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More of a special feature than an actual movie, but a darn good one
As a big fan of stop-motion and of films like "Jason and the Argonauts" I found "The Harryhausen Chronicles" to be a pleasant reminder of what I enjoyed about those films; while I didn't overall learn a whole lot that I didn't know already, it's a fun little documentary. In case you're not familiar with the man, Harryhausen was a stop motion model animator, painter and sculptor, active in major filmmaking from 1949 to 1981. He was the pupil of Willis H. O'Brien who created the special effects for "King Kong" (1933) and went on to create the special effects for a slew of films, the most famous and best of which are "Mighty Joe Young" (1949), the "7th Voyage of Sinbad" (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts" (1963). The film talks about his early years experimenting with stop-motion and pitching short films to various businesses (including educational films for the army) and the years where he was at his peak, showing off some of the impressive models still in museums or his personal collection and giving us a bit of behind-the-scenes action. We've got several guest speakers, including Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas", "James and the Giant Peach", "Coraline"), George Lucas ("Star Wars") and the whole thing is narrated by Leonard Nimoy.
The content of the film is pretty self-explanatory so what I'm going to discuss here is why you should watch the film, regardless of if you're a fan of Harryhausen's works or not (you should be). Stop motion used to be pretty popular, particularly in live-action films. Before 1993, when Jurassic Park was released, using computers to generate creatures and monsters didn't happen a lot and even with the case of Spielberg's monster of a film extremely elaborate stop-motion was first pitched as a way to bring the dinosaurs to life. Nowadays, it's nearly unheard of to use anything but computer effects. Good directors and special effects wizards recognize the need to use makeup, miniatures and props but the only time you see stop-motion is in films where a specific look is desired, such as Wes Anderson's "The Fantastic Mr. Fox". Everything is done digitally by teams of texturers, shaders, animators, colorists, etc. Here's where the beauty of Harryhausen's work comes in. All of his films, all of those special effects were done by one guy. Just him, creating these creatures, building and painting them and then spending hours painstakingly bringing them to life one frame at a time. I'm not diminishing the use of computer effects. Every year they look more convincing and in fact they're so good that stop-motion films should now be seen more as an exercise in style than as anything that could be convincing. What I'm saying is that there's a very human touch in these films. When you hear stories about a man ambitiously creating a monster with two tails and seven heads (each of which has a mouth that opens and closes) and animating a long sequence where it battles a live-action actor that's impressive. Then you learn that he had to choreograph his movements against an invisible opponent so that the two pieces of footage could be spliced together, making this complicated effect even more ambitious. There's something special about that. The attention to detail, to ensure that the lighting stays consistent or that the fur moves naturally is really fascinating to watch and hearing how the man was supported by his parents in his early adult years, that's some inspiring stuff.
The most important thing for me though, was the fact that this guy worked all by himself. Think about it. Let's say you're 10 years old and you've just seen the most amazing science-fiction, fantasy or horror film ever and now you want to make your own movie. You don't want to make any movie though, you want to make a movie with tanks and monsters and cities getting destroyed. Cameras are easy to get nowadays so shooting it is no problem. But how will you bring your vision to life? Hand animating it might work but that's an incredibly difficult process. Creating the stuff through a computer? Absolutely ridiculous; even if your parents happened to have the software necessary to render your vision, no child has the patience to do so. Your only real option then is to either: use your toys and have your hands sticking inside the frame of the picture, or to use stop motion. It's a technique that isn't particularly expensive, if you're just making a short movie you can get results relatively quickly and they will look good too.
One thing that becomes apparent when seeing the man's portfolio is that none of his films are adorned with stories or performances that would have stood on their own. What makes them memorable are the creatures featured in them and the imagination. The reason to see the film is to get inspired and to learn more about a man who was the one everyone aspired to be and the inspiration for so many filmmakers. I don't think if you're not familiar with at least a few of Harryhausen's films this will hit you as it did me, but here's what I recommend you do: get yourself his three best films and watch those with either your kids or someone who is a big fan of special effects and then watch this one. You'll get a new appreciation for what you just saw and if there are children present, they'll be inspired themselves. Some of the criticisms I have is that there could have been a lot more "new information" revealed and that they really don't delve into the state of stop-motion today (or rather, at the time the film was made). As is, it plays more as a special feature to accompany other films, but it's a damn good one. (On DVD, January 28, 2014)
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