Starring Ray Harryhausen and his incredible creations
Directed by Gilles Penso
Distributed by Arrow Video
To excel in a craft is difficult enough, but to be seen as the definitive person in your chosen sector is truly impressive – especially so if you can do it in entertainment. Ray Harryhausen was that kind of person. When you consider the craftsmanship, dedication, creativity, and cinematic magic he delivered over the course of his 30-plus-year career, it is nothing short of astonishing.
Much like the late legend Stan Winston, or Harryhausen’s mentor and idol Willis O’Brien, Ray’s work has withstood the test of time – and it will – because it inspires something CGI cannot: awe. There will never be a moment in time when some little kid isn’t watching a Harryhausen creature on screen and loving every second. Nearly every sci-fi & fantasy film, and every creature contained within those films, owes a debt of gratitude to Ray’s work. He was one of a kind: a visionary of immense talent, the likes of which may never be see again. His brilliance cannot be overstated.
It can, however, be a tad redundant; and that’s my main criticism of Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2011). Filmmaker Gilles Penso has assembled a feature replete with the biggest names in the business – Spielberg, Cameron, Jackson, Gilliam, del Toro, Burton, Landis, Bradbury, the list goes on – all of whom are gushing like fanboys when discussing their favorite Harryhausen creatures and features. Many of these filmmakers owe their career to Ray’s work; it was sitting in a dark theater and seeing his stop-motion magic being projected onto the screen that kindled the spark. Nearly everyone interviewed cites Harryhausen’s special effects as catalyzing their desire to work in movies.
Superlatives can only go so far, though, and eventually this film becomes little more than a series of glad-handing interviews with very little anecdotal information or trivia. You can only hear someone say “I love how Ray did this” or “This film greatly influenced my own pictures” before it starts to feel stale. Hollywood types all tend to speak the same language – their mouths do a lot of moving, but they say almost nothing. Substance is often surface deep; that’s just the nature of the business, and most of the talking heads here retain that status quo.
Where this doc does succeed is in drawing parallels between the works of Harryhausen and contemporary films made by those who idolized him. Whether minor moments – such as the movements of a bug in Starship Troopers (1997) or dinosaur design cues seen in Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) – or major inspirations – such as how the titular beast in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1955) directly inspired the creation of Godzilla. The reach of Ray’s inspiration is global, affecting film markets in every corner of the globe still to this day.
In addition to showcasing how Harryhausen has influenced everyone and everything, the other main draw here is Ray himself. Listening to the man cover his entire career – and I mean ALL of it – is an unequaled treat. There are those who incorrectly think Ray’s first feature credit was King Kong (1933); it wasn’t, but the film was the reason he sought work in the field of special effects. From there, Ray covers everything – working with his idol, Willis O’Brien, on Mighty Joe Young (1949); his early efforts producing stop-motion fairytales; making monsters; unrealized projects; unexpected failures. For fans of Harryhausen, this kind of career-spanning coverage is bliss. So much so, in fact, that often times you’ll wish the other famous faces would go away so the film can focus solely on Ray’s discussions. He knows all the ins and outs of these productions, and unsurprisingly his comments are the most salient in the film.
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan has its heart in the right place, and although it can drag at times there aren’t any flat-out dull moments. A little tighter edit could’ve made this a better picture. Still, you aren’t going to do any better if you want to hear all the details on where Ray started, every single thing he created, and the legacy he has left behind. If the film isn’t enough, Arrow’s Blu-ray release is loaded with bonus features.
Don’t expect this to be some shiny new documentary, like the new pieces Scream Factory produces. This film was released in 2011, but the interview footage has been spliced in from dozens of different sources. No two interviews look alike. Sometimes the quality is poor – which, unfortunately, is basically all of Ray’s stuff – while others look clean as a whistle. Having said all of that, the 1.78:1 1080p picture does get to show off when film clips and older 35mm footage is presented. There are clear indications this is an HD image, just don’t expect it to look impressive.
Audio comes in the form of an English LPCM uncompressed 2.0 stereo track. This film is 95% interviews. All of the dialogue sounds clear enough to hear what the participants are saying. There is some scoring but it is minimal. No issues were detected during playback. Subtitles are available in English SDH.
In addition to an audio commentary with the filmmakers, the disc also includes a handful of additional interviews, a dozen interview outtakes, a “Message to Ray” from some of the interviewees, almost a dozen deleted scenes, a couple of international Q&A sessions with the filmmakers, and the trailer.
The best features are those related to Ray (shocker), including “A Treasure Trove”, which is basically one of those lame unboxing videos but this time they’re unboxing Ray’s old maquettes, models, and armatures; “On the Set of Sinbad” features actual footage from behind the scenes of the 1958 epic, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad; finally, a “Ray Harryhausen Trailer Reel” features nine trailers for some of Ray’s best-known films.
As with many Arrow Video releases, the cover art is reversible. Both of them are pretty awesome; you can’t go wrong.
- London Gate Theater Q&A
- On the set of Sinbad
- Paris Cinematheque Q&A
- Deleted Scenes
- A message to Ray
- 12 Interview outtakes with Joe Dante, John Lasseter, Nick Park and more!
- Interviews with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Peter Lord, Rick Baker
- Audio commentary with the filmmakers
- Original Trailer
- Ray Harryhausen Trailer Reel