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Documentary a tribute to film wizard Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation created films of fantasy and wonder, and a parade of A-list filmmakers and effects technicians pay tribute in “Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan,” a career-spanning documentary.

The documentary, which won the “Best of Fest Audience Award” at the recent Buffalo International Film Festival, will be shown at 9 tonight and Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Screening Room (3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst).

Harryhausen mesmerized audiences with fantastic creatures – he preferred that term to “monsters” – and film clips of them are gloriously revisited. Among them are the saucer-shaped discs that careened into the nation’s capital in “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,” the dinosaur that ravaged New York City in “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” the octopus that threatened Golden Gate Bridge in “It Came From Beneath the Sea” and the snake-headed Medusa of “Clash of the Titans,” Harryhausen’s last picture in 1981.

Sweetening the pot for Harryhausen fans are rare test footage that includes never-completed projects. There are also drawings, storyboards and models, as well as interviews with actors, from some of Harryhausen’s 15 features.

Throughout the film, Harryhausen’s work is recalled with a mix of admiration and amazement by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Tim Burton, Nick Park and Guillermo del Toro. His work still looms large over theirs, they say, despite stop-motion being supplanted long ago by computer-generated images.

“We wouldn’t be here making these movies like ‘Jurassic Park’ or ‘Avatar’ without Ray, the father of all we do today in the business of science fiction, fantasy and adventure ... We owe you more than we could ever express,” Spielberg says.

“Ray is the only technician, really, who is an auteur,” director John Landis says.

“You feel the hand of an artist,” offers Tim Burton.

Harryhausen talks about how his world was upended after sitting through stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien’s “King Kong” at age 13. The picture inspired him to learn how to build dimensional models – rubber coating on the outside of a metal armature – and create the illusion of movement with each click of a camera’s shutter.

Harryhausen expanded his knowledge by studying art direction, film editing and photography. Several years after starting his career, he caught a major break by going to work with O’Brien on another ape picture, “Mighty Joe Young,” setting him on his future course.

The documentary recounts Harryhausen’s long partnership with film producer Charles H. Schneer, which allowed him unusual control by Hollywood standards. His name wasn’t known to the general public, but only a young Raquel Welch in 1966’s “One Million Years B.C.” would upstage his creatures.

Harryhausen’s films were billed – in the parlance of the time – as being made in “Dynamation” to distance them from animation’s association with cartoons.

Many of the effects Harryhausen created remain mindboggling, such as the sword-and-shield-wielding skeleton battle scenes in “Jason and the Argonauts,” the film Harryhausen has called his “most complete.” It was such a time-consuming process that a full day’s work lent itself to only a half-second of film.

The homage to Harryhausen has its flaws. The production values are surprisingly weak for a film about a special-effects master. Some areas are glossed over too quickly, although in a long career that’s hard to avoid. It also comes off as overly light with an ending on the boosterish side, probably because it was done on behalf of a foundation Harryhausen created to preserve his body of work.

Still, the documentary does a solid job of detailing Harryhausen’s illustrious career and enduring influence. The heartfelt tributes mean that much more considering that Hollywood recognition didn’t arrive until 11 years after he retired. Even then, Harryhausen’s honorary Gordon E. Sawyer Award for technical achievement was broadcast as a brief film clip on the Oscars in 1992 rather than with him appearing on stage.

“[Harryhausen’s legacy] is in good hands because it’s carried in the DNA of so many film fans,” says Randy Cook, animation supervisor for “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

To which Harryhausen, one of the true motion-picture giants, says: “That’s the way the snow ball rolls on.”



3 stars

Director: Gilles Penso

Running time: 97 minutes

Rating: Unrated but G equivalent.

The Lowdown: Filmmakers pay homage to stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen in a documentary about his career.