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The Harryhausen Chronicles

"The essence of fantasy [is] transforming reality into the imagination," explains legendary special effects man Ray Harryhausen in the The Harryhausen Chronicles (1998), a documentary that explores the craftsmanship and artistry of Harryhausen's career in stop motion animation. The film, written and directed by Richard Schickel, includes interviews with friends, such as longtime Harryhausen pal, author Ray Bradbury and some of today's filmmakers who have been influenced by Harryhausen's magic. In addition, The Harryhausen Chronicles is narrated by Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy.

According to Schickel's documentary, Ray Harryhausen found his life's work early, when, in 1933 at the age of thirteen, he first saw King Kong at Grauman's Chinese Theater. From Harryhausen's own recollection, the movie left him awestruck and literally changed his life, sparking an inexplicable interest in stop motion effects. He went to work immediately, learning animation techniques and setting up a shop in the family garage. The Harryhausen Chronicles includes footage of some very early Harryhausen efforts, including some model dinosaurs the young filmmaker took with him to MGM and a meeting with King Kong special effects guru, Willis O'Brien.

Around this time Harryhausen also met a man who would become a big influence in his life, fellow dinosaur lover Ray Bradbury. The two became friends just out of high school, and as Bradbury recalls in an interview, they promised "They'd build dinosaurs forever." And Ray Harryhausen got busy doing just that. The Harryhausen Chronicles features clips from a 16mm project called Evolution, an attempt by a young Harryhausen to "show the story of life's beginnings on earth." He soon became discouraged with the project, after viewing Fantasia (1940) which he felt he could never top. Evolution ended up as Harryhausen's sample reel. In the meantime, he went to work making training films for the Army (Clips from several of these are shown in the documentary).

After the war, Harryhausen decided to make a series of nursery rhyme films for children. The Harryhausen Chronicles includes drawings, designs and film clips from these puppet films: Little Miss Muffett, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and King Midas. The last in the series was supposed to be The Tortoise and the Hare, but destiny called, in the form of Willis O'Brien, with an offer for Ray to work with his mentor on Mighty Joe Young (1949). The Harryhausen Chronicles shows a still of Ray with the tiny ape model, as the creator describes how he animated 85% of Mighty Joe's scenes and worked to develop a character for the creature.

Soon Ray Harryhausen's career took off. The documentary traces his work on films such as It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), where costs forced him to build a six legged octopus (instead of eight legs) to attack the Golden Gate Bridge; Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), in which the extra-terrestrial destruction had to be animated frame by frame, as each brick fell; and of course The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), the first film to feature Harryhausen's trademark living skeleton. Interviews with Lucasfilm Special Effects Supervisor, and winner of 8 Oscars, Dennis Muren, who saw Seven Voyages eight times in the first week it came out, and with Henry Selick, director of James and the Giant Peach (1996), another Sinbad fan, are included in the documentary.

Harryhausen calls Jason and the Argonauts (1963) the "best picture we did" and explains the tedious hours that went into creating the most famous sequence - the mass rising of the seven skeleton warriors. Because there were so many figures to animate, Harryhausen could only manage thirteen frames a day (which equals one second of film). So the skeleton scene alone took 4 months. "Skeletons are really my best friends," Harryhausen once admitted and his dedication to this scene alone bears this out.

Perhaps some of the most interesting moments in The Harryhausen Chronicles are attempts to dispel a little bit of the magic by observing how animated and live action scenes were woven together. For example, in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), the documentary reveals how the battle with the six armed Kali was perfectly choreographed by strapping three stuntmen together with a belt so the actors could get their moves down. And we get a look at the Raquel Welch model used in One Million Years B.C. (1966) for the scene where Welch's character is picked up by a pterodactyl.

In all, The Harryhausen Chronicles is an intriguing look at the skills of a master craftsman and a candid portrait of a man with a dream. As Harryhausen puts it, "I owe everything to this giant gorilla."

Producer: Richard Schickel
Director: Richard Schickel
Screenplay: Richard Schickel
Film Editing: Bryan McKenzie
Cast: Leonard Nimoy (narrator), interviews with Ray Bradbury, Ray Harryhausen.
BW & C-58m.

by Stephanie Thames

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