Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Manta's Shadow: Part II The War of the Worlds

 Aloha, and welcome to the second installment in a series of posts that examine the influence of manta ray shape, design or function in science and culture.

The image of a manta ray evokes a variety of responses from people. Many SCUBA divers appreciate the graceful fluidity of its movements as it seems to soar through the water. Technically inclined persons can admire the manta's hydrodynamic efficiency with a shape that minimizes turbulence and drag. To others, a manta seems to embody the mysterious and sinister, a dark and almost mythological creature of dread.

Today's subject is the 1953 film The War of the Worlds. This movie, an adaptation of the H.G. Wells classic novel, is considered a sci-fi classic and introduced what were (at the time) ground-breaking special effects. A central component of these effects were the Martian war machines designed by artistic director Albert Nozaki. In updating the story for a modern audience, Nozaki discarded Wells' mechanical tripods and re-imagined them as sleek, stealthy and sinister appearing...


Just look at the thing! Even as a little kid watching this on Saturday Night at the Movies I could tell these were manta rays transformed into really cool-looking alien craft. For die-hard sci-fi purists, note that in the photo above, the faint green columns of "sparks" under the craft. Nozaki, faithful to the novel, had his machines walking on "tripods" of force rather than mechanical legs.

The Internet Movie Data Base states in its "Trivia" for War of the Worlds "Albert Nozaki based his designs of the Martian machines on the shape and movement of manta rays". While the shape may have sprung from an appreciation of aerodynamics, it is probably just as likely that the form was chosen because it evoked feelings of fear, foreboding and the unknown. To quote the website Roger's Rocketships "Their appearance was halfway between the current mysterious Flying Saucers that everyone was talking about and manta rays. Neither association was good. Flying saucers frightened people and manta rays were something people avoided because of their sting. And well they should!"

Divers out there will immediately protest that mantas have no stinger, but that's not the point (ha!). Even today, the majority of people think manta ray and stingray are synonymous. All the more so in the pre-Animal Planet early 1950's. Roger's observations accurately reflect the conventional wisdom  of the time as well as the film-maker's intentions. In the 50's mantas were scary.

The down-turned wing-tips add to the manta-like appearance as does the central green light positioned where a manta's mouth would be. Disrupting the manta-effect is the long "gooseneck" projection from whence came the "death ray" which reduced anything it touched to cinders (a stinger, if you like).

If you enjoy sci-fi (as I do) check out Roger's website at He has a lot of info on spacecraft from classic science fiction films and you can even purchase schematics of the Martian war machine.

Mr. Nozaki's imaginary craft continues on even today. Sci-fi fans purchase and build models of what they like to call "manta ships" from that long-ago movie. And you can count on other sci-fi references coming up in future posts on The Manta's Shadow.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Manta's Shadow: Part I The Chevrolet Manta Ray

I have been out of the water for almost a month due to a busy schedule, holidays, travel, some minor health issues and now, big surf.
During this period I've been spending time on the internet and I've discovered that the topic "Manta Ray" triggers search engine responses to all sorts of things that have nothing to do with the actual Manta birostris. Indeed, Kona's foremost fish has been the inspiration for numerous technological, architectural, cultural and media manifestations. So today I am going to start a "blog within a blog" I'm calling The Manta's Shadow to highlight some of the interesting creations out there that have some basis, however tenuous, in some aspect of manta ray characteristics.

 We'll start things with a look at the 1969 Chevrolet Manta Ray concept car.  In the early sixties, Chevrolet decided to radically redesign the popular Corvette sports car, changing it from a very compact roadster into a testosterone-oozing muscle car of ludicrous horsepower.

The resulting stable of Corvette variants were named after cartilaginous fishes. First came the Stingray, which was extremely popular, being one of the first "fastback" cars and boasting such features as hidden headlights and spoilers. Next came an elongated version called the Mako Shark. This was ultimately followed by the Manta Ray pictured here.

As far as I can tell, the Manta Ray was a one-of-a-kind prototype and certainly was not mass-produced. Otherwise, the parking lots of Kona dive shops would be jammed with vintage Chevys. The 60's were a time of animal-centric muscle car names like Mustang, Cougar, Firebird, Barracuda(!) and Thunderbird. Except for their logos, perhaps, these cars had no design features that actually alluded to their namesake creatures. Not so the Manta Ray. The flattened hood gives it a dorso-ventrally compressed appearance and just ahead of the front wheel wells are five little gill slits (which I take to be non-functional "air scoops"). If you are familiar with other Corvettes you'll see that the tail  (rear deck) of the Manta Ray is significantly longer than any variant before or since. Topping it all off is an awesome two-tone paint scheme that sure looks like the countershaded camouflage of the Great Winged Ones.

At the very least, a very cool car seemingly inspired by a very cool marine creature. Just by way of "full disclosure" I'm not an enthusiast of any one make of car and the only Chevy I've ever owned was a Vega which was one of the worst models ever.

One more pic of the Chevrolet Manta Ray before I close this post.

Awesome logo on the steering wheel, huh? Ah, what could have been!