We All Need the Human Touch: Ray Harryhausen's The 3 Worlds of Gulliver

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

And how many times have we had Clarke's Third Law cited by the pro-tech contingent? San Francisco has been at the epicenter of a new tech boom. When programming cultural events centered on technology for Bay Area arts organizations, it may be impossible not to consider the social and political issues surrounding it.

Though technology has flourished in the area, so has an appreciation for the handmade. The word "artisanal" is one you'll see on a lot of advertising here, for everything from wooden furniture to cinnamon toast. And there does seem to be an appetite for that which demonstrates a human hand in its making—perhaps its rank-and-file tech workers eager to engage a classic "San Francisco experience" from the time before omnipresent technology changed the face of the city. The much sought-after "New Audience" that local arts organizations are trying to find and cultivate does seem to be growing, turning out for everything from burlesque shows to dance clubs to classic film screenings.

To one of an older generation, it is pleasing that the work of special effects artist Ray Harryhausen continues to be a draw. The stop-motion, animated creatures brought to life by Harryhausen graced many a mythological fantasy. And even today, when digital effects technology brings even more fanciful creatures to life through arrays of 1s and 0s, the handmade, analog creations of Harryhausen continue to engage and thrill audiences.

Today, few in the special effects industry enjoy the recognition of Harryhausenindeed, the special effects industry launched an awareness campaign a couple of years back to spotlight the challenges it faces. It does seem odd that a special effects firm should file for bankruptcy the same week it garners an Oscar. With CGI spectacle the main selling point of Hollywood blockbusters overseas, why shouldn't Hollywood take better care of the men and women who plug in the 1s and 0s to make that spectacle happen in the first place?

Aside from its many other inherent virtues, a Ray Harryhausen film reminds us that special effects, as engaging or seamless as they may be, are created by humans. Thinking more broadly, it reminds us that all technology, whatever its applications, is first and foremost a tool, created by humans for humans. And in the end, funnily enough, in the hands of an artist like Harryhausen, technology is indeed indistinguishable from magic.

To conclude our CLEAT (Cinematic Lo-fi Experiments in Art and Technology) series, The Contemporary Jewish Museum offers The 3 Worlds of Gulliver on Thursday, December 17. This little screened movie showcases the breadth of Harryhausen's effects mastery, from matte photography to forced perspective to, yes, animated creatures. Spun from Jonathan Swift's fantasy satire, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver comes to us from an earlier, analog century, and wears its human touch proudly.

Purchase your tickets here.

About the Writer

Photo by Michael Guillen.
Cinephile-at-large David Robson holds a degree in theatre from the University of Virginia. A long-time fixture on San Francisco's film scene, David has worked as the Artist-in-Residence Program Coordinator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (where he worked extensively with CJM Chief Curator Renny Pritikin) and, more recently, as Editorial Director for movie recommendation site Jaman.com. He has written on film aesthetics and history for a number of online sources—the best place to start would be his own irregularly-updated fantasy film blog The House of Sparrows or, if you're feeling weird, with those adorable simian cinephiles at the Tumblr site Monkeys Go To Movies.


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