There was a time before a computer could create any sort of creature you wanted in a film. This was a time when filmmakers had to create and physically manipulate models. This was a time that inspired filmmakers such as Peter Jackson, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg. This was the time that made Ray Harryhausen a legend of filmmaking. Read on as we dissect and critique Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan.
Ray describes his beginnings and early growth in simple and modest terms. He couldn’t find anyone to make the figures, so he learned to do it himself. He couldn’t find anyone to photograph it, so he had to learn photography for himself. With some education in graphic arts and sculpture behind him, he taught himself the rest of the pieces necessary to start making short films.
This self-education is probably what made him such an active member of the production. We learn from the interviews that he didn’t just make models and tell people what to do with them. He was on set during filming to help. He would be off camera, but on stage at times giving the actors cues on what to respond to.
The man had a vision for his models and made sure that the vision was being communicated during production. The man was more than just a simple animator. He considered himself a filmmaker and took that calling seriously in his movies. This is why many recognize the films as Harryhausen films instead of crediting the directors. This is why so many people can draw inspiration from and will give credit to his work influencing their own.
His work was so influential and so dear to filmmakers that many will go to bat for him. When making the documentary, both Steven Spielberg and James Cameron contacted the studios on behalf of the production for footage. Both of them asked the studio to release footage for the movies. James Cameron even told Fox if they couldn’t give it to the documentary, that he would cut a check. I don’t think there is much that needs to be said about the degree of his influence beyond that. Needless to say, Fox didn’t want to anger James Cameron and let them have the footage.
The documentary spends a little time in establishing how Ray got started, but spends the bulk on why he matters. We hear a lot of stories from the interviewees on what they saw in his movies and on stage; from the story of Ray on stage showing the actor where to look, to talking about how he made flying saucers show personality. The way the T-Rex in Jurassic Park consumes the lawyer was influenced by Harryhausen’s depiction of dinosaur movement.
The documentary is pretty much comprised of conversations with Harryhausen and the filmmakers who he inspired. Harryhausen is enjoyable to listen to in his own right, but I think the best part is all the people he inspired. The interviews have make up and effects artists who adore his work. Some of the interviewees are directors who have made some of the most successful and visually astonishing films.
The highlight of the film is when the directors and effects guys gush over Harryhausen’s work and how they pay homage. Joe Dante (one of my personal favorites) said that all of his practical effects are meant to pay homage to Ray’s work. Ray Bradbury even recounts how he met Harryhausen and fell in love with his work when he was still getting started.
In addition to the interviews, the documentary splices in a lot of Harryhausen’s work. The most common piece of work would be the scenes from his well-known movies. Additionally, we are treated to his original models and a lot of his original sketches for figures. These pieces are a pretty strong addition to the overwhelming list of interviewees.
Everything considered, it is a pretty decent documentary, even if it is largely a number of people just recounting their love for his work. It definitely shines a light on his influence on the medium as a whole. My only complaint is that I felt like it could have spent more time discussing his techniques or his career development. I just think that wasn’t the focus for the feature. It is really more about everybody who has been affected by his work.
Feature Itself: 3.5/5
Quality is all over the place here. Some of the segments are obviously new interviews, and these look quite good. Some of the interviews are a bit old and are not very clean or sharp. A lot of the film material is sourced from old films or trailers. The old footage looks like it could have been cleaned up, but it probably would have been more expensive than it was worth. For the material covered and the fact it is a documentary, I don’t consider it a disappointment. It is just good enough.
Picture Quality: 2/5
This is perfectly fine. The interviews pretty much all sound clean. The new interviews sound great. The old interviews sound pretty decent. The footage from films and recordings has pretty limited quality and range. Once again, it does the job and doesn’t take away from the content.
Audio Quality: 3/5
Packing and Special Features
So, we have a feature that is primarily interviews of people. What do you think we should have for extras? How about more interviews! Yeah, a large part of the extras is more interviews.
Audio Commentary: Director Gilles Penso, Producer Alexandre Poncet, Timothy Nicholson and Tony Dalton. The bulk of this feels like pleasant banter about the man between friends. There is also discussion about who would and wouldn’t release footage which led to the interesting tidbit about Cameron and Spielberg mentioned earlier.
A Treasure Trove: A look through some of the models in the Harryhausen Archives.
Interviews: Short interviews (about 3-4 minutes a piece) with Edgar Wright, Peter Lord, Rick Baker, and Simon Pegg. The guys pretty much just share their appreciation for the man and his work.
Interview Outtakes: Close to an extra hour of bits from the interviewees that were cut from the feature. You can always have more people talking about what they loved about the man’s work.
A Message to Ray: A collection of people sharing quick heartfelt statements to Ray about how much he meant to them
Deleted Scenes: To keep the pacing of the feature, these scenes were cut from the film altogether. Some include material that wasn’t copyright cleared and just cut from the scenes.
On the Set of Sinbad: Some home made footage made from the set of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad showing the cast and crew working on some scenes.
Parise Cinematheque Q&A: The crew of the documentary discusses what they were looking to accomplish with the feature and some details of its creation. Some of this is in English and some with English subtitles.
London Gate Cinema Q&A: This is a Q&A that fortunately has Harryhausen on hand with the crew to answer questions.
Trailer Reel: Trailers for much of Harryhausen’s well-known films.
Original Trailer: The promotional trailer for the documentary.
I think this is a pretty strong set of extras. The packaging is pretty typical from Arrow. Inside and outside cover art. I think both look pretty good. The only disappointment there is the lack of a booklet. You can’t win ‘em all.
Special Features and Packaging: 4/5
This documentary is a very thorough presentation of how much Ray mattered to the film world. It is less a walk through his career and more a discussion of how much he influenced, presented through conversations with well-known individuals in the industry. The supplemental features add a good bit of meat to the documentary. It is pretty much all worth a watch. The Q&As would even be enjoyable on a second watch through. The video isn’t the best throughout and the audio is somewhat limited, but we are also talking about a documentary. Things aren’t that dynamic in here to test the video or audio quality. They just stand up to the job they have.
Honestly, I think Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan is a solid package. The technical details aren’t great, but they don’t bring down the content. And the content is the star here. I do hope that Arrow will come out with a complete Harryhausen one day and this would make for a great disc to add to the films.
Final Score: 3.5/5
Note: This Blu Ray was sent to us for review. This has not affected our judgement or editorial process in any way. Please contact us if you have any questions regarding this process.