Judge Sandra Dozier would have fought an army of undead animated skeletons for this Ray Harryhausen DVD set, but we told her that wouldn't be necessary. This time.
"Some people gotta dance—I gotta animate."—Ray Harryhausen
Just say the name "Ray Harryhausen" and every discerning movie geek will turn his or her head to hear what you have to say. It's almost as magical as the stop-motion fantasies Harryhausen created in his lifetime. Harryhausen has been doing stop-motion animation since 1935, and is rightly considered the best in his field. From his roots animating fairy tales and Mother Goose stories for elementary school children to his motion picture work in such classics as Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), Harryhausen has shown a consistent flair for drama and realistic creature movement that has earned him a devoted and appreciative following of fans from every age group. Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection showcases all of his stop-motion animation shorts up until 1953, when he began working in the feature film industry. This two-disc set, which is stuffed with extras, truly is a dream come true for Harryhausen fans.
Facts of the Case
Ray Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles in 1920, and his passion was dinosaurs. When he saw King Kong in 1933 at the age of thirteen, it completely changed his life. His passion was still dinosaurs, but now he wanted to know how to make them move just like Kong did on the big screen. He made his first black-and-white animation test in 1935 with an old Victor camera that didn't even have a one-frame capture setting, so Harryhausen had to quickly tap it and hope that he got one frame at a time; sometimes it was two or three frames instead. Despite the jerky animation this produced, you can clearly see his genius even then. It got him a foot in the door, and more animation work, and we have been the fortunate recipients of his wonderful stories ever since.
Included on Disc One are the following shorts, with optional introductions by Harryhausen:
Mother Goose Stories:
There is also a section with test footage and animation experiments. Narrated by Harryhausen, this section showcases footage and drawings for some of the projects he was thinking of doing but never got off the ground. This section also includes his first work, the original black-and-white animation with the Victor camera.
Disc One also includes special features that are directly related to the shorts, especially to "The Tortoise and the Hare," a short that was started in 1952 but abandoned halfway through when Harryhausen began working on feature-length projects. Two fans of his, Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh, collaborated with him to finish it in 2002. There is a making-of featurette and an audio commentary for "The Tortoise and the Hare," and an extended ending for "Guadalcanal" that was left off of the short. Harryhausen, in an introduction to this extra, admits that he was embarrassed by the rather obvious nature of the ending, which shows a Nazi flag being burned and an American flag going up in its place, with the Statue of Liberty in the foreground in case you don't get the picture. This segment is better left off, so the piece is more timeless.
Disc Two is packed with supplemental material, including nine featurettes, a section with three animated tributes for Harryhausen's 80th birthday, two filmed tributes, and a still gallery with photos from the featurette material:
• Ray Harryhausen: The Hollywood Walk of Fame (12 minutes)
• Harryhausen's Livingstone Statue (5 minutes)
• The Clifton's Cafeteria Reunion (25 minutes)
• In The Credits (10 minutes)
• An Evening with Ray Harryhausen (10 minutes)
• Harryhausen's Bronzes (3 minutes)
• The Ted Newsom Interview (9 minutes)
• The Academy Archive Restoration (6 minutes)
• Filmmuseum Berlin (3 minutes)
• (Tribute) An Appreciation
• (Tribute) David Allen
• (Tribute) Birthday animations (about one to two minutes
On the supplemental materials disc is a still gallery with pictures from the animated shorts, the featurette material, and a collection of Harryhausen's sketches, which are incredibly detailed and show off his command of light and shadow to produce a dramatic effect. There are several concept drawings here for a planned animated version of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, which sadly was never put in production. The only evidence of it is a brief animated segment that is included in the Tests & Experiments section.
There are also a couple of hidden features on Discs One and Two. One of these involves Sam Calvin, the co-editor of FXRH Magazine, delivering his list of "The Top 10 Things I Learned From Ray Harryhausen Movies." The one I personally find quite useful in my own life is "Never go into battle with a cyclops armed only with a small band of drunken criminals." This particular hidden feature is found on the second page of the featurettes list on Disc Two, by highlighting the mysterious wizard who grants King Midas his wish for the golden touch. Disc One has a short animation test featuring an armature of Mr. H himself being carried off by a huge winged creature—find this one by highlighting the tortoise on the Special Features menu.
For many people, the watershed Harryhausen moment is in Jason and the Argonauts, when Jason fights the skeleton army. It goes without saying that animated skeletons in 1963 were an incredible thing to see on the big screen, but its more than that. It was the life that Harryhausen imbued his creatures with—they moved in such a convincingly real way that it was easy to forget that they were miniature animations. At some point, the notion that the skeletons might have finished the scene and gone off for a coffee break to polish their bones (or whatever it is that skeletons do) becomes a completely logical possibility. More often than not, Harryhausen animated otherworldly creatures that have never walked the earth with modern man, and he had an innate sensibility for the way they should move and act. Compare Harryhausen's dinosaurs with dinosaurs in the more recent films by other artists and you'll notice a striking similarity: the birdlike head movements and rapid eye-blinks that were a trademark of Harryhausen's work show up over and over again. He had a way of translating imagination to reality that grabbed our attention and held us in his thrall.
When he did have an opportunity to animate a human or something with a real-world counterpart, his genius became more obvious as gestures, expressions, and movements that we were used to seeing suddenly appeared on animated dolls and creatures. Little touches like rolling eyes, fists clenching in frustration, and even expressions like frowning and smiling for characters where you could see only part of their face from behind all added to the reality—why bother with some of that detail when it would flash by in just a second? In his features, when dinosaurs walked, their swishing tails would crush small plants or brush rocks and small pebbles out of the way—few would take the time to add these details, figuring no one would notice, but Harryhausen never forgot those imaginative touches. It's hard to believe that someone could breathe life into creatures that are animated with virtually imperceptible movements shot one frame at a time, with 24 frames per second, but Harryhausen did, and he did it well.
Ray Harryhausen was involved in almost every stage of production on his movies—writing, directing, storyboarding (he was an accomplished sketch artist), casting, even the score. He wanted to make sure that he was delivering not just a good story, but a great story. He firmly believed that even the best animation was only great if it came from well-crafted script and good direction. As a result, he often did things to increase the cinematic or dramatic quality of his animation, such as panning and moving his camera around. Traditionally, stop-motion animation is done with a locked-off camera because moving the camera and the characters in perfect synch is quite a challenge. Why do it? "I thought [the audience] might like it better." Of course—that is Harryhausen in essence.
The Academy Film Archive restores and preserves significant films, and it gave Harryhausen's early shorts the deluxe treatment. As detailed in the featurette, the Archive assembled as many original prints as possible and took the best-looking from each group. These were given a color processing and were restored into a new print. For some of the test footage, "Evolution," and the military shorts "How to Bridge a Gorge" and "Guadalcanal," John Morgan and Bill Stromberg prepared new 5.1 surround scores. The scores are in the style of music at the time the shorts were produced, so they match in mood, and their theatrical quality is appropriate.
I like the arrangement of the shorts and supplemental material on this set. You can choose to watch the animated material in a "Play All" mode that features introductions by Harryhausen, or you can navigate to individual shorts via the main menu. This makes it easy to watch everything together for a fully immersive experience, then go back later and screen individual shorts. The supplemental material is arranged as a list of individually accessed featurettes, and these are often preceded by on-screen notes giving context to the upcoming material. All of the shorts and even the featurettes have subtitles. Unfortunately, it is not possible to change subtitles while watching a short, even to shut them off; they must be activated or turned off from the main menu. This is probably my only complaint regarding this set.
I got the feeling, while watching these discs, that they were made as if they were being done specifically for Ray Harryhausen, as a sort of elaborate library volume of his work. There are several featurettes paying homage to his greatness, and his birthday videos from 2000 (his 80th birthday) were also included. This gives the set a very positive, almost celebratory feel. Harryhausen himself strikes me as a man who is used to praise, yet humble about his abilities. When people marvel at his ability with pen, sculpture, or animation, he smiles and looks down at his feet as if he is being praised beyond his abilities. We know better, of course. For anyone who has been a lifelong fan of Harryhausen but has not seen much of the man himself, this will be a treat. His youthful build and way of speaking belong to a man twenty years his junior. For everyone else who has followed his career and public appearances, this will be an excellent library addition, with a wealth of recent (2003-2005) interview material, most of which had not been previously collected on DVD.
When discussing the quality of the DVD transfer, both in terms of picture and sound, in all cases the source material is the prime consideration. Due to the restoration efforts, the shorts look so good that you would think they were done within the last few years. The luscious colors and bright prints look marvelous. Colors pop right off of the screen, and there is a lot of detail and clarity in the image. Sound quality is generally good, but shows its age a little for the Mother Goose and fairy tale shorts. According to the liner notes, the Academy Film Archive made a conscious choice to preserve source artifacts as originally recorded and did not want to present an artificially clean recording that would not have been possible during the time the shorts were produced. This seems to have been a good choice, as the sound quality matches the feel of the shorts better than the more theatrical, crystal-clear music for the other films. The supplemental material, which was collected over the past few years, varies more widely in quality. For instance, the "Hollywood Walk of Fame" segment has terrible source sound due to traffic and ambient noise, and the "Tribute by David Allen" featurette suffers from a dark, shaky picture that was shot on video (with muffled sound quality to match). In general, I did not find these picture or sound problems to be distracting, and I was very impressed with both sound and image in the restored animation shorts.
Unexpectedly, my favorite part of this two-disc collection is the amazing 1935 short film featuring Harryhausen's first attempt at stop-motion animation. In it, a cave bear and dinosaurs are found in their prehistoric element; at one point, the bear fights with a dinosaur and is flipped upside down in the fight. Upside down! No way would I have tried that right out of the gate. Its eyes roll and it shakes its head in annoyance, all Harryhausen touches that would show up again and again in his detailed work. The restored shorts are gorgeous, but I'm just as content watching a brief test reel of a Martian emerging from its wrecked ship (taken from H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds). Ray Bradbury has said of his friend Harryhausen that they wanted to grow old but never grow up, and this set proves that they were able to do just that.
We were going to hold him just for our amusement, but there's a group of dodgy-looking skeletons outside, and they seem pretty upset. I think it's best we pronounce Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection not guilty on all counts.
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