Knowing when the monster’s coming

Ray Harryhausen - Special Effects TitanWhen I reviewed issue #5 of the visual effects journal Cinefex, I had this to say about stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen: “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.”

Okay, maybe it’s a tad contentious. In the context of the review I’ll stand by it (and point out I also said that Harryhausen“was – and still is – a hero of mine”). My point was simply that, once he’d devised a system by which he could make fantasy films packed to the rafters with mythical creatures both in a reasonable space of time and for a reasonable budget (no mean feat, especially when he was literally the only person doing it), Harryhausen stuck to what he knew.

Fortunately, what he knew was pure magic. As a kid it certainly worked on me like a spell. Two spells, actually.

The first was the simple joy of watching an adventure film featuring living skeletons, a bronze statue that came to life, a giant cyclops and, if I was lucky, a lady wearing little more than a couple of silk handkerchiefs. This was the magic of story.

The second spell was quite different. The more I watched Harryhausen’s films, the more I realised they obeyed certain rules. For example, when the camera was up close on one of the actors and moving around, you knew you weren’t going to see the monster. But if the camera locked itself down – usually with a wide lens and a clearly-defined foreground and background – then you knew the monster was coming. This was the magic of technique.

There were other clues that the monster was on its way. Those locked-down shots were sometimes a slightly different colour to the rest. And they looked … not exactly fuzzy but sort of coarse. Sandpapery. At the time, I didn’t know that what I was seeing was a subtle shift in both colour balance and contrast and an increase in film grain, both caused by the original rear projection plate being rephotographed during the Dynamation process. A bit like when you photocopy a photocopy: you can never quite retain the detail of the original.

It was the same shift in picture quality I’d noticed in the old westerns they ran in the evenings, when shots didn’t just switch suddenly from one to the next but somehow melted into each other (this usually happened after a love scene, or any shot when the hero was staring broodily into the distance). This sudden change in visual texture, I eventually learned, was another side-effect of film duplication, this time occurring when an optical printer was used to create a lap-dissolve.

I might not have understood what Ray Harryhausen was doing to put his monsters into the same world as his actors, but I knew he was doing something,  and I knew it had something to do with the way the film was made. As with all good conjuring tricks, there was a secret there waiting to be discovered. Knowing that made me want to find out what it was, and a lifetime’s fascination in visual effects was born.

And that’s the main reason I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, Gilles Penso’s documentary about one of the founding fathers of modern visual effects. The list of contributors is impressive: Cameron, Spielberg, Jackson, Del Toro, Tippett, Gilliam and many more, plus the man himself, of course. As well as clips from Harryhausen’s films, there are also snippets of test footage from unrealised projects.

Most of all, of course, I’m looking forward to the bits when the monsters come along.

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