Director: Gilles Penso
Screenplay: Gilles Penso
Starring: Ray Harryhausen, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Terry Gilliam
Producer: Alexandre Poncet
Running Time: 93 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
As a young boy growing up in the 80’s, some of my very favourite films I would love to watch on TV in the UK (where they were widely circulated) were Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad films as well as Clash of the Titans and the great Jason and the Argonauts. His wonderfully detailed and stunningly well-animated stop-motion creatures thrilled and excited me throughout my pre-teen years. Nobody else did it quite like him and although the films his work featured in weren’t all that amazing, they were simple and fun enough to keep you engaged between the incredible set-pieces where his skills took centre stage.
Well the French director and producer team of Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet obviously grew up on Harryhausen’s work too and over several years have put together this affectionate tribute to one of cinema’s greatest special effects artists.
Being a fan of Harryhausen I of course really enjoyed this film. Like Corman’s World this is a bit of a fan-boy affair, which heavily features an outpouring of love for the subject. Like Corman’s World, the roster of ‘fans’ is very impressive though so it kind of gets away with its arse-kissing nature. In fact ‘Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan’ puts even that star-studded interview line-up to shame. Here you get Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro to name but a few. You also have some of the heavyweights of the special effects world too such as Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett as well as the man himself, Ray Harryhausen. Watching the special features you really get a sense of the love these great artists have for him too, when you learn that when the documentary makers struggled to get licences for footage from 20th Century Fox, they spoke to James Cameron and he contacted Fox, telling them to allow the use of their footage or he would pay for it himself. Steven Spielberg did a similar thing for another studio. Peter Jackson’s love for Harryhausen is described in the documentary too when you learn of the great assistance he gave in restoring Harryhausen’s models and work for an exhibition and to preserve them for the future. A great inclusion is also a short stop-motion animation Jackson made as a teenager which is clearly inspired by The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Also, even though there is a lot of time dedicated to giving Harryhausen a ‘tongue-bath’, the chronological structure, spanning his whole career and detailing the in’s and out’s of his process and techniques, is very interesting and engaging to watch. What helps is the vast amount of test-footage, dailies, sketches and storyboards which give a great insight to his work. The filmmakers really hit the jackpot in getting access to the material they needed, on top of the stellar interviewees.
The filmmakers say that the original intention of the film was to introduce Ray Harryhausen’s work to younger generations, showing them who inspired the current special effect movie greats such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron. The opening titles make this clear, but I’m not sure how effective the film would be to young viewers. Perhaps film-lovers in their late teens/early twenties who just missed out on those classics might take a lot from the film, but I imagine older generations that grew up on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad will most enjoy this trip down memory lane. I certainly enjoyed it a lot and immediately bought the Sinbad boxset on DVD, shamefully realising I didn’t own any Harryhausen films anymore after selling off my VHS’ many years ago (although I’ve started getting them again recently for rarities and sheer nostalgia). With such extensive special features (see below), purchasing this on DVD or Blu-Ray is a no-brainer for fans of the filmmaker.
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan is out on March 11th on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Arrow Films. I saw the DVD version and the picture and sound quality is decent enough, with the archive footage and old film clips looking good.
There are a tonne of special features in this 2 disc set. There’s an audio commentary on the film, featuring director Gilles Penso, producer Alexandre Poncet, co-producer Tony Dalton and Tim Nicholson. This is a great listen, never running out of steam (due to the large number of participants) and shows the makers’ love of the subject as well as the number of years of work that went into it and the good luck they had along the way. Similarly a Q&A with the same people is very interesting and enjoyable, as is a Q&A featuring Ray himself at the film’s premiere. On top of this you get extended footage of the filmmakers going through a ‘treasure trove’ of material from Ray’s archives.
The bulk of the features are deleted scenes and interview outtakes with the huge number of impressive interview subjects. These are ok, but there is a lot of crossover and they don’t add much to the film so they’re not a ‘must watch’.
One of the most fun features though is the inclusion of the original trailers for most of Harryhausen’s films. These are largely included in the documentary itself, but they’re still nice to see. You also get the full on-set footage from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.