Monday, January 02, 2012

Two Dragons

One time I was looking around his [Ray Harryhausen’s] garage and up in the rafters of the garage something was sticking out. There was like the skull of something going behind some boxes. I couldn’t see what it was. It was all in pieces. It was the dragon from “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.” I just thought: Oh, what a sad end for such a wonderful creature.

Special Effects Wiz Dennis Muren
Quoted in, “Ray Harryhausen Chronicles”
(DVD Bonus Feature)

A couple of months ago I did a post about the movie “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One” Posh People Squabbling. I didn’t like the movie much. I didn’t think it was a bad movie, just boring, endless bickering between people, some nice, some nasty. Anyway, over Christmas even though I didn’t like the first part, I watched “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two” just to be complete. I expected to fast forward through the movie the same as part one, but I ended up liking part two very much. Even though many of the scenes were very similar to the first part and all the same filmmakers worked on the second part, I enjoyed the second part a lot. (I even went back and watched the first part again—I still didn’t like it, still fast forwarded through most of it.)

One of the most remarkable scenes in the second part was when the heroes escaped from the bank on the back of a dragon. It was an extraordinary dragon. I mean special effects-wise. Probably one of the very best special effects shots I’ve ever seen in my life.

It reminded me of another famous dragon and led me to think of how movie technology has changed over the decades.

This is the famous dragon from “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad,” which was released in 1958:

Many, many special effects masters of the current world watched this movie when they were kids and fell in love with films and special effects for the rest of their life. (Many kids, too, were inspired to become musicians by Bernard Herrmann’s amazing score for the film.)

This is the dragon from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two,” more than fifty years on from the Sinbad dragon:

Special effects-wise that’s the Mary Poppins of dragons: It is practically perfect in every way.

One thing stands out about comparing these two dragons.

The first, Ray Harryhausen’s dragon, was created and filmed by one person, Ray Harryhausen. Perhaps his father made the armature, maybe Ray made it himself. Ray animated the dragon, brought it to life, move-by-move.

The dragon from Harry Potter required—literally!—many dozens, possibly hundreds, of designers, artists and programmers to bring it to life.

My first thought was: Holy cow, if the rather simple dragon from “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” inspired so many people to devote their whole life to fantasy films, to creating wonderful special effects, just imagine the extraordinary result “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two” will have on young people, just imagine all the wonderful work people inspired by the film will create.

But then I wondered if that will be true at all.

I mean, most film buffs learned very young that Ray Harryhausen did the effects for his movies by himself. Film buffs who experimented with stop-motion movies learned that it is an incredibly time-consuming and almost mind-numbing procedure to take thousands of still images and put them together into an animated sequence. But in a way it is fun—almost like meditation. And it is very satisfying to imagine and design a sequence of animation and then bring it to life and clean it up and augment it with sound and editing.

But film buffs today know that special effects are sequences output by various computer programs and then cleaned up by dozens or even hundreds of anonymous computer artists sitting at screens and moving a stylus across a digitizing tablet. A director or designer will decide on the action to be displayed. A lead animator, perhaps, will put in this-or-that bit of amusing incidental business, and then everyone else just goes through the motions. From what I’ve heard and read it is literally an assembly-line process, where the individual workers have essentially zero input into the overall content of their work.

Will any young people today—when they learn how special effects are done—will any young people say to themselves, “Gee, when I grow up, that’s what I want to do, sit on an assembly line of graphic artists and make sure the edges in the middle of the picture are properly blurred”? Will any young people say to themselves, “Gee, when I grow up, I want to sketch storyboards and send them overseas to slave-shop computer artists who will convert them to an animated sequence”?

It seems so wonderful, looking at the final image, the completed movie. But unlike fifty years ago, I wonder: Will all that sense-of-wonder today translate into any inspiration at all?


On the topic of dragons, in case anyone is worried, when Rubber Lizard isn’t working he’s not stuck out in a garage or up in any rafters. He usually hangs out on top of the bookcase with Little Plastic Doll and Tina. He always has someone to talk to.


I strongly suspect there’s a reason
some women will be able to talk
to dinosaurs when the beasts return.

There are two dragons to every one.

There’s the dragon we see and talk to.

And there’s the dragon that animates
the dragon that we see and talk to,
that curls its tail and up-roots a tree,
that forms the whispered dragon-talk words,
that shapes the flame when the chemicals
in the dragon’s mouth combine to fire.

There are two dragons to every one.

One is rare these days. But the other
gently wrecks and whispers and breathes fire
just to stay in practice. And for fun.

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