Sunday, 1 August 2010

Review - Ray Harryhausen Exhibition at the London Film Museum

I've now had a chance to check out the Ray Harryhausen Exhibition at the London Film Museum, and I have to say that although it wasn't very big, it was very nicely put together and well worth a visit.

For those who don't know (how could you not?!), Ray Harryhausen is a true legend in the world of movie special effects and stop-motion animation, with iconic creatures from games such as Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts, The Valley of Gwangi and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad among his credits.  The exhibition starts off with some introductory information about the early pioneers of stop-motion animation including French magician / director George Melies  and Willis H. O'Brien (whose work on King Kong did much to inspire a young Ray Harryhausen).  The first room has a display with models from King Kong along with information on how the models were constructed, along with a brief intro video by Ray Harryhausen and his teaming up with Willis H. O'Brien Mighty Joe Young, with Harryhausen ending up doing 90% of the modelling.

The next room features the Medusa model from Clash of the Titans, and a large screen video of the clip from the movies which shows Medusa in her full glory.  It doesn't matter how many times you've seen this, it's well worth watching again!

The third and final room is much larger, and features a life-size Medusa as you go in - definitely an intimidating sight!  There are several models on display with explanatory text, and each one has a video interview to go along with it, also featuring the models shown as they looked in the films they starred in.  Some of the videos have audio, some are just subtitled - a clever move as having them all playing aloud would have resulted in not being able to hear any of them properly!

There are many interesting snippets of information and insight on film-making / model-making in these interviews, and it will take you quite a while to go round all of them (which is definitely worth doing).  For instance, in the famous skeleton battle scene in Jason and the Argonauts, animating all of them was such an involved process that working flat out, Harryhausen could shoot 13 frames per day - about half a second of filming!  The whole scene took four and a half months to shoot.  The actors practiced their swordplay against people until they had memorised the moves, then they fought the air in the real shoot.  They were only able to see their opponents months later when the film was actually released.

The seven-headed hydra from the same film also caused problems - if the phone rang while Harryhausen was working on it, when he came back he sometimes forgot which head was meant to be moving which way.  I'm sure he was happy with the eventual result, but apparently there were several points when he regretted including the hydra in the film!

Another little factoid is that some of the creatures Harryhausen created were actually the real thing, with a mechanical skeleton to control movement and stuffing to pad it out - he couldn't improve on the real thing, so that's what he used - through sources such as taxidermists.

Although I knew that Ray Harryhausen made his creatures alone, as well as creating scenes and contributing to the storyline, one thing I hadn't realised was that he did all his own storyboarding as well - hundreds, sometimes thousands of sketches of what happened when, partly to minimise the possibility of something going wrong with the animation and also to help the actors visual their enemies who, as mentioned before, they would not actually see until months after they'd acted out their scenes.  In an age where special effects are created by large teams of experts, what just one man was able to do is quite remarkable.

The most amazing thing though?  Despite all the advances of CGI and other SFX, Ray Harryhausen's creatures still look amazing.  If you're interested in his work, in film-making or special effects, then you'll definitely enjoy the opportunity of looking at his work in more detail.

For more information on the Ray Harryhausen Exhibition at the London Film Museum, click here.

Related Links:

Press Conference with Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton at FanFest 2010

(All images copyright The London Film Museum)

CaptainD - Movie Reviews Blog

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