Sunday, December 27, 2020

Bone rooms reviews the Ray Harryhausen Ultimate Collection

and now for something completely different...

When it comes to sci-fi films released before the 80s new wave hits like The Terminator, The Thing and Back to the Future made famous creators like Stan Winston, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis and Rob Bottin, there was one man who seemingly created all the films we loved as kids.

Via Vision Entertainment has just released the Ray Harryhausen Ultimate Collection - a boxed set of blurays, containing arguably 7 of the best movies the special effects wizard helped create.  There is something here for everyone, be it fantasy, sci-fi, monster or prehistoric critter lover. The set also highlights a crime that has been perpetrated in Hollywood around these movies, but more on that later.

I was first introduced to these films - often using a technique of stop motion animation Ray dubbed Dynamation - in the 70s when they either played over school holidays or were late night films on the single commercial tv station we had in Canberra. At a time when there were no local museums to see fossils or ancient artifacts from civilizations long gone, Ray’s films were a window into a much larger and older world.

Ray's dinosaur work was a haven during a time when there were very few movies containing dinosaurs that did not include living lizards with bits stuck on them.

My love of prehistoric animals began when my kindergarten class was shown a short 16mm clip called ‘A WORLD IS BORN’ (which turned out to be the Rite of Spring sequence from Fantasia), and I recall running home and telling my parents all about these weird things called dinosaurs. Though my love of prehistory began with Disney, it was cemented watching the fantastical films of Ray Harryhausen. 

Collectors like to collect, and despite how famous Ray is in fantasy circles, there has been very little of his to own other than a few books, hand-signed prints or original posters. This has always struck me as strange as the artefact of stop motion is something that cannot be overlooked when it comes to our love of these films. Computer animation is amazing, but it’s not a physical medium. You cannot hold the dinosaur or alien that you see on the screen, but with stop motion the models were physical entities, and many of them still exist. I was lucky enough to see one of Ray’s original models when I visited The Hollywood Museum in LA (which I will be reviewing soon in Bone Rooms). 

The Hollywood Museum in LA has many prehistoric items on display and I will cover my visit there soon. 

Maybe that’s why so many of us seem to have connected with Ray’s creatures (he never called them monsters) so much, they are art, just like any sculpture or painting hanging in a museum. One of the documentaries explains how Ray’s warehouse was opened after his death and all the amazing items he had held onto were discovered and catalogued. These have been the basis of a Ray Harryhausen exhibition that has recently been shown in various locations around the world.

Titans of Cinema is currently on display at the National Galleries Scotland and you can even buy a poster of the exhibit at

 Well, with this box set, Via Vision Entertainment have created something you will want to possess. Before we get into what the set contains, I’d like to give a recommendation to the set itself. Via Vision Entertainment has created a unique box the disks come in. Prominently displaying the cyclops from Sinbad, as well as the now world-famous skeletons from Jason and the argonauts, the box has a pull-away lid, giving it a solid feel and an odd enjoyment to open. 

The films have been colourised under Ray’s supervision. In one commentary he admits he’d intended them to be colour, but often when making these films all they could afford was black and white film stock. For all you purists out there, don’t be disheartened as the movies have a remarkable feature I have never seen on a bluray before. During playback you can actually toggle from colour to the original black and white – and the switch is almost instantaneous.  For those who love film and like to compare sequences and quality, this is a lot of fun. 

                                 Special effects

The bonus material you receive on these disks runs from extensive to sparse depending on the individual film, but I will point out you won’t be disappointed as there is a literal who’s who of special effects technicians and film directors geeking out over their love for all things Harryhausen. There are well crafted documentaries galore about the making of these films and the work Ray accomplished in his time and what it meant to so many of these film makers. Names like Stan Winston, John Landis, Phil Tippet, Leonard Nimoy, Joe Dante, Dennis Muren, Rick Baker, John Dykstra, Kevin Kutchaver, Forrest J Ackerman, Ken Ralston, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton all appear.

Ray with two fan-boys, John Landis and Phil Tippet

These Ray-minacs are either interviewed, commentate a film or host an interview with Ray; and the delight on these giants of cinema as they get to ask their long-time idol about his films - that clearly mean so much to them - alone makes grabbing a copy of these disks a must for any Harryhausen fan.

One comment I found fascinating was when Ray began talking about his own influences. Obviously, Willis O’Brian’s work on King Kong was important – but Ray then talks about the art of Zdenek Burien, who he calls his “1st art director”. The famed paleo-artist has been highlighted for several issues in The Prehistoric Times Magazine over the last few years, and to see ancient creatures Burien helped highlight, such as the terror bird Phorusrhacos, come to life under Ray’s manipulations is a real pleasure for those of us who grew up looking at his art. 
The Phorusrhacos appeared in Mysterious Island (1961), an adaptation of the novel by Jules Verne

Burien’s influence can be seen in Ray’s own pencil work, which he drew to give his producers and directors an idea of what he was going to create. Ray’s work is not only highly detailed, its full of life, emotion and often tells a story, just the way Burien’s work does. I personally feel Ray’s drawings are an unappreciated resource and show the true talent of the man.

Though this set does not carry the more famous Harryhausen prehistoric films like the Valley of Gwangi, it still contains enough prehistoric and mythological critters to make any fantasy or sci-fi fan happy.

Be warned, the following contains 70-year-old spoilers…

It Came from Beneath the Sea - 1955

Ray's Storyboards for IT Came from Beneath the Sea
Ray's Storyboards for IT Came from Beneath the Sea

Part of a glut of radiation-paranoia sci-fi movies that swarmed out of the 1950s, this one was a little different, a little more clever, by explaining the giant octopus star was not created by atomic bombs but driven out of its Pacific home because of them. In a way you could consider this a prehistoric movie as Ray’s creature was an ancient one living happily at the bottom of the sea until disturbed.  
fun fact the “sixtopus” did not have 8 arms because ray had very limited funds and could only afford to animate 6 of them.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers – 1956

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, than all you need to know about Earth Vs the Flying Saucers can be learnt in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks. Not only does Burton use many of the most famous shots Ray created in his film 40 years earlier - especially the iconic attack on Washington DC – he had intended to stop-motion animate all the Martians but gave up on the idea for budget reasons. Its weird to think that stop-motion had once been the cost-saving medium for cinema, and todays its one of the most expensive.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad – 1958

"Jason is one of my favourites because it incorporates creatures that one designs in a natural way. All mythology is a blessing for three- dimensional animation. That's one reason why I wanted to get away from the dinosaurs years ago. The medium had been used so much for gorillas and dinosaurs. I wanted to explore the field of fairy tales and Sinbad the Sailor stories. I found that the latter was a very useful way to break the mold of the dinosaur."

What Ray achieved with these films is nothing short of stunning. Creatures we only knew as static images or statues in a museum came to life under his creative fingers in such a way they are still influencing modern cinema. Did anyone else notice Ray’s cyclops in Spielberg’s Ready Player One? If you are reading this, I’m sure you did!

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver – 1960

For once Ray’s work did not include prehistoric or mythical beasts, instead he worked on creatures known to many of us. In many ways this highlights his technical achievements even more as he was required to make these animals move in a very specific way, otherwise the effect would not ring true to our eye.

Fun Fact: If you follow Swift's directions, Gulliver was on his way to Tasmania when he was blown off course. Australia and Tasmania were alien sounding landscapes at the time and Lilliput would be positioned just north of Adelaide in South Australia!

Jason and the Argonauts – 1963

Skeletons…is there anything more that needs to be said? Possibly the most important special effect sequence put on film since King Kong, the technical work Ray put into this skeleton fight alone earnt him the right to be named one of the most important technicians ever. Think about the skill involved of animating a large number of small figures in stop motion and matching them to the movement of the live action actors…amazing.

Fun Fact: Ray had wanted to do the skeleton attack at night but believed the censors would deem that far to scary for children. Now that would have been something to see.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad – 1973

The Canberra Times ad for Golden Voyage of Sinbad - a big release for Canberra back in the 1970s.

Returning to his Sinbad series, here we get one of the very few cinema representations of a Griffin. This was lucky as early sketches from Ray reveal he had originally intended the films centaur to fight a Neanderthal.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger - 1977

Golden Voyage was still in the theatres and doing a great trade when it was decided a third film was needed to cash in. This time, though, few mythological creatures would be featured, instead Ray was asked to return to his roots and add some prehistoric animals.

This is a special film for cinephiles/sci-fi fans as the cast includes Patrick Wayne (John Wayne’s son) a Dr Who (Patrick Thortoun), a Star Wars mainstream, the enormous Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) and of course Jane Seymour.

Fun Fact: the Neanderthal/Troglodyte figurine was later cannibalized to make Calibos in Clash of the Titans.

And what was the crime mentioned earlier? Ray Harryhausen, the man who created some of the most memorable moments during the golden and silver age of Hollywood, never received an oscar for his special effects work. In 1992 the Academy did award him the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, given to "an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry", but that’s it! The man who inspired so many special effects artists and helped create modern sci-fi fantasy cinema as we know it has never received any real recognition from the industry he helped create.  In his adopted home of England though, Ray did receive an honorary BAFTA in 2010 at the British Film Institute. The award was presented to him by Peter Jackson.

So, there you go, a new box set highlighting one of the most important men in cinema, containing some amazing films, most of which include a huge amount of interesting extras – often by some of the world’s most important film makers.

The set is available wherever blurays and DVDs can be purchased or click the link below