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The Naming of Things: The Ray Harryhausen Theater at Sony Pictures Digital

Jon Landis gave the dedication in place of Imagework’s Ken Ralston, who had come down with something on the flight back from London where he had attended Mr. Harryhausen’s 90th birthday party. There was camera set up to record birthday wishes from Mr. Harryhausen. Luminaries Rob Cook and Sam Raimi, among others, attended. Raimi brought his kids, which I thought was awesome. I came to love science fiction, fantasy and horror movies sitting beside my grandfather in the great movie houses of old downtown San Diego. I always love to see people passing on their love of the fantastic to their children.

A few weeks ago I attended the dedication of the Ray Harryhausen theater at Sony Pictures Digital, which holds the Sony Pictures Imageworks and Sony Pictures Animaton studios on its campus. The dedication itself took place on the large lawn outside the theater and was followed by a screening of Jason and the Argonauts, which had been digitally scanned and restored to make a Blu-Ray edition of the film.  It was a small and joyous event that felt almost like a family gathering. The event seemed to have turned everyone into a 12-year-old Harryhausen fan who couldn’t help smiling.

Jon Landis gave the dedication in place of Imagework’s Ken Ralston, who had come down with something on the flight back from London where he had attended Mr. Harryhausen’s 90th birthday party. There was camera set up to record birthday wishes from Mr. Harryhausen. Luminaries Rob Cook and Sam Raimi, among others, attended. Raimi brought his kids, which I thought was awesome. I came to love science fiction, fantasy and horror movies sitting beside my grandfather in the great movie houses of old downtown San Diego. I always love to see people passing on their love of the fantastic to their children.

Grover Crisp, overseer of the film restoration team at Sony Pictures Entertainment, introduced the film. He prefaced the screening by saying that it had been restored to its original state, and no additional digital work was done to change or update the look of the film, with one exception. After the film was scanned in high def, the wires on the Harpies, which were not visible in standard def version, became very visible. Crisp called Harryhausen to ask permission to fix the frames, Harryhausen thanked him for the catch and gave him the go ahead to paint out the wires.

By the way, if you don’t know a Harpie from a hole in the ground, you should fix that right away by immediately renting, streaming, playing or buying Jason and the Argonauts as soon as possible. I grew up watching tele-cined versions of the films on TV or degraded, pink versions at festivals and retro houses. Seeing the film on the big screen in all its stop motion glory was very fun. Even today, the work is so sincere, that I fall right into the film’s world.

I love film history. It is one of the few artistic endeavors that is truly American in nature. I must say I was a little conflicted to see one name replaced by another on the theater, especially since I am a fan of both Ince and Harryhausen. While only a few of the attendees had heard of Thomas Ince, and then only in relation to the Hearst scandal, he, much like Harryhausen, set the film industry on a specific course that it is still following today. Ince was the creator of the studio production system in the early 1900s. He took the power of production away from the director and cameraman and gave the producer start to finish control. (This lead to a very contentious philosophical discussion among European directors over the years, especially the French, but that’s another blog post.) Additionally, he created the position of production manager to oversee the day-to-day production of the films. 

Thomas H. Ince

Ince was also the father of the Western film genre, his studio produced over 200 in his time, thus cementing the genre as a staple in the film industry. It also didn’t hurt that his Westerns were directed by a man from Maine, who some consider the greatest American director of all time, named John Ford. Ince’s first studio was dubbed “Inceville” and sat at the corner of Sunset and PCH. He housed production equipment, back-lots, extras, horses and a band of American Indians on his thousands of acres in Malibu. It was the first modern studio. One could argue that Chaplin Studios was the first, but he was still a director who wrote and acted in his films. Ince’s system delegated, for better or worse, all of these positions to different people. In a time of 2-reelers (films of only 2-20 minute reels) he also dared to make a 5-reeler, lauded then, but it was a preview of the modern cinema we know today. When Inceville burned in one of the traditional Malibu fire years, he took up production residence at what is now called the Culver Studios.

When I really thought about it, Harryhausen, who was only 4-years old when Ince died, was the natural successor to Ince’s legacy. Harryhausen is the catalysts for yet another major shift in studio production procedures by firmly planting the visual effects film as a money maker for studios. He was not alone in the forward momentum of animation and visual effects, The optical printer had already been invented. It was used for the 1933 King Kong. Unfortunately, 1933 was a year where there was no Academy Award for visual effects, so Dunn would not be recognized for the images his printer could create until Mighty Joe Young won the Best Effects/Special Effects statuette in 1950. Mighty Joe Young had two other up and coming talents working on it (probably more) Ray Harryhausen as first technician, and John Ford, as a second unit director.

In the six degrees of separation game, Ince is the middleman between the American Westerns of the celluloid film years and the Westerns of the optical and digital film years we are currently enjoying. After all, the Western ideal of the helpless overcoming the powerful through superior firepower is a universal theme in science fiction and fantasy films. 

Ince said: “The coming of the motion picture was as important as that of the printing press.” I would have to agree.

The street that divides the Culver Studios from the Sony Pictures Digital campus still bares his name. I hope it endures just a little longer.

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