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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

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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