Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2012)

2013 #53
Gilles Penso | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | France / English | PG

Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects TitanIf you don’t know that name then you must be a young whippersnapper, because otherwise Ray Harryhausen needs no introduction.

The master of miniatures back when special effects were truly special, rather than copious CGI ladled all over a couple of thousand shots throughout a blockbuster, the effect of Harryhausen’s work in (primarily) the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s is to thank for much of the best creativity in sci-fi/fantasy filmmaking of the last 20 to 30 years. The list of interviewees clearly attests to that: it’s a veritable who’s who of genre filmmakers, from household names Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Tim Burton, and Steven Spielberg; to respected filmmakers like John Landis, Terry Gilliam, Joe Dante, Guillermo del Toro, and John Lasseter; via renowned animators and effects gurus like Nick Park, Dennis Muren, Henry Selick, and Phil Tippett — and, as ever, more.

As with the best documentaries about a filmmaker’s work, the real impact of Special Effects Titan is it leaves you with a burning desire to see the films themselves. I don’t think I’ve actually seen a great many of the films Harryhausen worked on, but the most famous sequences are nonetheless seared in my memory because that’s how damn good they are — we’ve all seen them, even if it’s on clip shows or what have you, because they merit repeating. They’re stunning technical achievements that still look great today. Ray Harryhausen and admirersSometimes they’re a bit jerky, maybe, and the inevitable issues of scale show they’re models fighting or interacting with actors on set… but for all that they’re still not significantly less realistic than so many modern computer-based techniques, and they carry a charm and obvious level of skill that said renderings usually lack.

I noted recently that I don’t normally review a title’s home ent release because that’s usually a little beside the point, but here’s another one where it merits a mention. The DVD (and Blu-ray) provides a very interesting array of additions. Normally documentary films have either no special features or things like extra interviews and subject-related bits & bobs, but Special Effects Titan comes with lots of information about the actual making of the documentary itself: why and when scenes were deleted, why things were or weren’t done in certain ways (e.g. they considered a stop-motion title sequence), and so on. That’s as well as those extra/extended interviews, including Douglas Trumbull and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, plus on the disc but not in the film are Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Rick Baker, and Peter Lord (of Aardman).

Ray Harryhausen and his creationsOne thing I always wonder about ‘specialist’ documentaries is, do they have crossover appeal? Will someone with no interest in Harryhausen, or even in Cinema, get something out of this? Probably not, I guess. But that’s not a bad thing per se, because this is an informative overview of a man’s influential body of work that deserves all the appreciation it can muster. Even if, like me, you’re not that familiar with said work, this is a film that will show you why you should be.

4 out of 5

2 thoughts on “Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2012)

  1. I re-watched First Men in the Moon the other day, wonderful film and likely my favourite Harryhausen movie. Such a charming film now, it scared me shitless when I was a kid. Gorgeous fx and art direction. This doc looks like a must-watch for me.

    Funny thing, in these CGI days, I get all wistful regards the early ILM Blue screen era, something as apparently dated now as Rays stop-motion work. There was a craft, a soul in those models that CGI lacks to the detriment of modern movies.


    • They must spend so many hundreds of hours on those CG effects, putting so much detail into the models, crafting the physics, the lighting, and on and on, so complicated… and yet, with only a few exceptions, it lacks much of the intangible sense of ‘realness’ and never has the charm inherent in well-made model effects.


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