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Video: Things to Come (1936) – H.G. Wells’ Vision of the Future

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

H.G. Wells’ Things To Come is one of the most prophetic visions of the future ever created for the screen.

H.G. Wells wrote many novels about the possible future of mankind, all of which have been filmed in various adaptations, but he wrote only one futuristic vision with a film adaptation directly in mind; his 1933 magnum opus The Shape of Things To Come, which Wells then adapted into the screenplay for the film Things to Come in 1936.

The production designer and director of the film, William Cameron Menzies, is lately having a run on this blog, with posts on his film Invaders from Mars and James Curtis’ book William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, but it’s only right that this film, perhaps the only time that Menzies really had a decent budget at his disposal as a director, gets its own entry here.

The collaboration between Wells and Menzies – as well as the actors, including Raymond Massey, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Sir Ralph Richardson – was stormy at best, with the major stumbling block being that Wells, who had almost no visual or dramatic sensibility for the cinema, kept insisting that his long, declamatory speeches remain intact on the screen, despite Menzies’ and the cast’s insistence that judicious cuts to the material would make the end product more effective.

But Wells wouldn’t hear of it, and so there are, in truth, about thirty minutes of the film that could easily be cut – something that all the contemporary reviewers of the film readily pointed out – and Wells, disappointed with the film’s initial reception, amazingly blamed Menzies for this – but it simply isn’t so.

Despite this problem, however, Things to Come remains an astonishing film, accurately predicting the onset on World War II, for one thing, as well as such technological advances as television, space travel, enclosed cities, social breakdown bordering on feudalism in some areas, and clearly posited science as the savior of mankind.

It’s essential, of course, to see Things to Come on a big screen; it’s one of those films that calls insistently for large scale projection – and for many years, when the film fell into the Public Domain, inferior 16mm and video copies circulated from a variety of sources, none of which approached the scope and grandeur of the original film. However, in recent years, the film has come back under copyright.

Legend Films has thus brought out a superb DVD and Blu-ray of the film, completely restored, which can be seen either in its original black and white version (my choice), or in a remarkably good colorized version, supervised by the late special effects master Ray Harryhausen. So, thanks to Curt Bright, here’s a short video essay on the film as part of the Frame by Frame series, and now, you can see the film for yourself.

Don’t miss a chance to see this classic if you can; click here for a video essay on the film.

Jim Danforth, Special Effects Master

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

A Jim Danforth matte painting from George Romero’s Day of the Dead.

Jim and Karen Danforth are two of the last great artists of the pre-digital era of cinema in the area of special effects work, especially matte paintings and stop-motion animation, both of which have been essentially rendered obsolete by CGI imagery. Matte paintings essentially fill in background or foreground areas when set would prove too costly to build, or too time consuming; stop motion animation of models, pioneered by the great Willis O’Brien in The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933) are now also a thing of the past.

While CGI work is often extremely convincing, as times goes by, there also seems to be a certain ephemerality about it; you know it’s not there, it has no physical solidity, and somehow it seems less “real” as a result. The great pioneers of motion picture special effects — people like Albert Whitlock, Bill Brace, David Stipes, Gene Warren, Harry Walton, Jim Danforth, Mark Sullivan, Peter Ellenshaw, Ray Caple, and Ray Harryhausen — all of whom are discussed in this interview, are some of the people who created the original magic of the movies, and their story is both fascinating and instructive for contemporary filmmakers, film historians, and students of the cinema.

In this remarkably detailed interview by a blogger known only as NZ Pete, Danforth talks about his many, many films assignments over the years, his early influences as a special effects artist, changing trends in the film production business, and looks back on the numerous assignments that he’s tackled, some of which worked out to his satisfaction, and others which he’s not enamored of.

The numerous stills in this interview are exceptional, and as NZ Pete notes, many of them appear here for the first time. Danforth is also refreshingly honest about his work, and his legacy, and more than happy to tip his hat to the many pioneers who came before him. He’s also extremely articulate about the incredible amount of work that goes into matte paintings and stop motion work; it’s about as time consuming a job as one can possibly imagine. So I’m happy to pass this along, as someone who also admired Danforth’s work over the years, in a variety of genres; it’s a fascinatingly rich discussion, and serves as a a real education on this aspect of cinema history.

Read the entire interview by clicking here, or on the image at the top of this page.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Earth vs. The Flying Saucers.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) was arguably Ray Harryhausen‘s breakthrough as a stop motion special effects artist; he had worked on Mighty Joe Young (1949) and other films as an assistant under Willis O’ Brien, the creator of King Kong (1933), but with this film, he stepped out in front with a dazzling display of special effects wizardry which was, at the time of the film’s production, state of the art. What’s even more amazing is that the entire film, except for Harryhausen’s special effects, which took months to complete, was shot in just six days – a stunning feat, made possible only by director Fred F. Sears‘ expertise and grace under pressure. Indeed, while much of the film was shot on the Columbia back lot, Sears dispatched a second unit to Washington DC to shoot process plates for the special effects, and also footage of the film’s stars, Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor, dodging laser blast rays on the steps of the capitol building.

Another thing that’s remarkable is how much of the film was shot on location, and how quickly, without all the security that would make such an enterprise impossible today. Although Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is manifestly a union film, Sears and producer Sam Katzman pushed both the crew and the actors to the limits of their endurance to get the film in the can, while Sears worked feverishly with Harryhausen’s production designs to make sure that the live action material dovetailed perfectly with Harryhausen’s miniature work. Such a pace would be impossible today, when everything takes forever to shoot — Sears moved fast, and his co-workers moved with him, to make a convincing film on a minuscule budget.

In this age of CGI, anything is possible, but in the 1950s, the only way you could get something convincing on the screen was through the use of stop-motion animation, painstakingly moving the saucers frame, by frame, by frame, by frame, shooting one frame after another, with 24 changes of position per second, to achieve what then passed for realism. This isn’t a film which revels in plot, or in any degree of subtlety, complete with a stentorian narrator providing a “voice of doom” commentary throughout the film; the invaders simply show up and start blasting everyone in sight with a disintegrator ray, with but one objective; to take over the earth and colonize it for the members of their dying race. It’s one of the 1950s’ best, and most compact, science fiction films, moving along swiftly to its suitably violent conclusion. There’s a colorized DVD available, actually supervised by Harryhausen himself, but don’t fall for it; get the black and white original. The film looks and plays like a brutal newsreel of an alien invasion, and once seen, is never forgotten.

If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?

H.G. Wells’ Things To Come (1936)

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see some clips from Things to Come.

I’ve blogged on director William Cameron Menzies before, especially on his 1953 film Invaders from Mars, and his long and often tortured career as a pioneer set designer — most notably for the 1939 production of Gone With the Wind. But I’ve never really singled out his most ambitious film as a director, from H.G. Wells’ screenplay based on his 1933 novel, Things to Come. The large — and I do mean large — cast includes Raymond Massey, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. To give you some idea of the size and scope of the project, just take a look at the image above.

After Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis (1927), it’s arguably the most ambitious science fiction film ever made, and also one of the most prophetic, envisioning everything from giant flat screen televisions to the eventuality of another World War just a few years later. Bogged down by Wells’ insistence that both the actors and directors follow his verbose screenplay to the letter, Things to Come is nevertheless a visual tour de force, and a remarkable achievement both as a film, and as a vision of the future.

Easily available on DVD, including a 2007 version colorized by special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen — I can’t believe I’m recommending this, but it’s that good — Things to Come is essential viewing for anyone interested in science fiction, set design, world history, or the history of film. Also in 2007, Network DVD in the UK released a digitally-restored version, which to date is the longest version available anywhere in the world. The two-disc set also contains a “Virtual Extended Version” with most of the missing and unfilmed parts represented by production photographs and script extracts.

In short, if you haven’t seen it, you should check it out immediately; this is where modern sci-fi begins.

Special Effects Masters — Frame by Frame Videos

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Harry Hamlin in the original Clash of the Titans, with effects by Ray Harryhausen

For the past two years, Curt Bright and I have been doing a series of short videos also entitled Frame by Frame, and it seemed to me that it’s only right to break these out in a more public fashion by highlighting some of them in my text blog.

This 3 minute video, covering the work of special effects masters Willis O’Brien (King Kong), Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) and Phil Tippett, who made the jump from stop motion animation to CGI visuals, most notably in Paul Verhoeven‘s Starship Troopers (1997), is one of the best yet, and I really felt Curt’s hard work on the piece deserved a mention.

You can see it by clicking here, or on the image at the top of this page.

You can also see all the Frame by Frame videos by clicking here.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

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