Special effects technicians Ray Harryhausen and Stan Winston

Puppet Masters

The art of Ray Harryhausen and Stan Winston
 Cynthia Piromalli

This Spring, Arc Cinema’s regular Cult of Arc program presents double features showcasing the works of ‘analogue’ special effects technicians Ray Harryhausen and Stan Winston.

Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen with a model skeleton

Ray Harryhausen was born in 1920 and passed away earlier this year. On 19 October we’ll be screening perhaps his best known work Jason and the Argonauts (1963). This film, of course, features the sword fight scene between three actors and seven ‘live’ skeletons. Although it appears on screen for mere minutes, the scene took Harryhausen four months to complete. This effort has not been equalled since, although it has been paid tribute to in many films, most notably Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness (1992), although Raimi split his final fight scene between stop motion, full size puppets and a number of extras suffering in uncomfortable suits.

Harryhausen wasn’t the pioneer of stop motion (or model animation, as it was previously referred to). That mantle belongs to Willis O’Brien, whose work on King Kong (1933) inspired Harryhausen. O’Brien became a mentor for Harryhausen, and the two had a lifelong working relationship. The Valley of Gwangi (1969), which will screen with Jason and the Argonauts at Arc Cinema on 19 October, was a project they worked on together. Sadly, O’Brien passed away before the film could be completed, but Harryhausen worked to ensure that it was finished to honour his friend and mentor. In that film, you’ll see nods to their respective works in King Kong and Mighty Joe Young. It goes without saying that you would see influences of this film in the Jurassic Park franchise – see later in this blog.

Harryhausen worked with a number of notable directors, getting his start with George Pal and also Frank Capra in the Special Services Division during the Second World War. Harryhausen’s work evolved as colour became the norm (introducing the word ‘Dynamation!’ more as a marketing term than a technical one), and also widescreen projection. Ever meticulous, Harryhausen was not only a master of puppets, but also lighting, back projection, and colour stock, particularly since many of his effects were to ultimately interact with live actors. He quite often became the ‘true’ director of many of the films he worked on, as his extensive pre-planning for the feature effects often paced the production’s.

Ray Harryhausen with a 'The Valley of the Gwangi’ model

Stop motion saw a decline in the late 1970s, with the progression of newer special effects, particularly from companies such as Industrial Light and Magic (both Spielberg and Lucas would go on to tribute Harryhausen as one of their influences). By the early ’90s, stop motion in commercial cinema was all but gone, with filmmakers turning to digital effects. Most notably, Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) – take a look at the special features on the DVD to see a test of the ‘raptors in the kitchen’ scene to see why Spielberg decided that stop motion wasn’t cutting it anymore in terms of allowing the audience not only to suspend belief, but feel terror. (By then, though, Harryhausen had been retired for around ten years, leaving the mantle of SFX master to Stan Winston, who we’ll chat about in a moment.)

Having said that, a number of the original films featuring Harryhausen’s work have since been remade. While the newer versions of Clash of the Titans and Mighty Joe Young may seem more impressive or lifelike, it is certainly arguable that even with more advanced technologies, they pale in comparison to Harryhausen’s original work.

Stan Winston

Stan Winston with some of his creations

Harryhausen was an inspiration to our other highlighted creator, Stan Winston (born 1946). Winston is sadly no longer with us either, having passed away in 2008. Winston worked in both ‘hands on’ and digital special effects, but his true talent lay with animatronics. One of his key creations, The Terminator (1984), will screen in Arc Cinema on 23 November. Directed by James Cameron, he and Winston worked on many projects together, and certainly almost all of Winston’s accolades came from that working partnership, most notably Teminator 2: Judgement Day (1992). All up, Winston won four Oscars for his work, all but one working with Cameron (his last Oscar win was for his work on the aforementioned Jurassic Park).

Back to The Terminator, the vision was essentially Cameron’s, but only Winston could bring it to life. In the first film, the metal assassin was an unwieldy beast, and took six puppeteers to control it, with rods, remote control and cables. By the time Terminator 2 came around, Winston honed the model to become much more agile, and by the time Terminator 3 (2003) was in production ‘we were … able to make real robots’ (Winston, quoted in 2007).

Winston can also be credited for ‘saving’ Predator (1987). In the early stages of production, the alien hunter was (no joke) Jean Claude Van-Damme on stilts (no, I didn’t believe it either). Recent visitor to Arc Cinema, Predator cinematographer Donald McAlpine, said: ‘it looked like a rat!’ Production closed down for a number of months while Arnie went and got himself hitched, meanwhile Winston worked tirelessly on a replacement. What emerged was the now cult figure of the dreadlocked, blade-wielding, ugly mofo skull collector that went on to appear in several other films (none with the same success as the original film) and a regular fixture in graphic novels.

A graduate of a make-up apprenticeship at Walt Disney Studios, Winston’s mark is everywhere since his emergence in television in 1972 and cinema in 1974: in make-up (from The Wiz to Big Fish), and puppets and animatronics (from The Thing to Lake Placid). Steady collaborations with directors including Cameron, Tim Burton, John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg and Jon Favreau saw his work reach millions upon millions of cinema goers, and allowed him to fully realise these directors’ visions.

Stan Winston and the Terminators

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the lives and careers of these two groundbreaking artists that helped shape special effects techniques and, in doing so, the evolution of American genre cinema. You can find out more about both of these artists in your own travels on the internet and your local DVD store (when we can’t bring them to you on the big screen in Arc Cinema), and I urge you to do so. Much is made of the ‘wow’ factor of digital special effects in recent years, in particular spectacle films like Avatar (which was one of Winston’s final projects, incidentally). In appreciating the here and now, it’s always important to look back at the groundwork, started by those like Willis O’Brien, and then further honed by the meticulous work, done by hand over months on end, and the attention to detail possessed by incredible creators like Ray Harryhausen and Stan Winston.

Arc Cinema’s Cult of Arc screens on 19 October and 23 November 2013.