Randall William Cook: As Never Seen Before, ‘New’ Vintage Stop-Motion on Blu-ray
In honor of Halloween, I once again have a special essay-article up, and this time I can name the contributor. Randall William Cook rates special celebrity status around DVD Savant despite being a friend from way, way back. I hope he’s writing a book about his career, because his Hollywood experiences range far afield, from UCLA film school, to acting and directing film and TV, to doing special make-ups, animation direction, front-rank stop motion direction, and second unit direction on big features. Heavily into digital work since the 1990s, Randy supervised character animation and sequence direction for the three Lord of the Rings movies, netting him an amazing three Oscars, three years straight. And he’s still the same guy from college — a new Harryhausen or Welles disc comes out, and he wants to know all about it. Oh, and Cook is a fine writer as well — as I think this thoughtful piece shows.
With the release of Warners’ new Special Effects Collection, I cast about for something special on film effects. I first met Randall William Cook as Randy Cook back at UCLA film school in the Fall of 1970. He was stop-motion animating even then, as I reported (and have been quoted from quite a bit) back in an early Savant article, The Hollywood Children of Ray Harryhausen. Mr. Cook came up with some interesting thoughts for this article, not just about the artistic craft involved in the effects films we love, but about how today’s high resolution video scans routinely show ‘more’ of a vintage movie than we saw in original theatrical prints. — Glenn Erickson
As Never Seen Before, ‘New’ Vintage Stop-Motion on Blu-ray
By Randall William Cook
After twenty years’ work by a skilled team of academics and artisans, Michelangelo’s restored frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were revealed to the public in 1994 — and all Hell broke loose. The Sistine frescoes, wiped clean of centuries’ worth of soot and grime, weren’t the same frescoes we had grown accustomed to seeing, either in person or in reproductions in art history books, and that’s why they looked somehow “wrong”… or so said the experts in charge of the restoration. This is the way, they asserted, that Michelangelo intended the ceiling to look.
But was it?
Scrubbed clean of grime, the paintings were suddenly colorful almost to the point of vulgarity, and other experts, not involved in the restoration, were having conniptions over what they considered an art crime unprecedented since Laszlo Toth modified the same artist’s Pieta with a geologist’s hammer in 1972.
Turns out, some of the Sistine ‘grime’ wasn’t randomly deposited over centuries, but purposely put there by Michelangelo himself to add dimensions of subtlety to his work. But grime is grime, damn it, and the restorers scrubbed it all off, making the pictures nice and bright and pretty again. And, in the process, taking out little subtleties like shadows… and some of the characters’ EYES.
This whole enterprise can be viewed, in the most favorable light, as a mixed blessing.
Which naturally leads us to the new Blu-ray releases of The Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
These movies can now be seen with a heretofore unseen clarity, with details likewise unseen before now. But since many of these details involve the cinematic fakery involved in the production of special visual effects — the prime reason many of us revisit these movies over and over — this clarity of image is certainly another mixed blessing.
I’ll confess I have yet to see these old favorites in their new Blu-ray incarnations. But I did see Son, and Joe, and Beast eight years ago on a then-newfangled HD cable channel called Monsters HD, a channel largely dedicated to cheezoid ’50s classics — most of which never should have been viewed in HD.
While it was a treat to see these old stop motion friends presented in stunningly resurrected detail, it came at a cost. The seams often showed, and all three looked tattier than they had in childhood television viewings.
Obviously, the image presented on a Blu-ray is vastly superior, technically, to what one would see on TV… or in the revival houses where I also saw these three films projected, for that matter. In the olden days of photochemical movie production, a movie had to go through a number of steps between the time the film first ran through a camera to the time it reached the audience’s eyes. Each step — from interpositive to dupe negative to release print to final projection through a sound-proof glass by a projector which was not perfectly steady — resulted in a slight (and sometimes not-so-slight) degradation of the image.
Digital media like the Blu-ray present rock-steady images which are produced from the best possible materials. No duped release prints, no scratches or splices, no chattering projector. What we now see is much closer to what was originally photographed, and that’s got to be a good thing, right?
Well, as Raymond the butler would say, “Mmmm… yes and no.”
This NEW! IMPROVED! digital clarity has also made it to our contemporary movie screens, by the way, with some very smart fellers doing some very subjective theorizing about how technology can make the moviegoing experience better. Films shouldn’t be shot at 24 frames per second, but 48, or 60, or 120… and filmed with the sharpest lenses that the computerized lens-grinders can produce. Anyone who looks fondly back at the era of 24 fps theatrical projection is a nostalgic luddite, stubbornly resisting desirable change.
With all due respect, I think some of these folks are missing a vital point. Movies (or movies that I like watching, anyway) tend to be vicarious romantic experiences. It stands to reason that the moviegoing experience should evoke the feelings we’d ourselves have in whatever situation the filmmaker has decided to put us. Now, a high frame rate and a super-precise lens gives us greater resolution, greater than what we are used to (or comfortable with, according those who are pushing this brave new tech). But my theory is that it’s greater optical clarity only. And we see the world, not only with our eyes, but with our hearts.
And a camera doesn’t have a heart.
Example. You are out to a romantic dinner with your beloved, staring into his or her eyes. Wonderful dinner, wonderful conversation, a perfect moment in time. You want to preserve that moment for future reminiscence and you whip out your iPhone and take a flash picture of your beloved. Looking at it later, you see something that unsettles you. She didn’t have that broken capillary on her cheek, or that blemish on her chin, and, my, aren’t her eyes a bit bloodshot…
But at dinner, you weren’t looking at her epidermal flaws, you were experiencing her essence. And these super clear high frame rate cameras resolve with such brutal, robotic exactitude that any actor placed in front of them puts all his or her flaws, pores, wrinkles and itty-bitty facial hairs on inescapable display. This is a great asset if you are filming a scene about Gullliver among the Brobdingnagian giants, but it’s a real distraction if you are photographing someone with whom you are supposed to be falling in love. The audience can see more, certainly, but seeing more than you’d be experiencing in life is arguably incompatible with losing oneself in the aforementioned vicarious romantic experience. In other words, sometimes more is less.
Now, I am not arguing against beauty and clarity of image. I’m a fervent Blu-ray booster, and I spent enough of my youth in movie palaces looking at 70mm epics to crave more of that experience. At its best, Blu-ray can just about equal the “feel” of 70mm projection: Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, Zulu, The Agony and the Ecstasy all pretty much look the way they were intended (breathtaking on a big projection setup); and even Harryhausen’s 35mm Jason and the Argonauts and First Men in the Moon look like movies again. But some other old pictures, classics or not, have had a bit of trouble making the transition to digital.
For one thing, there’s a lot on a film’s original negative that a digital scanner can see, but maybe we, the audience, aren’t supposed to. Do we really want to peer that deeply into the shadows? No, not if it was the intention of the filmmaker to make those shadows dense and impenetrable. Do we really want to see the supporting wires of the magician’s levitation act, just because they can be exhumed from the murk of the o-neg where they were intentionally buried?
The magicians who made movies like The Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms are all buried themselves, now, and they can’t be consulted. But as someone whose day job it’s been to produce similar illusions, my guess would be “no.”
The artists producing the trick work of these three effects-heavy films sometimes depended upon shadows, and upon image degradation, when they were crafting their illusions. The detail on the props and puppets (especially puppets meant to be human actors), the matching of shadow densities between live production footage and effects elements (miniature or painted), were made with just enough precision to pass muster on a cinema screen.
A puppet standing in for Jill Young, in the Mighty Joe Young organ grinder scene, looked just fine in the theatre. Seen in merciless detail, the same puppet looks less like Terry Moore than like Marjorie Main, and a puppet Marjorie Main, at that. Any one of the intricate trick shots in Joe was often comprised of many elements (live footage, and puppets, and miniature sets, and matte paintings) which blended together into one credible, convincing image — usually, anyway. Now, these shots betray themselves, almost invariably, as a collage of discrete, separately-filmed components.
This is not to dissuade you from buying these Blu-rays, of course. Each film has something to offer and is worth another look. But just as an adult’s return to a beloved childhood haunt may be a bit disappointing (everything looks so small! ), revisiting these childhood favorites may require something of a forgiving attitude.
The Son of Kong survives in a quality that fans of King Kong, yearning for a similarly pristine image, can only dream of (King Kong’s negative was printed and reprinted till it fell apart, or so I’ve heard: what remains is a rather murkier image than what is on view in the less popular film starring his son). King Kong was nothing if not totally original, audacious, unique. And it was a huge hit. And, market forces being what they’ve always been, the creators of Kong were required to make another movie equally original, audacious, and unique.
Uhhhh, OK. I guess we could return to Skull Island, and, since Kong was splattered onto the New York pavement at the original’s fade out, we need another giant ape. Is it illogical to presume that there was a Queen Kong with whom the King made Giant Monkey Love and produced an heir? Not illogical at all, since there’s a deadline approaching (fortunately, we don’t have to endure a domestic interlude with Mother Kong). We do get the titular Son, though, in effects scenes (some put together in rather apparent haste).
There are fewer, and sometimes shoddier, effects scenes than what we get in the original. Given the obvious deadline, it’s no surprise. And a genuinely tragic incident doubtless had an even greater impact upon the film’s rather perfunctory effects scenes: Hazel O’Brien, wife of animator Willis O’Brien (the artistic genius behind the effects of King Kong, who was at the time working on the sequel), shot and killed their two sons, before turning the gun on herself. The effects suffered — but O’Brien did the real suffering.
Given the paucity of trick shots, the film itself had to concentrate upon things like characterization and dialog, things not really stressed in the original. And Son of Kong succeeds, in a goofy way. It’s actually amusing (not that you feel much like laughing after reading the preceding paragraph), and it was advertised as “a Serio-Comic Phantasy.” It’s a curiosity, for sure, and more or less a successful one. But it’s not King Kong. It’s hard for a kid to have a famous father and, as you might expect, Junior doesn’t quite fill the big footprints left by his Dad.
Mighty Joe Young isn’t King Kong, either, but it succeeds as a good children’s film. O’Brien again, devising all manner of clever effects (the film itself is more or less a re-make of the ersatz Tarzan film, King of the Jungle, with mighty Joe standing in for Buster Crabbe. Honest. Watch it, if you don’t believe me). O’Brien hired Ray Harryhausen, then in his twenties, to do most of the heavy lifting in the animation department, with splendid results (Pete Peterson, another fine stop motion animator, earned his spurs on the film, as well).
Joe is a sympathetic gorilla and, given the fact that he’s a sympathetic and exploited gorilla, it’s about the showiest role a stop motion puppet was ever called upon to portray. Obie and Ray and Pete rose to the challenge, and the result is a really affecting performance, one that makes most audiences forget the inherent limitations of the frame-by-frame artifice that brings him to life.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is Ray Harryhausen’s first solo outing as a feature film effects creator, and really the film that positioned him to become stop-motion’s premier movie magician. He found a way to combine stop motion animation with live action in a more economical fashion than O’Brien’s techniques, without forcing the effects to appear “economical.” He was a hired hand on the film, unlike his eventual position wherein he developed his own projects. Unfortunately, he inherited a titular character without the charm or potential for character development of Mighty Joe. But he did create his own, unique dinosaur species: owing to Harryhausen’s unparalleled gift for design, this creature looks really good, has a commanding presence, and it takes center stage in some arresting set pieces.
Ray often quoted the film’s director Eugène Lourié as saying that the Beast’s melodramatic death was like that of an Opera Tenor. A personal note: Ray enlisted me and Jim Danforth to assist his daughter Vanessa, cleaning out the “junk” in Ray’s Los Angeles garage, in 2008. Some junk! Puppets dating back to his teens, puppets from 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, armatures and personal drawings and sculptures… and all the dailies from his ’50s black and white films, The Beast included.
I flew these precious reels down to New Zealand where Peter Jackson and I supervised their cataloguing and scanning to digital media. Almost every shot on the reels, as seen in his finished films, is “Take One.” The Beast’s death, however, as we see it in the film, is “Take Two.” “Take One” is perfectly fine, but much subtler, much more restrained. Which leads me to wonder: did Lourié really say “Ray, please do it again, but this time, make him die like an Opera Tenor?”
I didn’t have the bad manners to ask Ray if he mis-remembered this oft-quoted anecdote, so I will never know.
But these three films will soon be out, on super-clear Blu-ray. Just remember to watch them with your heart.
— Randall William Cook
Text © Copyright 2015 Randall William Cook
Savant Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson