Special Effects BeforeStar Wars

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Before computers could make the Titanic sink, and
before they made dinosaurs romp and stomp in Jurassic Park, there was stop-motion
animation. The master of the art is Ray Harryhausen, subject of The Harryhausen
Chronicles
, an hour-long documentary coming up soon on American Movie Classics.

Unlike many homages to film pioneers, told in retrospect,
septuagenarian Harryhausen is still alive and kicking and featured heavily in the
broadcast. It's a good thing, because the special-effects pioneer did his memorable
work in pictures from Mighty Joe Young to Clash of the Titans. He notes that
at times, he would lose track of the movement in process if a telephone call interrupted
his shooting schedule.

But his participation is the bad news, too. Filling out an
hour, the program frequently devolves into an 'and then I made' litany. There
are clips of some of the people affected by Harryhausen's work -- such as
special-effects gurus from Lucasfilm Ltd. or the big man himself, George Lucas -- but they
are few and far between.

Harryhausen is brilliant in a visual medium, but, alas, not
much of a storyteller. It might have made for a more interesting but less autobiographical
treatment if the documentary noted techniques in current movies that are the direct
outgrowth of Harryhausen's creations.

What keeps you watching are the widely disbursed factoids
that make you go, 'Huh?' Harryhausen saw King Kong for the first time in
1933, and he never looked back. He wrote whole scripts featuring stop-motion; built models
for which his father designed armatures that would allow them to be posed over and over;
and shot the scripts, one frame at a time, in his garage. He maneuvered an introduction to
Willis O'Brien, the creator of the King Kong effects, and turned a hobby into
a career. Clips are shown from some of his most memorable work, notably 1963's Jason
and the Argonauts
. If you saw this one, you remember it (or had nightmares about the
skeletons who rose from the dead and dueled Jason). Again, Harryhausen created the
sequence alone, frame by frame, averaging 13 frames a day. The duel took Harryhausen
four-and-a-half months to create.

The Harryhausen Chronicles debuts Jan. 27 at 9 p.m. on
AMC.

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