Revisiting Cinefex (5): Ray Harryhausen, Titans, Roy Arbogast and Caveman

Cinefex Issue 5The hideous gorgon Medusa from Clash of the Titans stares out of the cover of Cinefex #5, begging the question: how many readers were turned to stone before they even got the damn magazine open? Inside is a still from an earlier Ray Harryhausen film: 20 Million Miles to Earth. If these two pictures don’t tell you what to expect in the next 72 pages, nothing will.

The cover also communicates the magazine’s first price increase: a rise from the initial $3.50 to $3.95. This issues has four articles, with a distinct emphasis on stop-motion animation.

  • Ray Harryhausen – Acting Without the Lumps (article by Vic Cox)
  • Clash of the (Foot-Tall) Titans (article by Don Shay)
  • Roy Arbogast (article by Jordan Fox)
  • Caveman – The Real Stars (article by Scott Vanderbilt)

Ray Harryhausen

Ah, Ray Harryhausen. Am I a fan of his animation-packed fantasy movies? Absolutely. The guy was – and still is – a hero of mine. Did his later dogged reliance on old technologies also frustrate the hell out of me? You’d better believe it. If the first two articles in Cinefex #5 are anything to go by, I’m not alone.

rc05mjyThe articles by Vic Cox and Don Shay are a kind of matched pair. The first looks back at Harryhausen’s career, while the second is an in-depth report on what was to be his last big Dynamation movie: Clash of the Titans. Incredibly for a man making films in the 1980s, Harryhausen actually saw the original King Kong on its first release in 1933. By my reckoning he must have been twelve years old. After experimenting with his own 16mm animated films, he eventually got to work with Kong animator Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young.

I’ve got a soft spot for Joe. While it lacks the visceral appeal of Kong, it’s a fine film with some stunning character animation and gorgeous composites. Until I read this article I hadn’t realised a whopping 85% of the animation was done by the young Harryhausen. A while after Joe, Harryhausen and producer Charles H Schneer teamed up to make It Came From Beneath The Sea. The two men continued to bring monsters to life in what proved to be one of the most enduring partnerships in cinema history. But it also created another monster: the Harryhausen production line.

The interviews with Harryhausen present him as a methodical man. No surprise: that’s practically in the animator’s job description. When Cox suggests his success is down to perseverence, Harryhausen agrees, describing himself as ‘stubborn’ and a ‘fanatic’. He also expresses strong opinions about his craft: he doesn’t care for science fiction because ‘you can’t really inject much romance into that kind of thing’; he doesn’t have a problem changing a creature’s apparent size on screen for dramatic effect; he’s happy to put humans and dinosaurs in the same story because ‘we’re not trying to duplicate reality’.

Cox asks some pretty blunt questions, tackling the episodic nature of Harryhausen’s films, challenging his portrayal of women as ‘helpless creatures’ and remarking on his resistance to new technologies. Harryhausen responds with a kind of straightforward aplomb. The subtext of most of his answers appears to be: ‘I accept the criticisms people make about my films. I just don’t agree with them.’

The point about refusing to embrace new technology is one that’s always interested me. Personally, I’ve always found it astonishing that the man who invented the Dynamation process (whereby models are animated frame-by-frame in front of a screen projecting a previously-shot live-action plate) never went on to invent anything else. Once Harryhausen had found a formula that worked, he stuck with it. This safety behaviour is apparent in the way he reuses both armatures and photographic equipment from one film to the next. In fact, the rear-screen projectors he used for Clash of the Titans first saw service in Mighty Joe Young!

If Cox’s article reignites my (minor) frustrations with Ray Harryhausen, it also reminds me of his quite astonishing range of talents. He talks intelligently on topics ranging from storyline development to armature construction, discusses the relative abilities of humanoids and dinosaurs to emote and debates attitudes to nudity in film. Buried in all this are some real gems, such as his casual aside that while animating the seminal skeleton swordfight for Jason and the Argonauts (still my favourite of his Greek epics) he averaged thirteen frames a day. I have to repeat that because I still can’t get my head round it: thirteen frames a day! Stubborn and methodical? Oh yes indeed.

Clash of the Titans

The Cox article segues neatly into Don Shay’s piece on Clash of the Titans. Titans was released in 1981, a year after The Empire Strikes Back, and it was with some trepidation that I trooped to the cinema to see it. Sad to say, I came away largely unmoved. The movie was brand new but still managed to look horribly dated. Harryhausen had clearly been left behind by the modern wave of film-makers.

Or had he … ?

rc05ctSpiralling costs hampered the early days of Titans, with the movie being dropped by Columbia and eventually picked up by MGM. Harryhausen is sanguine about the big budget: ‘It was expensive. But it certainly wasn’t extravagant.’ Production followed the traditional Harryhausen routine, with all live-action footage being shot before a grueling twelve months of animation and post-production, for which all his familiar vintage equipment was drafted into service. But in one critical respect it was different: for the first time in his career, Harryhausen hired assistant animators in the form of Jim Danforth and Steven Archer.

While Danforth was an old hand, Archer was a new find – an inexperienced student, in fact. Archer explains how he did some test animation for Harryhausen, then had to wait a year before learning he’d been hired. It must have been a long year … and in the end surely a dream come true. Archer’s main responsibility was the film’s comic relief: the mechanical owl, Bubo. Archer talks in detail about the model, its armature and his various adventures while filming it, including runaway cameras and fragile wire rigs. I do think he did a fabulous job bringing that little owl to life, devising all kinds of physical gags to keep it busy. It’s a real shame that, in the context of the rest of the movie, the wretched bird’s just an annoyance.

The article covers in detail all the film’s major animated characters: the Kraken, Calibos (whatever Harryhausen says, I still think they should have done the whole character as a man in a suit), Pegasus, Dioskilos … and, of course, the film’s secret weapon: Medusa.

Whatever the shortcomings of Titans as a movie for the modern age, the Medusa sequence proves that in 1981 Harryhausen still had a few tricks up his sleeve. It looks terrific even today: subtle animation, seamless composites, gorgeous lighting and a genuinely scary monster design. It’s not perfect; for example, the close-ups of the gorgon’s face betray the relatively small scale of the puppet. But it’s a classic bit of suspense that beats the pants off the hectic chase sequence in the 2010 remake.

So what did Harryhausen do differently to make the Medusa sequence stand out? The answer is ‘nothing’. It breaks no new ground in terms of technique. It’s just Ray Harryhausen doing his thing and doing it incredibly well. Don Shay clearly agrees: he describes the sequence as ‘one of [Harryhausen’s] career masterpieces … a stunning amalgam of images that virtually transcends the stop-motion medium.’ And so it is.

Towards the end of the article, Jim Danforth gives us a final reminder of just how many hats Ray Harryhausen wears on a typical production: editing, producing, publicity, animation … not to mention building the puppets in the first place. ‘He puts the eyes in,’ Danforth says, ‘makes the teeth, the tongue, the ears – everything.’ And that’s what you get with Harryhausen: a film-maker who’s hands-on in virtually every department. Give him a broom and he’ll probably sweep the studio floor. Maybe he should be listed among cinema’s auteurs. What’s that? Put Harryhausen’s name alongside those of Truffaut and Hitchock and Renoir? Well, why not? Whatever you think of his films, they are wholly and entirely his own. As an added bonus, they’re popular and were commercially successful. Now that’s an awful lot of boxes for just one man to tick.

Roy Arbogast

The third article is a feature on Roy Arbogast, who works in the field of special effects rather than visual effects (as writer Jordan Fox points out this is a distinction that may be lost on the average movie-goer). While Arbogast’s work isn’t what you might call ‘core Cinefex material’, it’s worth remembering we’re back in the early days of Cinefex, when the magazine is still in the process of carving out its own niche. Fox seems aware of this, pointing out that special mechanical effects are ‘generally less flashy’ than ‘some dazzling optical’. It’s true, and while we do get some good insights into the work of unsung heroes like Arbogast, this article’s less flashy too.

rc05jAll the same, Arbogast has an impressive list of credits and a few fascinating facts to reveal. After starting out in the construction business he somehow found himself making gigantic blood cells for Fantastic Voyage. From there he moved into breakaway props and, thanks to his expertise with plastics and rubber, wound up working with Bob Mattey on Bruce, the mechanical shark used in Jaws. While Mattey was responsible for the creature’s mechanics, Arbogast developed a urethane elastomer that mimicked real shark skin. ‘I think it was the first time any of these critters were made out of a material other than latex,’ he says. Effective though the skin was, the rigors of filming in the ocean meant it needed constant repair, usually at night when the cameras weren’t rolling.

For Jaws 2, Arbogast graduated into the larger world of mechanical effects, flipping over boats and dragging down helicopters. After that came Close Encounters, and here we get a detailed look at something that was built but never filmed: a fleet of ‘tiny, squarish scout craft with skittish, independent motions.’ These ‘cuboids’ were practical effects that ran on wires through the Devil’s Tower set, but they were rejected when the 5,000 volts they needed to bring them to life proved iffy on the health and safety front!

As well as a number of other anecdotes from the Close Encounters shoot (everyone taking a turn in Roy Neary’s spinning ‘zero-G’ truck, a mix-up over some breakaway glass), there’s also a rundown of the various throat-rippings and heart-removals from John Badham’s Dracula. This all reads as very old-school now, with bats on wires and a classic stake-impalement gag. But old-school can work a treat, even today – it’s not always the best idea to shoot without gags and hope you’ll be able to ‘fix it in post’.

The article closes with a brief look ahead to Arbogast’s work on John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, still unreleased at the time of the magazine’s publication. Carpenter must have liked the results because he hired Arbogast afterwards to work on his remake of The Thing. But that’s another story …

Caveman

The final article chronicles the rather stormy genesis of the effects in Carl Gottlieb’s prehistoric comedy Caveman, Never having seen the movie, I tracked down a few clips online to see what I’d missed. To my surprise, I found some decent effects and genuinely funny animated gags (the rapt expression on the T-Rex’s face as the blind man fondles his, um, underbelly is a scream).

rc05cIf Scott Vanderbilt’s article is anything to go by, there was plenty of screaming in the animation department during the film’s production. I guess the writing was on the wall from day one. Jim Danforth took on the visual effects only after initially turning the job down. Not mincing his words, he proclaims that he ‘despised the script and the whole intent of the picture!’ I can understand the reasons he cites for eventually accepting the gig, namely that it was ‘a great opportunity for some really interesting [character] animation,’ but it does seem extrordinary that he pitched in at all on a project for which he had such apparent contempt.

Danforth immediately hit trouble while negotiating the budget, ultimately agreeing to do more shots for less money (like that never happens in the world of VFX …). When he proudly showed his obese tyrannosaurus design to Ray Harryhausen, the grand master of stop-motion hated it and thought it looked pregnant! Then there were the problems with the chosen VistaVision format which, while being good for maintaining image quality in rear-projection, was prone to registration problems.

As Danforth worked through the various issues, he also assembled his crew, which included veteran animator Dave Allen. Allen talks in detail about filming a pterodactyl sequence, shot by securing the model to a plexiglass sheet and using a frontlight-backlight travelling matte technique. This and other sections of the article are practically a textbook on how to shoot animation for feature films, often against all the odds. How many of these tricks are forgotten now, like painting a puppet’s support wires frame-by-frame to match the colour of the projected background plate? Later, Allen dissects the process he used to salvage a complex double-zoom starting on a close-up of a small lizard, pulling back to reveal actor Ringo Starr, then pulling back further to reveal a giant (animated) lizard. Allen had to use every trick in the compositor’s book to compensate for mis-timed focus-pulling, a weaving camera and constantly-changing ambient light. Soft mattes and retiming the live action helped but, above all, he had to fall back on the craftsman’s innate knowledge of how to cheat!

No less interesting is the ongoing account of the gradually failing relationships within the team. At the time it must have been grim, but the way Vanderbilt tells it, this is a hell of a good story. As Danforth diplomatically puts it, ‘Dave and I had a lot of trouble trying to figure out how to work together.’ Things came to a head eight months into production, when Danforth was challenged by the producers about his department’s low rate of output. Things got tricky when Danforth proposed a week’s shut-down to consolidate and Dave Allen left taking the model pterodactyl with him. Ultimately, Danforth walked away from the whole show.

Things got even trickier because Danforth’s company Effects Associates was still under contract to complete the work. In the event, the company honoured the agreement, with Allen taking over Danforth’s supervisory role. Thus he ended up doing less hands-on animation because, when you’re supervising, you have neither the time nor the headspace available. ‘Once you get involved in a shoot,’ he says, ‘you are out of action in terms of what’s going on with the overall picture.’

This comment of Allen’s jumped out at me, especially in light of the Harryhausen material I’d just read. It’s so obvious: the animator’s craft is so focused and so intense, that once you’re there in front of the camera, moving that armature one fraction of an inch at a time, you’re blind to everything else. You have to be. That’s your job.

So here’s the question I’m left with at the end of another entertaining read from the back issues of Cinefex: how does Harryhausen manage to do everything else he does on a picture and still hit that animator’s sweet spot? How does he wear all those hats and still keep track of the individual movements of all the snakes in Medusa’s hair? How does he see the big picture and the small, both at the same time?

You know what? I haven’t a clue.

The pictures

I’ll finish as usual by skimming through my favourite pictures from Issue #5. Vic Cox’s article has a smashing still of an intense young Ray Harryhausen manipulating the gorilla puppet on Mighty Joe Young. In Don Shay’s article we see the same man working the Kraken puppet from Clash of the Titans. Harryhausen’s lost some hair in the intervening years, and gained some wrinkles, but his expression of composed concentration hasn’t changed a bit. In the Roy Arbogast article, we have a great shot of the Jaws 2 shark levitating twenty feet above the waves on a fully exposed mechanical rig.

And, when it comes to Caveman, there’s only one contender: the unashamedly staged photo of the overweight T-Rex puppet posed as if it’s reviewing dailies on the Moviola. It may not be Jurassic Park, but when was the last time a dinosaur made you chuckle?

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

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  1. […] Graham Edwards on Revisiting Cinefex, Issue 5, July 1981. […]

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