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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

omg: Ray Harryhausen feted at BFI on his 90th birthday; is he available to work?

I’ve just come from enduring some truly cold and deeply unmoving CGI FX in The Last Airbender. Sterile, inorganic, lifeless… I haven’t seen anything so lackluster since Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. And Jonah Hex. And Clash of the Titans. And Alice in Wonderland. And — oh yeah — last night, when I saw The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, in which computer-generated werewolves fight computer-generated vampires and I don’t know why I should care.

This past weekend, on Saturday 26 June, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts celebrated FX pioneer Ray Harryhausen at the British Film Institute Southbank in London for his 90th birthday, and so Peter Jackson could present him with a BAFTA Special Award. Which means he’s still alive. Which means he’s available to work, I hope.

My early film geekitude was fueled by movies such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts on Saturday-afternoon Channel 9 movies in the late 1970s. And by the 1981 Clash of the Titans, which was one of the first movies I watched on VHS over and over and over again. How is it possible that my little developing geek brain could recognize that Harryhausen’s stop-motion monsters and soldiers moved kinda jerkily and sometimes the scale of the miniatures was a little off and at the same time also see them as so much more genuine than the most photorealistic CGI?
Phelim O’Neill at the Guardian’s Film blog describes the event, which included tributes from a who’s who of contemporary fantasy filmmaking, and the unfathomable importance of Harryhausen and his work:

[S]ix-time Oscar winner [Rick Baker] asked a question that, upon reflection, is rather terrifying, something no one else there would have dared to even speculate on: What if Ray Harryhausen had never been born? “I’d be asking you if you wanted fries with that … Peter Jackson would be shearing sheep.”

After that it was impossible not to consider how different cinema would be without such an inspiring figure. Just going by the list of acolytes who contributed to the evening alone, we’d have no Star Wars, no Terminator, no Toy Story, no Pan’s Labyrinth, no Edward Scissorhands, no Jaws, no Shawshank Redemption, no Wallace and certainly no Gromit. Those are just the collateral damage, without Harryhausen there would be no Jason And The Argonauts, no 7th Voyage Of Sinbad and no 20 Million Miles To Earth. That’s not a world I’d want to live in. It wouldn’t be much fun.

That world wouldn’t be much fun. But that world, in which the fantasy movies used to feel more real than they do today, is disappearing. The world would not be poorer without Prince of Persia or this year’s remake of Clash of Titans. We can’t even put a name to those who created the CGI FX of these movies, and maybe that’s part of the problem, too: They have no personality. How can it be that so few people seem to notice, or if they do notice, to care?



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  • Keith

    This sheds some light on your “Bwahahaha” tweet about Airbender earlier. Was trying to figure out if it was a laugh of humor or derision. I have seen the Airbender trailer, but have seen none of what it is based on. Now I can guess which way your review is going to go.

  • Rykker

    His films are definitely a most-favored part of my collection.
    Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger is probably my favorite. It’s the first one I remember seeing, being the first film I ever saw at a drive-in back in the ’70s.
    A magical summer night for a nine-year old boy in those days, and Harryhausen’s films always kindle the spark of that moment in time for me.

  • Keith

    Was wondering how much our appreciation for Ray Harryhausen had to do with the age at which we saw his work and how little competition he had for what he was doing at the time. Now special effects have become so commonplace, they have to really stand out or be part of something larger for us to really notice them. Harryausen didn’t have this problem in his day. We Gen Xers were all fairly young when we first encountered Harryhausen’s work and it made an impression on us. I can’t imagine what it is like to be growing up now with visual effects being something you see every day. Makes it so much harder to actually be impressed by what we see anymore.

    Will we get to a point where visual effects don’t impress us any more? What happens if we actually get there?

  • Froborr

    Your comments on The Last Airbender fill me with gleeful schadenfreude. I love the TV series, but ever since the thoroughly whitewashed cast list (casting a show comprised entirely of Asian and Native American characters as white heroes against Middle Eastern and South Asian villains) came out, I’ve wanted the movie to crash and burn. Here’s hoping it bombs!

  • JoshDM

    I’ve just come from enduring some truly cold and deeply unmoving CGI FX in The Last Airbender. Sterile, inorganic, lifeless.

    I never thought this movie would be an good after seeing the trailers. The problem is that this movie will not make anyone who sees it and hasn’t seen the cartoon it is based on want to watch the cartoon, and it won’t please anyone who HAS seen the cartoon.

    You can tell the acting is poor and forced from the trailer alone.

  • CGI, when used smartly (which unfortunately isn’t very often), can be a very effective tool. Gollum was a masterpiece, and I can’t imagine him as an actor in a suit (well, he was, but not onscreen) or a claymation model. Likewise for Davy Jones from POTC. And while I love Aardman Studios and Henry Selick’s work, I also love the Pixar films and think their CGI has plenty of personality.

    By and large, though, it’s true that CGI has fallen short of the visceral impact that older special effects methods have provided (just compare CGI Yoda to the puppet from Empire Strikes Back; heck, even the CGI spaceships from the Star Wars prequels seem less believable than their miniature-model counterparts in the original trilogy). It seems like filmmakers just need to be smarter and more judicious about which methods work best for which situations, and not just assume that CGI is always the way to go. For real-world grit and weight and heft, it’s hard to beat filming something made in the real world.

    (Well: Some would say James Cameron’s Avatar throws a wrench into my argument, but I’m not awake enough to think that through right now.)

    Will we get to a point where visual effects don’t impress us any more? What happens if we actually get there?

    We might actually have to start telling more interesting stories. :-)

  • bronxbee

    ah, Jason & the Argonauts… my brother and i sat in the Fordham movie theatre for an entire day watching it over and over again (back when they didn’t throw you out after the movie was over). his effects really stuck in the mind (i can still see the battle with the skeleton army). and i do think there are some really amazing successors to his work — ILM and WETA among them… and the work on Davy Jones in PoTC was fabulous, but those effects were all in aide of *character*… (as mentioned, Gollum, and PJ’s King Kong) so maybe it needs the combination of both for truly memorable special effects. because a well portrayed character is a special effect in and of itself. (that mentioned, i’d have been happy to have Bill Nighy as Davey Jones without makeup and effects as well. i’m sure his portrait would have been just as good).

  • Erik

    One of the things I always found so impressive is that, with the exception of “Clash of the Titans,” Harryhausen did all his animation by himself. Think of that! Even the stop motion in the original Star Wars trilogy was done by a team, and there are entire buildings full of people at their computers now doing the CGI work.

    Growing up, Harryhausen was always spoken of in almost reverent terms in my house, and if one of his movies was on TV, nothing could keep us from it. In recent years, I found it interesting that when you think of his flicks, they are always Ray Harryhausen movies. We have no idea who directed or wrote them (well, for the most part) as they aren’t important. We don’t call the original “Star Wars” trilogy Dennis Muren movies or “Blade Runner” a Douglas Trumball movie, amazing as those two men are. Shows how legendary and stunning Ray is.

    I have been lucky enough to have seen Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury in person a few times and it is always such an honor. These two life-long friends who did so much are still hanging out. May they live forever. Actually, between their movies & books, they will.

  • nyjm

    While I don’t want to make an argument for the soulessness of so many CGI-heavy films produced, I’d like to steer us clear of pink-glasses-tinged-halcyon-days nostalgia.

    Blue jay is right: CGI used effectively is really, really great. Gollum is just one of the more visible examples, literally and figuratively. Let’s think about the great and often very subtle uses by Jean-Pierre Jeunet in Amelie and A Very Long Engagement. Despite not being out and out fantasy/sci-fi movies, they are very effects heavy – and much better for it. For a more recent example, think of the joyful goodness that is A-Team. That flying tank scene is pure CGI goodness – but it works because the actors sell it, and the script works in synergy to sell it, too.

    Furthermore, despite Harryhausen’s important strides in special effects at the time – take a look at those movies again today. Compare them to contemporary films in the genre, like LOTR or even the Harry Potter movies. Face it, people: Jason and the Argonauts is a bad movie. The plot is lazy, the characters are wooden, the writing is clichéd and the effects are… dated. And it is not alone, there were many, many terrible, awful films of its ilk that have been rightfully consigned to popular oblivion. As fans of the SF/Fantasy genre, we may have a soft spot for how formative Harryhaussen’s movies were for us, but let’s not consider them the pinnacle of cinematic achievement.

    Mind you, neither am I arguing that we should pass over Ray’s considerable contribution to our favorite genres in specific and even cinema in general. What I want is for us to look forward, to call for, watch and therefore reward good use of cinematic effects, ones that support the characterization, that bring the story further to life, that serve the emotional, narrative and indeed moral aims of a movie.

  • Rykker

    let’s not consider them the pinnacle of cinematic achievement.

    No one said anything about Harryhausen’s work being the pinnacle of achievement, and I do not think that anyone here denies the effectiveness of CGI when it is good quality, and used well within the framework of whatever film is being referenced.

    What I want is for us to look forward

    Past or present is irrelevant.
    Just as you say there are “many, many terrible awful films” from that earlier era of effects, you can name just as many (if not more) contemporary films with “modern” effects that are considered equally awful for all of the same reasons you cite in those earlier films.

    I’d like to steer us clear of pink-glasses-tinged-halcyon-days nostalgia.

    You speak in the plural quite a bit.
    You have your opinion and that is fine, but kindly keep your hands off my wheel. I prefer to do my own driving, thank you.

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