The advent of DVD extras has, I think, cost a toll on entertainment documentaries. I’ve seen reviews that refer to serious documentaries on movies, like Man of La Mancha, as “extended DVD extras.” At the same time, this overrates most DVD extra documentaries and underrates the hard work documentarians can put into crafting a real film on an entertainment industry subject.
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan is a movie about the stop-motion and general special effects pioneer behind numerous beloved creature features of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. It’s also a film that has a point of view, both on its subject and on the subjects he raises, and it spends its time exploring all of it in depth. It’s a real documentary, not a 60-minute biography TV show. For instance, it lacks the “word of God” narrator that tells the audience what to think about what we’re seeing. It is definitely an editorial, not a simple rehashing of facts, but being an editorial it is lively and interesting.
The main subject is, of course, the man in the title. Ray Harryhausen fell in love with King Kong (like so many filmmakers did) and was obsessed with how the effects in the film were made. He started by creating marionettes, but when that wasn’t satisfactory he spent time trying to contact the man who made the effects in King Kong possible, Willis O’Brien. (In one of the special features, one of the documentarians describes, breathlessly, how he found an old Harryhausen diary where he’d marked the exact day that he actually got to meet O’Brien. From his excitement, it was clear these filmmakers adored their subject.)
After some various pit stops (including WWII) Harryhausen began making his own films. Nominally, he was the special effects director on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and others. In truth, he was the author of these films, coaching the directors and writers with his illustrations, and being on set himself to act in place of his stop-motion creations for the actors who had nothing to act against.
Special Effects Titan goes into detail on how Harryhausen’s creations were brought to life, but it goes deeper than that. While the film follows a basic chronological format, going through each of Harryhausen’s films as it happened, they intersperse the clips and reminiscence with discussions by contemporary filmmakers of Harryhausen’s artistry, the technology available at the time, and the emotional effect of practical effects versus modern digital work.
This film is not a polemic against modernity and digital effects (a polemic, I must admit, this reviewer would probably support enthusiastically.) Rather, it is a discussion about what an individual artist can achieve, as opposed to the mass produced work of a corporation. Up until the end, Ray Harryhausen was the sole special effects worker on his films, and nearly all of his completed works were first takes. He had no ability to view his work in progress, nor the money or time to do multiple passes. The results, to my eyes, are magical. His creatures breathe, and move with an internal sort of life. His metal and latex creations were his tools for acting, and they created real performances in his many films. Modern films can have hundreds, even thousands of people in the credits creating their digital worlds. Harryhausen was mostly a solo act (It’s telling, I think, that one movie where he required several assistants, Clash of the Titans, was the last movie he worked on. Lone wolfs aren’t always happy in company, even if they’re the leader of the pack.)
James Cameron in an interview claims that Harryhausen would use digital tools if he was working today. Other special effects mavens interviewed are skeptical of the proposition, and the notion that has been floating in my own head for a number of years is regularly brought up in interviews with the cream of the modern special effects crop in this doc: the current regime of CGI may make anything possible, but in being a uniform solution it has worked to kill the collective imagination of the audience. A moving tactile model has a different emotional resonance than pixels on the screen. Light hits that puppet. The brain has unsimulated cues to find a reality in the unreal.
One needn’t be precious or nostalgic to find the modern crop of special effects movies enervating (oddly named, now, because those common effects just ain’t all that special.) There’s plenty of crap in practical effects. No matter how you slice it, the giant carrot at the end if It Conquered the World will never be scary. But that doesn’t mean that the near photo-realism of CGI is inherently preferable. When the question of “How did they do that?” is universally answered with 200 computer jockeys sitting at desks, how ever talented, how ever artistic their endeavor, it’s still a magician explaining his tricks in the blandest way possible.
Special Effects Titan was also a low budget production, with the music composed by one of the producers, and all of the numerous major motion picture clips donated by the copyright holders (the filmmakers seem stunned by the only occasionally coerced generosity of the major studios, when Ray Harryhausen’s name was involved.) It is composed mostly of talking head interviews, interspersed with clips from Harryhausen’s movies and the later movies he inspired (including Jurassic Park, Army of Darkness, and Starship Troopers.) As an exploration of one man’s films, it’s a good primer. It made me want to watch or rewatch Harryhausen’s movies, to re-experience his unsmooth, unrealistic, completely alive animation. More than that, though, it offered a comparison between an older era of movie making and the modern computer graphic landscape, and leaves us with the question of whether progress is, actually, a move forward. In short, it’s not a glorified DVD extra. This is a proper, stimulating documentary on its extraordinary subject.
While the movie is not a DVD extra, there are plenty of extras on this 2016 Arrow Blu-ray release. There are interviews that were not in the movie with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Peter Lord, and Rick Baker. Several interviews from the movie are available in extended form (an hour long extra), along with 10 minutes of deleted scenes, a couple of informative Q&As from the film’s release in 2011, a full commentary on the film by the filmmakers and producers. The film itself is a mix of differently sourced materials, some of which are clearly not full HD, but I find that easily forgivable since this is an informative, rather than an immersive production. Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan is definitely a specialist’s documentary, but to anyone with even a cursory interest in the subject, it’s a must see.