Animation &Books &Puppet Animation 28 Jan 2009 08:52 am

Jason & The Argonauts

- Currently playing at the New Victory Theatre on 42nd Street (until Feb. 1) is a theatrical presentation of Jason and the Argonauts. Given the quality of the shows that play at the New Vic, I can pretty much guarantee that this is a first rate show.

I also have no doubt that the creators have seen the Ray Harryhausen film, Jason and the Argonauts, and must have been under its spell (however subliminally) in creating the show. It would be hard to believe otherwise given the reputation of the film. The skeleton fight, alone, makes the film famous.

This gives me a good excuse to attend to Mr. Harryhausen’s film and post the chapter from his 1972 book, Film Fantasy Scrapbook, about that film. The book is written in the first person singular and collects B&W images like a scrapbook.

Here it is:

Of the 13 fantasy features I have been connected with I think Jason and the Argonauts pleases me the most. It had certain faults, but they are not worth detailing.

Its subject matter formed a natural storyline for the Dynamation medium and like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad strayed far from the conventional path of the “dinosaur exploitation film” with which this medium seemed to be identified.

Taking about two years to make, it unfortunately came out on the American market near the end of a cycle of Italian-made dubbed epics based loosely on the Greek-Roman legends, which seldom visualized mythology from the purely fantasy point of view. But the exhibitors and the public seem to form a premature judgment based on the title and on the vogue. Again, like Sinbad, the subject brewed in the back of my rnind for years before it reached the light of day through producer Charles Schneer. It turned out to be one of our most expensive productions to date and probably the most lavish. In Great Britain it was among the top ten big money makers of the year.

A preproduction drawing (above) compares favorably with a film still (below.)
The drawing is quite a bit more dynamic. (After all, it is Dynamation!)

(Click any image to enlarge a bit.)

Likewise, a drawing of the hydra (above) film still (below.)

Harpies (Above & Below)

Some of the difference in basic composition between the pre-production sketches I made for Jason and the counterparts frames of the production is the direct result of compromising with available locations.

For example, the ancient temples in Paestum, southern Italy, finally served as the background for the “Harpy” sequence. Originally we were going to build the set when the production was scheduled for Yugoslavia. Wherever possible we try to use an actual location to add to the visual realism. To my mind, most overly designed sets one sees in some fantasy subjects can detract from, rather than add to the final presentation.

Again, it depends on the period in which it is made as well as on the basic subject matter. Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad was the most tastefully produced and designed production of any film of this nature but unfortunately the budget that was required would be prohibitive with today’s costs.

The Skeleton Sequence was the most talked-ahout part of Jason. Technically, it was unprecedented in the sphere of fantasy filming. When one pauses to think that there were seven skeletons fighting three men, with each skeleton having five appendages to move each frame of film, and keeping them all in synchronization with the three actors’ movements, one can readily see why it took four and a half months to record the sequence for the screen.

My one regret is that this section of the picture did not take place at night.
Its effect would have been doubled.

Certain other time-consuming technical “hocus-pocus” adjustments had to be done during shooting to create the illusion of the animated figures in actual contact with the live actors. Bernard Herrmann’s original and suitably fantastic music score wrapped the scenes in an aura of almost nightmarish imagination.

In the story, Jason’s only way of escaping the wild battling sword wielding “children of Hydra’s teeth” is to leap from a cliff into the sea. (Above left) A stuntman, portraying Jason for this shot, leaps from a 90-foot-high platform into the sea closely followed by seven plaster skeletons. It was a dangerous dive and required careful planning and great skill. It becomes an interesting speculation when dealing with skeletons in a film script. How many ways are there of killing off death?

(Above right) Another angle with the real Jason jumping off a wooden platform into a mattress a few feet below. The skeletons and the rocky cliff were put in afterwards while the mattress was blotted out by an overlay of sea.

Director Don Chaffey and Ray Harryhausen discuss the leap with Italian stunt director Fernando Poggi.

When transferring published material to the screen it is almost always necessary to take certain liberties in the work in order to present it in the most effective visual terms. Talos, the man of bronze, did exist in Jason legend, although not in the gigantic proportions that we portrayed him in the film. My pattern of thing in designing him on a very large scale stemmed from research on the Colossus of Rhodes.

The actior: his blocking the only entrance to the harbor stimulated many exciting possibilities. Then too, the idea of a gigantic metal statue coming to life has haunted me for years, but without story or situation to bring it to life. It was somewhat ironic when most of my career was spent in trying to perfect smooth and life-like action and in the Talos sequence, the longest animated sequence in the picture, it was necessary to make his movements deliberately stiff and mechanical.

Most of Jason and the Argonauts was shot in and around the little seaside village of Palinuro, just south Naples. The unusual rock formations, the wonderful white sandy beaches, and the natural harbor were within a few miles of each other, making the complete operation convenient and economical. Paestum, w its fine Greek temples, was just a short distance north. All interiors and special sets were photographed in a sm studio in Rome.

(Above left) Talos, the statue of bronze, pursues Jason’s men.

(Above right) Talos blocks the Argo
from the only exit of the bay.

Pre-production drawing of Jason speaking to the Gods of Greece.

For the second unit operation a special platform had to be fitted to the Argo in order to achieve certain camera angles. Although it looks precarious it was far more convenient than using another boat for the shots.

The Argo had to be, above all, practical in the sense that it must be seaworthy as well as impressive. It was specially constructed for the film over the existing framework of a fishing barge. There were twin engines for speed in maneuvering, which also made the ship easily manipulated into proper sunlight for each new set-up.

Harryhausen off the book’s back cover
to give an idea of scale of drawing sizes.

5 Responses to “Jason & The Argonauts”

  1. on 28 Jan 2009 at 9:43 am 1.Richard O'Connor said …

    Wow, again! Thanks for this article.

    Jason and the Argonauts was a film I had memorized line for line when I was a child (the first VHS generation).

    A few years back I picked up a beautiful 16mm print, screening it again I was sort of embarrassed at how profoundly it shaped my thinking. It’s like Neitzsche for adolescents.

  2. on 29 Jan 2009 at 11:37 am 2.Holly Stallings said …

    This is really great! I’ve actually always been a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen. Most notably ‘Clash of the Titans’. Yes, the skeleton scene was always a favorite. It’s amazing how it was done and achieved.

  3. on 29 Jan 2009 at 11:55 am 3.Michael said …

    I have to agree that as a film “Clash of the Titans” was probably Harryhausen’s best. Perhaps it was the script, or the director (both directors were guy-for-hire kind of directors), or the number of stars in “Titans.” The celebrity actors give significantly better performances and make the lines seem more interesting.

    All the same, I have an attachment to “Jason” having seen it when it first came out. I have those childhood memories that make even Harryhausen’s work seem better.

  4. on 30 Jan 2009 at 12:47 pm 4.Eddie Fitzgerald said …

    I LOVE the Jason film. That and “Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” had an enormous influence on me. They shaped my idea of the ideal man: one who is heroic, intellectual, imaginative, and adventure-seeking. They made me feel that a life without adventure is unthinkable.

    This influenced my ideas about how society should be constituted, because I realized that lots of other people probably wanted the same thing that I did. When I see unecessarily dreary schools, and bureaucratic institutions I think of Jason and Sinbad and the need to break out of those restraints.

  5. on 06 Aug 2013 at 8:26 pm 5.Dots And Dreams Polka Dot Brown and Pink Tank And Pant Final Sale said …

    Now about understanding the OPs information many will agree with the above since its true and its good to read from an author thats telling this on the net to look at.

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