In Memoriam: Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013)
I was astounded by your body of work before. Looking back now on how much you’ve done over the decades, and my astonishment has grown.
Sometimes you can identify a movie based on the actors in it, or by the directors, or even by the studios who made it. Names become adjectives: Hitchcock, Spielberg, MGM, Schwarzenegger, Hanks, Corman. But identifying a movie based on the technical crew? You’d have to be seriously into the business to do something like that. Nobody gives a shit about the nerds behind the camera unless they’re some over the top director, right?
Except for Ray Harryhausen. He got the recognition outside his field, and with good reason. You admired his work. More, you loved his work.
And why not? It was magic, real movie magic. You want to double that magic? Remember it was all done, not by computers but by his own hands. You want to triple that magic? Remember that so much of it was done, not by a team, but by one man, sitting alone in a darkened room, maybe spending all day making only a few seconds worth of usable footage.
Still not enough for you? Consider his background: When Harryhausen was 13, he went to see the original KING KONG, and fell in love with the work that pioneer special effects artist Willis O’Brien did on it. As he was sixty-plus years before the Internet and before anyone gave a shit about special effects, Harryhausen did his own research on stop-motion photography and model work and such, eventually contacting O’Brien himself. Further encouraged by O’Brien’s positive response, Harryhausen made a demo reel that earned him his first film job with legendary director/producer George Pal.
After the War, Harryhausen eventually got to work with O’Brien on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), though his real big break came with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), and the low budget of that film meant he had to learn to develop new techniques. The result was one of the most influential movies of the decade.
From that point on, Harryhausen went from strength to strength, working on an amazing number of films in the fantasy, historical and science fiction genres: IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (which he regarded as his best film), ONE MILLION YEARS BC, THE VALLEY OF GWANGI… His work moved through the Sixties and Seventies and into the Eighties, culminating with the now-classic CLASH OF THE TITANS (1982), whose CGI-infested remake is but a piss-poor reflection.
And in his time, he created a whole slew of memorable creatures: the giant bronze statue Talos and skeletal warriors in JASON, the giant Golden Gate-trashing octopus from IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, the blade-wielding Kali from THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, the Selenites from FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, the Baboon and the Cyclops from SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER. Harryhausen gave them character and individuality, subtle changes of facial expression and almost imperceptible ruffles in fur and feathers (often just to keep himself amused while spending hundreds of hours on these tiny figures!).
There are some people who have only known modern special effects, and look down their nose at Harryhausen’s work as unrealistic and inferior. Here’s the thing about those people: they’re wrong. Oh yeah, you might see more realistic-looking dinosaurs in a JURASSIC PARK movie, just like a photograph of a smiling woman will capture a lot more than a painting. But it won’t be the Mona Lisa. It won’t be the painstaking, meticulous efforts of a true artist. the man could work miracles with a shoestring budget, and could still teach filmmakers today a thing or two.
My other, better half is a primary school teacher who, when the subject matter turns to Myths and Legends, will play JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and CLASH OF THE TITANS for her kids. And they’re entranced, totally swept along by what they see: the skeletal warriors rising up to battle the Greeks, the menacing Medusa, the Harpies and the Hydra and the Kraken. Movies that are decades old still stand the test of time, when so much newer dreck ages quicker than cheese in the sun.
Harryhausen could have continued after CLASH, but retired due to the changing nature of the movies: “When I was growing up we had heroes such as Cary Grant, Ronald Colman and David Niven, real gentlemen on the screen. Now, all you have is Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and all those people who solve problems with their fists. It’s a different world and I sometimes feel I’m not part of it.”
It was not until 1992 that Harryhausen finally achieved film immortality with an honorary Oscar, a long-overdue tribute to the one name that personifies visual magic (Of his Oscar, he said, “I was delighted to be recognized, and pleased now that animation is recognized as a legitimate profession.”).
Thankfully, those in the business today recognise and honor the ground he has broken and the long hard work he put in – and that he had lived to accept it: “I’m very happy that so many young fans have told me that my films have changed their lives. That’s a great compliment. It means I did more than just make entertaining films. I actually touched people’s lives — and, I hope, changed them for the better.”
You did, Ray, you did. No one will ever match what you’ve done.
Rest in peace.