Thursday, 26 October 2006

Epic monsters and hideously dull tiny adjustments - the movies of Ray Harryhausen

by Edwin Hesselthwite

“He opened a door on darkness, a voice cried - shut it!”

The first line of Tyrannosaurus Rex by Ray Bradbury

“Tyrannosaurus Rex” is included in the Bradbury collection The Machineries of Joy, it’s a story of a special effects master bullied by studio executives finding his work in celluloid and clay tainted by the process. Like all Bradbury it's rich with style and strong characterisation - its source material is transparently Bradbury's lifelong friendship with Ray Harryhausen and Rex is clearly nostalgic for his and Willis O’Brien’s work. I had another “shit, they’re both still alive?” moment while writing this piece; Bradbury is a hero of mine and it's comforting to know that both he and Harryhausen continue to walk this Earth.

Wooden actors, clay monsters, my first childhood memory - click for trailer.

When I imagine Harryhausen at work I see a box-like workshop with spot lighting focusing on a foot high creation - Hollywood's monsters existed there as articulated steel skeletons supporting clay and silicone flesh. Romance dictates that Harryhausen must have been a smoker, like Bogart, at the time - with his cigarette clamped between his lips, he makes minute refinements to his creation's facial expression, some hideous oriental spirit, the hot lights drawing sweat from his brow.

In the field of analog special effects Harryhausen's position is unassailable. Youtube has approaching a complete collection of Harryhausen movie trailers if you need to be reminded: science fiction, dinosaurs, and epics were his stock in trade. From Mighty Joe Young (1949), his and Willis O’Brien’s follow up to King Kong, to the end of the art in Clash Of The Titans (1981) Harryhausen was Hollywood's resident genius for movies where a stop motion creation interacted with live actors. The credits on his films suggest he always worked solo, saying simply "Special Effects: Ray Harryhausen". All of these films feature more special effects than purely stop motion, in a Harryhausen movie there are always fireballs, lightening and ray gun blasts to mix up the action. There is more to this stop motion than the cartoon like work that is the domain of Nick Parks's Aardman Animations or Tim Burton, where reality and physics are compromised. Harryhausen's art was trying to make stop motion and analog film editing look genuine enough to hit an audience in the guts. Among his most famous creations is Telos, the bronze giant in Jason And The Argonauts, which has an aspect like Jim Cameron's Terminator - an unstoppable, expressionless, killing machine.

Holy American Jesus No! Space Commies - click for trailer!

Harryhausen wasn't a director, and rarely more than associate producer on his productions, so while each of his films is remembered primarily for his special effects marvels - which he needed massive directoral control in order to make successful - the rest of the film process tends to suffer. He didn't care much for script quality or sophistication (The Valley of Gwangi is completely, but charmingly, incoherent - Cowboys and Dinosaurs?), and the actors are often treated as little more than cattle. Thus, while his films feature jaw dropping stop-motion (take a look at the detail of the dinosaurs in the One Million Years B.C. trailer, it contains the definitive T.Rex meets Triceratops battle, a classic Hollywood image) it’s very difficult to take them as seriously as they deserve. Each scene represents hundreds of hours of tiny tweaks to masterpieces of clay sculpture, and a massive effort in order to get the camera and lighting for filming the live action identical to that for the animation.

Plucky Earth elephant fights Venusian scum - click for trailer!

Works in this position fascinate me; there are moments in development where technology reaches an inventive peak and then progresses down a parallel path (in this case CGI). This leaves behind achievements that will never be surpassed, works that have become redundant. There are other films before modern effects that blow you away, the 50's War Of The Worlds is jaw dropping, as is 2001 : A Space Odyssey. But these are a different sort of effects - puppets and models - not mixing actors with miniatures. Jason And The Argonauts, regarded by Harryhausen as the best film he ever did, is the pinnacle of a redundant art - stop motion's Citizen Kane. Stand it next to later analog special effects movies, such as Christopher Reeve's Superman Movies, and this film isn't outclassed at all. There's something that fills me with wonder about these movies, they are some of Hollywood's grandest attempts to put massive scale onto the movie screen. The Sinbad movies are every bit as epic as Spartacus, Ben Hur or Gladiator - just as important to defining the era of The Bomb. I intend to do a piece on a similar phenomenon soon - The Curta Calculator, the last mechanical hand calculator, but I suspect regular readers may already realise how reliable I am when it comes to fulfilling my writing plans.

So, Ray Harryhausen, eh? Rouwr!!!

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