Comic-Cons are a bit like film festivals -- most people there just want to go to the big-name stuff, but you really get more out of the experience if you mix it up a little. So rather than see Kevin Smith tell his stories about Jon Peters for the umpteenth time, it seemed a better use of the moment to go watch Ray Harryhausen do a live commentary while screening the new DVD of his 1957 movie 20 Million Miles to Earth. (It bows on Blu-Ray Dec. 4.)
Harryhausen is, of course, a living legend of cinema and arguably the most important special-effects man ever. Worked with King Kong animator Willis O'Brien, and in the pre-CGI era did every amazing movie monster there was, from the skeleton warriors in Jason and the Argonauts to Medusa and the Kraken in Clash of the Titans.
He got a standing ovation when his chair was wheeled into the room. But the room was only 1/3 full.
This being a convention, normal cinema-watching rules of politeness are not necessarily observed, so people walk in and out like it's a store. By the end of the screening, the room is mostly full. NYT film critic Manohla Dargis is in the audience.
SPOILER WARNING! 20 Million Miles to Earth came out in 1957 and is basically the same story as King Kong, so I'm not going to be afraid to discuss stuff like the ending here. Statute of limitations on that has expired.
The new DVD version has been colorized, with Harryhausen's blessing. George Lucas-like, he says that "We would have shot it in color, but we couldn't shoot it in color because we didn't have the budget." Two more are coming out colorized on DVD with commentary by Harryhausen and at least one other person -- in each case the guest-commenter will be an Oscar-winner who cites Harryhausen as an influence. So October will give us It Came From beneath the Sea, and November brings Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.
Also being supervised by Harryhausen is a colorized 2-Disc set of Merian C. Cooper's She, which will include footage that was deleted from the movie in the '40s and never seen again until now. Harryhausen says it was his favorite movie as a kid. He says all of these movies would have been in color if it had been within the budget. True -- but they weren't. Many classic monster movies would have shown more of the monster if they could afford a good costume, but they couldn't, so they keep the creature in the shadows, which many fans find more effective. Point being, sometimes not having everything you want makes the movie better, but if you're the one who's being limited, it isn't always easy to see that.
A special guest in attendance: Bart Bradley, who plays the cowboy-obsessed Italian boy Pepe in the movie, now a grown man. Says he lost the cowboy hat a while back.
The movie is set in Italy. It was originally set in Chicago, but Harryhausen decided he wanted a European vacation. However, most of the scenes were shot in the U.S., including all of Bart's -- tonight is the first time he and Harryhausen have actually met.
The first of three movies with director Nathan Juran (Oscar-winning art director of How Green was My Valley), 20 Million Miles to Earth involves a U.S. spacecraft crash landing in the Mediterranean upon its return to Earth. On board is a large test tube containing an alien egg, which hatches out a small lizard-like creature called a Ymir. It soon grows by leaps and bounds, till it becomes more or less a reptile version of Kong. It's captured, then it breaks free, fights another giant animal (an elephant) and is finally shot to death atop a major landmark, which in this case is the Colosseum in Rome.
The movie is quite campy in many ways by today's standards -- military men able to find a small town in Italy on a globe, the characters speaking an odd hybrid of English and Italian ("Fetch that old doctori from Roma!"), old-fashioned sexism, people wondering where and what planet Venus is, soldiers brazenly throwing hand grenades into the river in case the monster might be there, oh, and the last line, the equivalent of "beauty killed the beast," is..."Why is it always, always so costly for man to move from the present to the future?"
Harryhausen is old and a little slower to talk than some would be. His live commentary is considerably more sparse than most DVD alternate tracks -- to be honest, if this were the commentary on the disc, you might not feel you'd gotten your money's worth. But the appeal here is being in the room with him.
Some of the good tidbits from the commentary:
-When the rocket crashes in the ocean at the beginning, local fisherman rush to help. Harryhausen says "Today people would be rowing away."
-Everyone always wanted to know how he animated the Ymir when it was inside a cage, without having to open and close the door all the time. He says it's a secret.
-Thinks Technicolor was "too bright, too unreal." Wanted a more muted look for the new coloring process, which took six weeks. Claims the facial tones are "natural and believable." Not to be mean, but his eyesight is failing if he really believes that.
-Almost every shot was done in one take, because that's all the budget allowed.
-The Ymir only attacks when provoked; Harryhausen wanted it to be "innocent" like Kong. Wait a second...Kong innocent? As a kid I thought so, but he eats and stomps on the natives who worship him -- the people on Skull Island are probably better off with him dead, no?
-The lighting effects on the Ymir really help get the stop-motion effects across, matching it nicely with the background.
-The movie came out a month before Sputnik, before sci-fi movies really started taking off.
-Harryhausen may or may not have had a cameo as a guy throwing peanuts to the elephant in the zoo; he doesn't remember. They couldn't get an elephant as large as they wanted, so they cast a midget as the zookeeper to make it look bigger.
-The Ymir model was 12 inches tall.
-The marketing term used to promote the special effects was "dynamation," because people thought "animation" was just cartoons.
As the film ends, he asks the crowd what they thought of the color. They cheer (I don't), but it isn't a fair question -- he could say anything and they would cheer out of respect. Fact is, the color is imperfect and unnecessary. It may make the movie easier to watch for today's crowds, but so does full-frame versus letterboxing, and no serious cinephile advocates for that.
Harryhausen doesn't think Tim Burton's stop-motion films are comparable to his; "Those are puppet films."
Asked about Peter Jackson's King Kong, he's diplomatic but on-point: "When you go to see a picture like King Kong, you don't really care about Ann Darrow's past." Prefers the "compactness" of the original. "You're not supposed to analyze fantasy...We just tried to make it sound logical even if it isn't actually logical when you analyze it."
Who would win in a fight between King Kong and the Kraken? "I don't know. We've gotta get sympathy for somebody."
And on that note...here endeth the Con Coverage.