Toasting the titan

Pub date September 6, 2012
WriterSean McCourt
SectionPixel Vision

Special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen had to invent unconventional techniques to bring his movie magic to the big screen when he revolutionized the world of fantasy film making in the 1950s and 1960s. His work on Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), among many others, has influenced several generations of filmmakers that grew up watching his stop-motion creatures.

Harryhausen’s life and incredible career are celebrated in a new documentary, Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, an expansive look not only at the man and his work, but also the huge influence he continues to have in modern movie magic. Featuring interviews with Harryhausen (now 92), alongside Hollywood heavyweights like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, the film is having its United States premiere Sat/8 at San Leandro’s Historic Bal Theatre thanks to Bay Area Film Events.

BAFE has put on a variety of great classic film screenings and parties over the past several years. “The main reason we got into doing these events is to have fun and present the films and subjects we love. Ray Harryhausen is a big part of that, our first show featured Ray’s work, so this brings us full circle,” says BAFE’s Bob Johnson.

While Harryhausen himself will not be in attendance, two local special-effects luminaries will be: Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic and Phil Tippett of Tippett Studio. Both have publicly shared their admiration of the effects pioneer, and will discuss his influence on their work, which between them has included iconic imagery and characters from the original Star Wars trilogy, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), The Abyss (1989), RoboCop (1987), and many more.

“We would have loved to have Ray here as well, but unfortunately at 92, Ray is not traveling as he used to and feels that at this stage in his life, the documentary says everything he wants to say and he considers it the final word on his career,” says Johnson.

Documentary producer Tony Dalton, who put the film together with the cooperation of the Harryhausen family, will also be participating in the event via Skype from London.

“I spoke to Tony and he graciously agreed to be part of the show via Skype — and I say graciously because he will be doing this at about 3:30am his time in the UK,” says Johnson. “Since this is the U.S. premiere and the focus of the event is the documentary, we thought it was important that someone from the film be on hand to discuss how it came about, what it took to bring together many of Hollywood’s major producers, directors and special effects artists and just how everything came to be.”

The evening will also feature a screening of the classic Harryhausen film The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), rare shorts, prizes, and more, all part of an event that will benefit the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation.

“Ray has an immense collection of original props, materials, and film from the movies he worked on. This is amazingly rare in the motion picture industry where studios let props rot in storerooms or put them up for auction or just let them walk. It is even more rare for films the industry may not consider to be ‘A’ pictures,” says Johnson. “Ray and his wife Diana have set up a foundation whose main goals are to preserve, house and display these items, as well as make them available to share with the public. These funds are going direct to the foundation, so they will not be filtered through any other third party organization.”

“So, you can enjoy a celebration of Ray’s work, see a brand new documentary, relive Ray’s work with one of his films, meet two Academy Award-winning industry professionals, and be a part of preserving a part of motion picture history. Not too bad for a night out at the movies.”

John Stanley, who reported on the Bay Area entertainment scene for 33 years at the San Francisco Chronicle and spent five years hosting KTVU’s beloved late-night show Creature Features, has interviewed Harryhausen multiple times.

“On each occasion Harryhausen was like an enthusiastic youth, a child waiting in line outside a theater to see the latest Star Wars extravaganza. Ask him about the joy of creativity and he would sprinkle in the reality too — the long, difficult days of single-frame exposure that would stretch into weeks that would stretch into months,” says Stanley, who’s now an author.

“In the case of [1981’s] Clash of the Titans, it was going to be his last major stop-motion animation feature, as computerized special effects were just starting to take over the motion picture industry at that time. It was the end of an era for Harryhausen, but his enthusiasm for his specialized art carried through. Given the neverending life of film, as long as we continue to preserve it, Ray Harryhausen and stop-motion animation will live on forever; sweeping us into other dimensions and faraway worlds with its unique way of capturing the movements of what would have been mere figments of our imaginations without his devoted efforts to give them breathtaking life.”

Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan
Sat/8, 7 p.m., $15
Historic Bal Theatre
14808 East 14th St., San Leandro