Stop-motion animation is an incredibly difficult and time consuming process. It involves taking a pose-able model, arranging it into a desired position, filming a few frames, reposing the model slightly, filming a frames, and so on and so forth until, once all the footage is put together, it appears as though the model is moving entirely of its own accord. One of the best examples of stop-motion animation is the classic film King Kong, where Kong and the other creatures were made to move using the technique.
According to his website, it was actually watching King Kong that started Ray Harryhausen, one of the greatest practitioners of stop-animation. on his way. During his long career, Harryhausen may not have worked on a huge number of films (they number closer to a dozen than a hundred), but his works still inspire wonder and amazement today. CGI has taken over as the predominant form of special effects, but to this day watching the Kraken or Pegasus in Clash of the Titans or the Centaur in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is a sight to behold.
Certainly with an eye to towards the holiday season in mind, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has just released to DVD the Ray Harryhausen Collectible Gift Set, which highlights three of Harryahusen's films. The set includes two-disc editions Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and It Came From Beneath the Sea as well as a collectible Ymir figurine (the creature from 20 Million Miles to Earth). A Blu-ray version has also been released (all single disc though still with special features), which substitutes out the Ymir figure for a copy of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (available for purchase separately on DVD).
The plot of each of the three films included in the DVD release are rather stereotypical monster movie fare – strange, sometimes misunderstood, alien-type creatures appear and wreak havoc while members of the human race try to stop them. As an example, looking at 20 Million Miles to Earth and Ymir, the film begins with a space shuttle returning to Earth from Venus, with its crew mostly decimated and some type of larva in a container. The mission commander survives the shuttle's crash and warns of the danger of what they brought back, but the young boy who finds the larva sells it to a travelling scientist. Ymir emerges from the larva and grows at a fantastic rate of speed, and when early attempts to contain him don't work, the military steps in to save the day.
While all the films follow such stereotypical formulas, they all still move at a fast enough pace (the longest is 83 minutes) and feature enough good old B-movie mayhem and destruction to be extremely enjoyable. Additionally, as each film has a second disc, there are a plethora of special features which not only examine Harryhausen and his career, but histories of stop-motion and inside looks at the film. Most notably, each film contains a commentary track with Harryhausen and other members of the visual effects crews as well as portions of a discussion between director Tim Burton and Harryhausen.
As an additional feature, though each of the films was originally released in black and white, the DVD release contains both an original and a colorized version (Harryhausen states that it was always his desire for them to be in color). One can even, while in the midst of watching any of the films, switch seamlessly back and forth between the color and black and white versions (the second disc of each title also features a look at the colorization process). As each of the titles has been newly remastered for the release, they look and sound truly wonderful.
The most disappointing aspect of the collection is that while the films are all enjoyable, they are not Harryhausen's best known works. Hopefully we can look to equally wonderful treatment of Jason and the Argonauts or a single release of his Sinbad trilogy at some point in the future. It is also moderately perplexing that Sony opted to not include The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in the regular DVD set and that they chose not to release it as a two-disc edition as well.
Even so, any fan of creature features or bygone Hollywood production styles would do well to sit down with the Harryhausen set and examine the works of a true master of stop-motion animation.