Cinerama: Jason and the Argonauts

Posted: September 11, 2009 in Cinerama

Jason and the Argonauts

By Mike Derderian

Compared to 2004 blockbusters like Spiderman, Hellboy, Van Helsing, Shrek, in addition to the much awaited computer-generated feline Garfield, the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts might sound a little too prehistoric to the tastes of today’s generation-next of computer whiz-kids and sophisticated film fans.

Watching the one-hour-and-forty-five-minuet adventure won’t be anything like the web-spinning Spiderman; however, it is always of great interest to watch how stop-motion animated creatures looked like forty-one years ago, before the computer generated images (CGI) took over the visual effects industry and revolutionized the silver screen forever.

Based on the Alexandrian poet Apollonius Rhodiu’s Argonautica that was written in the 3rd Century BC, Jason and the Argonauts is about the adventures of Jason and his band of brave men, known as the Argonauts in reference to their vessel the Argus, in search of the legendary golden fleece.

So what’s new about a bunch of brave men dressed in skirts seeking fortune and glory? Haven’t we seen enough of it this year—in movies like Troy? Well, technically yes; but by watching Jason and the Argonauts, you’d be watching a piece of cinema history in the making. Of course, you’re only forty years behind schedule but that shouldn’t make much difference since it’s on DVD now.

Jason and the Argonauts, in addition to films like Mysterious Island (1961), One Million Years BC (1966) and my personal favorite The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), are all film classics that were created by a man, who had the vision to pursue stop-motion animation as a career.

Thanks to Ray Harryhausen’s genius in stop-motion techniques, most of the breathtaking sequences where Jason and his men are either fighting a giant bronze statue, capturing flying harpies, trying to escape the fangs of a deadly hydra or the cutting blades of seven blood thirsty skeletons were all made possible and enjoyable.

Could you believe that in order for the master animator to create four minuets of the animation sequence where the malevolent skeletons are seen swaying their swords, jumping over and climbing rocky walls, it took him four months during which he only shot no more than 13 frames of film per day?

Stop-motion animation is a cinematic process that deploys the use of either a clay sculpture fitted with a poseable iron framework serving as a supporting core known as armature or a poseable puppet representing the fictional character. After placing the puppet in a primary position using a measuring crane the animator takes a shot of the figure and then moves it, takes another shot and moves it again. So basically, the figure’s motion is being broken into what is known in the industry as increments (filming one frame of film per increment).

Despite of its being the pioneering technique that helped in creating a lot of movie magic, stop-motion animation is very a tiresome process for animators for it requires a lot of patience and creativity knowing that it takes more than a thousand frames to create a minute of realistic movements.

And this might have been in part the reason why it took so long for JRR Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings to hit the big screen. Imagine using this strenuous process to create the epic fight scenes and the fabled creatures found within the pages of his life’s work, a task which Tolkien himself believed to be impossible.

Now that’s another column, enough talking about visual effects and back to Jason and the Argonauts.

Directed by Don Chaffey, the film starred Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond, Laurence Naismith, Douglas Wilmer and Honor Blackman as Hera the wife of Zeus, who was portrayed by Niall MacGinnis.

The film’s opening credit recounts the whole tale of Jason using shots of Greek paintings, like the one’s usually found on Grecian urns, that soon fades away placing the viewer into a real life shot of a man called Pelias (Wilmer) listening to the prophecies of his old soothsayer about his accession to the throne of Thesali.

After pillaging the kingdom, profaning the temple of Hera and killing its king, who is Jason’s father, he is told as a punishment by the goddess, who is disguised as a priestess, that one day Jason will avenge his family’s death and overthrow him.

So in order to delay his ill fate he tricks young Jason (Todd Armstrong) into undertaking a long journey to the kingdom situated in the far end of the world, where the Golden Fleece is found, lying on a tree in valley guarded by a vicious Hydra.

If you are a classic B movie film fan then you’ll love this one for it has a lot of great moments like when Jason and the Argonauts have to pass the treacherous quaking mountains, an enchanting ritual dance number on part of Nancy Kovack, who played the role of Medea.

Jason and the Argonauts is much about adventure and love as much as it’s a niche to clichéd existential philosophical ideas uttered by both gods and men in the film, especially on part of the Olympian couple Zeus and Hera.

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