Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Creatures of Jason and the Argonauts

Ray Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles on June 29, 1920.  From an early age he was fascinated with dinosaurs and fantasy and as a child, he became adept at drawing.  Later, he taught himself to make marionettes, dioramas and other models. It was 1933's King Kong that inspired Harryhausen to work in film.  He taught himself the process of stop-motion animation and began a decades-long career as the master of the craft.
Harryhausen's work in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) is often cited as his best. The film uses multiple techniques and the effects appear nearly seamless.  Inspired by Sergio Leone's The Colossus of Rhodes, Harryhausen decided to modify the character of Talos to become a titanic, living bronze statue.
Harryhausen's Harpies were an extremely complex effect.  He had two of them flying in and out of ancient ruins and attacking an actor.  Sometimes on each frame, he would have to re-paint the wires that the characters were suspended from so they would blend into the background.
Harryhausen has said he's received some flack over the years for making Triton a live action actor instead of a stop-motion character.  There are a couple of reasons it was done this way.  The first is that water does not miniaturize well.  If the sequence were done with miniatures, they would have had to have been huge to make it look realistic.  As it was, they used a five foot miniature of the Argo for the sequence at the clashing rocks.  The second reason was time.  Stop-motion animation is extremely time-consuming.  This sequence was shot in a week but if it had been animated it could have taken 2-4 months!
One of the most impressive feats of animation in the film is the seven-headed Hydra.  Imagine having to keep track of the movements of all seven heads and two tails in each frame without the aid of instant video to check your progress! Harryhausen had to keep meticulous notes and might not realize there was an error until the film was processed and seen in dailies.
Finally, the most famous and most difficult sequence in the film was Jason's battle with the Skeleton Warriors.  Harryhausen had already created a single skeleton for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in 1958.  Now, he had to create seven more and animate all of them in some shots.  Detailed pre-planning for this sequence was essential to make it seem as though the skeletons were truly interacting with the actors.
The actors had to carefully rehearse each movement and remember it exactly. Then, Harryhausen had to analyze the shot film, counting each frame and taking careful note of where sword was to meet sword.  It took four months to animate the sequence that appears on screen for less than three minutes!
Ray Harryhausen is a self-taught master of the art of stop-motion.  He has inspired more special effects artists and filmmakers than any other single filmmaker.  This year, he celebrates his 90th birthday.  Check out his official website for more great information.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Jason and the Argonauts was directed by Don Chaffey who would go on to direct The Viking Queen and Pete's Dragon.  It was shot in the autumn of 1961 but not completed and released until the summer of 1963 because of all the complicated special effects work by master, Ray Harryhausen.
I consider the film to be a classic of the sword and sandal genre even though it might not technically be part of it.  It was shot in Italy but it is clearly a British/American production.  Where the Italian films of the genre usually cast a hulking muscle man as the hero, this film went down a different road, casting Todd Armstrong as Jason (with his voice dubbed by Tim Turner) and Nigel Green as Hercules.  Jason is not yet a hero when the film begins.  He is a very young and idealistic young man who only leads by virtue of his royal lineage.  Hercules is an older, stronger man whose name is already legend.  He's a bit more personable than some of the Italian Hercules.
Gary Raymond as Acastus and Todd Armstrong as Jason

The film is well-designed both in screenplay and in art direction.  The crew got permission to film in ancient ruins.  In fact, they got permission to climb around on them; something that would never happen today!  The Argo has a classic look that would be copied again and again after this film.  
In fact, this film establishes many fantastic archetypes of design and story that would be copied in mythological films and television series for decades to come.  Though I think the casting of the Olympian gods was a bit off (they seem too young to me), the manner in which they're presented is very effective.  They watch events from Mt. Olympus in a pool of water and move mortals about on a game board as if they were chess pawns.  These are ideas that would be used ever after in portrayals of the gods on film, including in another Harryhausen film, The Clash of the Titans.
Niall MacGinnis as Zeus and Honor Blackman as Hera

Though there are many departures in story from Apollonius' Agonautica, this is a strong adaptation for film.  Many of the darker aspects of the story dealing with Jason and Medea's relationship were not dealt with at all.  They would bogged down the adventure of the story and probably not been popular with audiences of the day.
Of course the real reason for the success of this film is Ray Harryhausen's fabulous special effects work. People never remember the directors or writers of Harryhausen's films, they remember his name, and for good reason.  Harryhausen's work in this film is nothing less than stellar.  Characters like Talos, the Harpies, Triton, the Hydra and the Skeleton Warriors have inspired generations of filmmakers.
This is a fantastically entertaining film that holds up well all these years later. Bernard Herrmann's score is stirring, Chaffey's direction is engaging and Harryhausen's creatures are amazing!
The film has been very well-preserved.  I have it on DVD as part of the Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection.  This is a terrific boxset.  The art is great and there are some bonus interviews with Harryhausen that are almost as fun to watch as the films themselves.
The largest public exhibition of Harryhausen's work is on display at the London Film Museum until June of 2011.  More details can be found on the artist's official website.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Eye Candy: Mark Forest in Hercules Against the Mongols

Mark Forest was born Lou Degni in 1933.  He starred in 12 sword and sandal films from 1960 to 1965, most as Maciste or Hercules.  Here are some images from Hercules Against the Mongols (1963).

Monday, September 27, 2010

Hercules Against the Mongols

Hercules Against the Mongols (1963) was originally entitled Macsite contro i Mongoli in Italian.  It was shot with a 2.35 aspect ratio but I believe it only survives in its cropped 4:3 frame for American television.
The story begins in 1227 after the death of Genghis Khan.  Khan's three sons now rule his lands and, against their father's final wishes, they desire war with the West.  They attack a western kingdom and kill its king.  
The young Prince Alexander escapes and Hercules encounters him in the forest.  He tells the hero that his sister, Princess Bianca is being held captive by the Mongols.  
Hercules arranges to have himself captured so he can get close to the princess.  Then the hero faces the brothers in a series of challenges.  When he is victorious, he trades his freedom for that of Bianca.  The brothers release her but treacherously re-capture her.  Hercules must then escape and with the help of a nearby army, he frees Bianca and reunites her with Alexander.
I love the costume design in this film.  There's a lot of attention to detail and a great variety of costume styles.  It's kind of weird to see Hercules paired with a medieval army but somehow it sort of works.  Mark Forest makes a great Hercules which is probably why he starred in 12 sword and sandal films.  This is not one of the more stellar Hercules films but it's not bad.  And it features a giant grist mill: foreshadowing Conan?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sea Monster from Hercules and the Princess of Troy

In Hercules and the Princess of Troy, Hercules must battle a sea monster to which young maidens of Troy are sacrificed at the orders of the gods.
The monster is fantastic for 1965 television.  The credits don't indicate who created it or performed it but it looks great on-screen.
It moves through the water and is very menacing on land.
What I love about practical creatures like this is how the actors can interact so believably with them.  Gordon Scott as Hercules is able to be lifted up in the claws of the monster and tossed about.  Sure, you can tell it's a giant puppet but at least it's actually there.  Monsters like this add a lot of the charm of these films.  I wish we knew who to credit for this one.

Mysteriously, the monster has tentacles in the opening teaser which seem to disappear later.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Eye Candy: Gordon Scott in Hercules and the Princess of Troy

6'3" Gordon Scott was born in 1926 as Gordon Werschkul.  He was a physical education major at the University of Oregon before having varied careers in the military, as a fireman, cowboy and lifeguard.  He was spotted by Hollywood talent scouts and cast as Tarzan, a character he would play in six films from 1955-1960.  He married his Tarzan co-star, Vera Miles in 1956.  Following those films, he would go on to become a star in the sword and sandal genre, including Hercules and the Princess of Troy.