One of the best points that Peter Biskind’s book Easy Rider, Raging Bulls made is that thanks to the success of films by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Hollywood went from darker, more personal films in the 1970s, to essentially return to making pulpy Republic-style serials. Except instead of Flash Gordon spaceships on fishing wire, the budgets, and (when the films connected with an audience) the box office returns were astronomical.
As a result, concepts that would have been B-movies in Hollywood prior to the late 1970s became the norm. Indeed, Steven Spielberg admitted that when shot Raiders of the Lost Ark “I made it as a B-movie… I didn’t see the film as anything more than a better made version of the Republic serials.” The films of Lucas and Spielberg, such as Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and E.T., each of which grossed hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, were built on the efforts of special effects pioneers such as Ray Harryhausen.
Born in Los Angeles, Harryhausen was inspired by the seminal 1933 King Kong; he was 12 when the film was released, and said:
King Kong haunted me for years, I came out of the theatre in another world. I’d never see anything like that before in my life. I didn’t know how it was done and that was half the charm. I didn’t just say “eureka, I’ve found what I want to do”; that came over a period of time. But I’d done a few dioramas in clay of the Bre tar pits and I saw in King Kong how you could make them move. Luckily a friend of my father’s worked at RKO and he knew all about stop-motion, so I started experimenting in my garage.
Building on those intense early efforts, Harryhausen devoted his career in film to filming miniatures, stop-motion animation, and other complex special effects, many decades before digital effects were even a gleam in George Lucas’s eye. He eventually put his craftsmanship to work producing and/or supervising the special effects for Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and One Million Years, B.C., among many other films.
Today, Harryhausen is 83 and semi-retired. But Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, a brand new oversized hard cover coffee table book puts his over sixty-year career in Hollywood into sharp focus. Its over 300 pages are profusely illustrated with color and black and white movie stills, behind the scenes photos, storyboards, and plenty of reminiscing from the master.
Its back cover has numerous blurbs from those influenced by Harryhausen’s pioneering work, including Lucas, Spielberg, James Cameron and Kermit The Frog(!) (“He’s a master manipulator”, the superstar Muppet reluctantly admits).
Almost every big budget film released by Hollywood over the past 25 summers owes something to Harryhausen’s efforts. However it’s kind of a shame that Harryhausen himself never got the budgets to work with that filmmakers are accustomed to today. But as the back cover blurbs to Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life indicate, they couldn’t have done it without him.
A Guilty Pleasure of the Small Screen
Harryhausen’s films were guility pleasures of the big screen. But a guilty pleasure of mine (and a surprisingly large number of other people) on the small screen was the cheesy 1970 science fiction TV series UFO, about a top secret paramilitary organization dedicated to saving the world from invading alien spacecraft. The series starred veteran expatriate American actor Ed Bishop, who played the lead role with such stiff-jawed toughness he made the heroic Capt. Kirk seem like Alan Alda.
But the show was loaded with enough gadgets, futuristic cars and air and spacecraft to make every boy who was 12 years old or younger (I was about five when it first debuted on American TV) to drool in anticipation of each episode. And for slightly older boys, just as with the original Star Trek the female officers in miniskirts didn’t hurt either.
Chris Bentley’s new book, The Complete Book of Gerry Anderson’s UFO is an 8X11-sized trade paperback book with color covers and scads of black and white photos throughout its 176 pages. It begins with a foreword by Ed Bishop, and is then divided into a look at how the show came to be, an episode and cast guide, look at the technology behind the show, and then some of the toys, models, and other marketing gimmicks that were released after the show’s run.
If you’re a fan of the show, it’s certainly a fun book, and a fun look at what we thought the 1980s would look like in 1970. Needless to say, the futuristic world of 1980 (which of course is now growing ever more distant in the past) turned out very differently than the sort of sleek Mies van der Rohe sans serif modernism that UFO projected. On the plus side, last time I checked, we’re not being invaded by hordes of liquid breathing little green men in chrome flying saucers, either.
At least, I don’t think we are…
But hey, the truth is out there! (Whoops, sorry, catch phrase from a different show about a top-secret paramilitary organization that investigates unexplained phenomenon.)
Just as Harryhausen’s efforts are up on the big screen of every Hollywood special effects film today, the special effects men of UFO went on to work on the James Bond, Superman, and Batman films, and many other films shot in England.
There are a lot of childhood memories–and great pioneering craftsmanship contained in these two books, which are well worth owning.