Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Jason and the Argonauts.

The next Film Club evening at the Robert Burns Centre Film Theatre is showing the 2012 documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan which covers the life and influence of this 92 year old, in what is known as stop motion.  So to give us an example of the great mans work it was decided to show what he regards as his best film, Jason and the Argonauts (1963). A UK/USA co-production that originally had a working title of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Basically it’s Greek mythology, King Aristo was murdered by Pelias and had his lands taken. His son Jason, soon to become a legendary Greek hero, puts a ‘crew’ together with the sole intent of avenging his father and reclaiming his lands. But to do this, well it is Greek mythology, he has to go to the far end of the earth to get the Golden Fleece which will apparently give him the boost needed to take back what he deems is his birth right, and rule the people.

Harryhausen's famous fighting skeleton's

The Hastings born director Don Chaffey directed this fantasy feature film. His claim to fame was directing this type of adventure movie as well as working for the Children’s Film Foundation in the late 1940’s and on American TV in the 1980’s directing such series as Stingray, T J Hooker and Charlie’s Angels. He also worked with Harryhausen on One million Years BC (1966).  Todd Armstrong in his best-known role is Jason and another American Nancy Kovack played Medea. British actor Gary Raymond (Look Back in Anger 1958) is Acastus, the son of King Aristo. Bond girl and Avenger Honor Blackman plays the female God Hera. 

Honer Blackman

Nancy Kovack.

Our well-informed host for the evening, a plasticine model of Film Club regular Mr Steven Pickering, told us that instead of focusing on the normal details involved with the film he would instead look at the special effects, a process known as ‘stop-motion’. He went on to say that after being suitably impressed by the state of art CGI used in Life of Pi (2012) it would be interesting to compare Harryhausen’s equally ground breaking work 50 years previous.

More of the wonderful special effects.

George Melies, who used it to animate static objects in his 1899 film Cinderella, first developed the technique of stop motion (also sometimes called stop-action) almost accidentally. However, the use of stop motion to animate puppets first started to appear in such films as The Battle of the Stag Beetles (1910) and the stunning 1930 film The Tale of the Fox both by Russian stop-motion animator Ladilaw Starelaw.

Fay Wray.
Typically a small-scale model is made with articulated parts. In filming, it is posed as desired, and a frame or two is shot. Then the figure is adjusted slightly and another frame or two is exposed, and so on. The result on screen is a continuous, somewhat jerky movement. To create one second of finished film, however, requires 24 or 25 individual frames. 

The technique was picked up by Hollywood and used to great effect by another motion picture special effects and stop motion pioneer the Irish American Willis O’Brien; he transformed an eighteen-inch high rubber gorilla into the scream-inducing King Kong in the 1933 version that starred the wonderful Fay Wray. It’s hard to imagine the producers initially considered using trained gorillas or a man in a rubber suit! (Andy Sirkis wasn’t around then) Ray Harryhausen got to work with his mentor O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young (1949) for which O’Brien won the 1950 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

A Gustave Dore Illustration.
Harryhausen perfected the technique of merging the animated figures with previously, carefully choreographed, live footage, which is what you see in Jason and the Argonauts. He has stated that his main inspiration has been the haunting illustrations of the French artist, engraver, illustrator and sculptor Gustave Dore.

The stop motion technique worked well, particularly with solid lumbering subjects, and was used in the special effects industry right through to the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983). It was eventually replaced in the 1980’s by the newly developed, smoother, more fluid computer generated alternatives.

Steve concluded by informing us that today it is rarely if ever used in mainstream cinema; however, as an art form it is more than alive and kicking. It has been embraced by a whole new generation of filmmakers, inspired by the likes of Harryhausen and his creations. The special effect techniques used by mainstream cinema have moved on, but the quality and diversity of stop motion animation continues unabated.

As part of his introduction Steve showed us a short clip from the Canadian film Madame Tutli Putli (2007), which won much acclaim and awards on its release in 2007. Link as follows: 

All but one audience member returned for the ‘after film’ discussion which really took the form of learning more about this very interesting cinematic art form, wetting our appetite’s for next weeks documentary.

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