch a few of the swashbuckling adventure stories that feature the creations of effects wizard, artist, and all round genius Ray Harryhausen. Harry who? I recall asking as a youngster -- but realising it was the classic film with the Cyclops battling a fire breathing dragon, I would undoubtedly spend the next few hours being mesmerised.

For one reason or another the realistic look of physical models and maquettes hooked me instantly, the kind of movement, the detail and textures. He worked in a recognisable kind of personality to even the most brutal monsters, imbuing them with real character. This style of hand animated effect has great appeal to me, a lasting charm. In some ways I kind of feel bad for the directors involved, but it's also great to know that an artist got such recognition. They remain his films in the memory of anyone reminiscing about this stuff.

It's always funny seeing the hyperbole offered in the opening credits or on the posters for these sort of features. A 'miracle' they call it, with all kinds of extravagant brand terms being included. It's clearly a big sales pitch, but perhaps they're right. It feels appropriate whether they use the increasingly outlandish terms like 'Dynamation', 'SuperDynaMation' or 'Dynarama'.

There's an obvious look to most of the effects shots as they a composite of two layers of film, combining the the live action elements with the animated characters. However much of it remains very mysterious. 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, the creatures become more complex. A sword fight against a single skeleton becomes a whole melee. The fantastical monsters get more arms or more heads as things progress.

In the first of Ray's features made in colour, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, it's also so impressive how much charm some of the creatures have. Taking cues from the alien in 20 Million Miles to Earth rather than earlier creations like the sea monster in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms they are made more sympathetic, despite their violent natures. A wounded Cyclops seems so irritated by getting hit with a spear or by having his treasure box raided. There's an expressive quality to the animation which goes beyond the basic materials that each model is made from. They are truly brought to life through painstaking work and artistry.

Removing all of this relatability from the antagonists has another effect; they become far more menacing. The living statues Talos in Jason and the Argonauts and Kali from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad have no moving facial features at all, and they become infinitely creepier because of it. They're now totally emotionless, inviting us to perceive a cold meanness and a ruthless attitude. This divide in character types, between those which are straight up horror creatures and those which are more like real animals or personalities is a lot of fun to see in action.

The final culmination of all these ideas combines both of these approaches. The last film of its kind, Clash of the Titans includes the most impressive creation, Medusa the Gorgon. It's a kind of magnum opus moment that includes animal movement, deadly magical powers and a real sense of dread. It's also a masterclass in lighting effects in animation with really tense pacing that all comes together to emphasise the creepy design work. It's real movie magic. 

The acting may be endlessly hammy in some of these pictures, whether they were made in the 1950s or the 1970s. The hair styles along often betray the ancient fantasy worlds, showing us the period that they were produced in - just look at the evolution of Sinbad actors between films. Or the changes as beards and afros become fashionable. The accents used can also be pretty bad, as they range from your typically theatrical British voices for Greek stories or those attempts to suggest characters from Arabic lands, while others are simply American.

The human element itself is never the main appeal, but there are plenty of good appearances along the way from the likes of Tom Baker, Nigel Green and Maggie Smith. Elsewhere some of the other visual effects techniques may be pretty dated, and the plots are usually simple quest adventures. But it makes them no less entertaining and impressive considering their age. They're never just the sum of these parts, and it all adds to the fun.

Although has legacy is diminished or even slightly over shadowed by the advent of modern computer graphics, but as a product of their time they are second to none. 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. Just imagine the kind of techniques that might have been achieved if the old methods got a second wind, in the same way Disney animation enjoyed a renaissance in the 1990s. It would have really been something to see.

Ray Harryhausen's imagination and skill levels are unlikely to get old any time soon after so many years of repeat viewings, but I hope they stand up for any potential new audiences. I recommend taking a look at his work on paper, as his ideas and plans before building any sculptures is just as impressive (a lavish book of illustrations, concepts, and more is available here).

It's rather fitting that the best examples of his cinematic projects are all stories about ancient mythology, full of genies in bottles, strange creatures and undiscovered continents. These kinds of adventures have themselves become cinema legend. His use of animation is itself a kind of big screen sorcery. They will always be time to revisit mysterious islands, regions inhabited by lost cultures, and far flung lands on the edge of the world.