Never heard of Ray Harryhausen? Don’t worry. Few outside of Hollywood have. But as Sony Movie Channel’s “Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan” (premieres April 3) makes crystal clear, the stop-motion animation wizard’s groundbreaking work inspired an entire generation of directors—and some of the biggest movies of at least the last three decades. “We wouldn’t be here today making movies like Jurassic Park and Avatar without Ray,” says director Steven Spielberg in this intriguing documentary. At one point, Avatar director James Cameron—not someone necessarily known for his humility—looks directly into the camera and states frankly, “Ray, I hope you can forgive me and know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Indeed, scenes in big modern blockbusters seem to constantly emulate shots first created by Harryhausen in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The metal stop-motion skeleton of The Terminator rising from the ashes of an explosion in Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi classic seems strangely similar to those living skeletons in Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963). And the similarities between Harryhausen’s multi-armed statue sword fighter in 1973’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and George Lucas’ light saber-wielding General Grievous from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith are, uh… striking to say the least. Tim Burton, who has often preferred stop-action to CGI, becomes a wide-eyed kid when he talks about how much Harryhausen impacted his childhood and career (His 1996 film Mars Attacks harkened back to some of Harryhausen’s 1950s UFO flicks, which are lauded for giving flying saucers “personality”—partly because of his invention of a suspension rig allowing for new angles of descent and other innovative saucer acrobatics). Harryhausen also invented film matting techniques still used today. “You felt the hand of an artist with him,” says Burton, often considered one of today’s artsiest big-budget directors.
Now 92, Harryhausen hasn’t worked directly on films for more than three decades (his last film was 1981’s Greek mythology blockbuster Clash of the Titans). But through interviews with the still sharp auteur, along with glowing praise from some of today’s biggest A-list directors and special-effects wizards, Sony Movie Channel creates a broad mosaic of a man whose work inspired an entire generation of Hollywood talent. “I don’t know anyone else who has taken all of these adolescent children and turned them into filmmakers, writers and creators,” says director Peter Jackson, often praised for his pioneering special effects work in the Lord of the Rings (and currently The Hobbit) films.
But this documentary’s most interesting moments come when both Harryhausen and his younger contemporaries wax philosophically about the shift away from models and toward computer animation over the last 20 years—and whether the resulting “realism” has sanitized the once organic poetry of an artisan building miniatures, shaping clay and creating performances frame by frame. In one interesting sequence, Cameron opines that he and other modern directors are merely doing what Harryhausen did: Using available technology to its full effect. “If Ray were working right now, he’d use the tools we’re using now,” he says. Interestingly, the documentary chooses to go right to Harryhausen, who directly contradicts him. “I think I would prefer to make films with the model animation rather than CGI—even today,” he says. Later in the doc, he adds, “Stop motion is still alive. It’s not dead.”
No one doubts that CGI has opened up endless possibilities for special-effects laden tentpoles and even “bigger” TV shows. But has something been lost along the way? Are audiences becoming jaded? Spielberg even asks that question at one point during the doc, arguing that content consumers will eventually need to tell filmmakers when they’ve gone too far. And scripts still do matter (The Transformers movies withstanding). But with 2012 going down as the highest grossing movie year in history and TV now living through its oft-cited “golden age,” there’s simply no evidence of a backlash. At least not yet. The bottom line: Harryhausen’s pioneering work (itself inspired by 1930s stop-action animation films like King Kong) continues to influence just about everything you see today. And the same will be true tomorrow. And beyond.