RIP Ray Harryhausen: 1920 – 2013
The quote above comes from one of Ray Harryhausen’s most famous films, but it could also have been spoken at his birth, for this cinematic special effects genius would infuse all of the films he worked on with a special brand of magic – and one that would pay dividends beyond even his imagining by inspiring leagues of filmmakers and technicians to follow in his footsteps and make a career in movie special effects their own.
Raymond Frederick Harryhausen was born on June 29th, 1920 to Martha and Fred Harryhausen in Los Angeles, CA. From an early age (like many boys) he was fascinated with dinosaurs and would spend many hours at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum studying the murals of prehistoric life by artist Charles R. Knight (an example of which is seen below). Unlike many boys, however, he had a hobby of making his own dinosaur models and filming them in the garage of his parent’s home.
In March, 1933, young Harryhausen had a life-defining moment when he went to see KING KONG. The film amazed the teenager, showing his beloved dinosaurs coming to life and engaging the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ in battle. He then tried to find out all he could about how the creatures were filmed (unlike today, information of this sort was quite scarce) and eventually was able to meet the special effects director of KONG, Willis O’Brien. Harryhausen told the tale many times of he and his parents visiting O’Brien and his wife Darlene, taking his allosaur model and a short film he had made to show them. O’Brien gave the young man helpful criticism on how to improve his models, while Darlene lavishly praised both the model and the film, causing O’Brien to say, “You realize you’re encouraging my competition, don’t you?”
During World War II, Harryhausen worked with director Frank Capra and his film unit, using his knowledge of stop-motion animation to create instructional films for the GI’s (such as How to Bridge a Gorge, 1942). At the end of the war, Harryhausen resumed his connection with O’Brien, who offered him an animation job on his next project, 1949’s MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. By his own estimates, Harryhausen said later that he was responsible for approximately 85% of the animation of the film, which was an excellent training ground for what was to come.
By now, Harryhausen had gained a reputation for working quickly and inexpensively and was approached by Warner Brothers to make a dinosaur movie for them (after being turned down by O’Brien, who wanted more money for the effects than they were willing to pay – he then recommended Harryhausen). Based on childhood friend Ray Bradbury’s short story (“The Foghorn”) that had appeared in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST magazine, it was fleshed out to feature-length and became the sleeper hit of 1953, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. Other signature low-budget Harryhausen films followed in its wake throughout the 1950’s, including IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957).
In 1958, Harryhausen’s star would rise immeasurably with the release of THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD. His producer and collaborating partner Charles H. Schneer had convinced him this was the film to shoot in Technicolor (which Harryhausen had resisted with his earlier films due to the additional problems color presented for animation). Schneer’s instincts were spot-on and 7th VOYAGE became one of the top box-office hits of the year. From the opening sequence with the Cyclops on the island of Colossa to the fight to the death with a sword-wielding skeleton, the film presented an astonishing display of Harryhausen’s perfected stop-motion technique – the marriage of his animated models to live action actors, all shot in Technicolor and scored by the maestro of film composing Bernard Herrmann.
With the success of 7th VOYAGE, Harryhausen embarked on a wondrous decade of work, bringing forth many of his best remembered and most cherished films, such as THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960), MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961) and my personal favorite of his films, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), which I have written about separately (see the following link: jason-and-argonauts-1963-shown-june.html).
The latter half of the decade would bring more wonders from the fertile imagination of Harryhausen, including FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964), ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966) and THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969). All of the films were well-made and technically proficient, but none made the kind of money 7th VOYAGE had (with the exception of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., and the argument can [and has] been made that a good part of that was due to Raquel Welch’s ‘assets’ in the film – indeed, a poster of her character in the movie was one of the best-selling posters of the 1960’s). Audience taste had changed and it seemed nothing that Harryhausen and Scheer offered to the viewing public was to their liking. Discouraged but not giving up, Schneer suggested a return visit to an old friend.
1974 would bring about a much-heralded (and needed) renaissance to both men’s careers with THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD. More seamless animation, more amazing creatures (including a cyclopean centaur, a griffin and homunculi) and a showcase moment in the film, when Sinbad and his men battle a six-armed, scimitar-laden statue of Kali come to life (courtesy of the dark sorcery of the magician Koura, ably portrayed by Tom Baker before he began his historic run on television’s DOCTOR WHO). The film was a box-office smash and the team of Harryhausen and Schneer tried to make the third time a charm with 1977’s SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER, but the audience was having none of it, instead giving their allegiance that summer to a little film that went by the name of STAR WARS.
Times were changing and the way films were being made was changing, as well. Harryhausen’s films were always an occasion to be welcomed, as they were few and far between. The very nature of his job contributed to that factor, as he was a one-man operation for most of his career. With the dawning of the 1980’s, however, his method of animation was being eclipsed by a new, faster and (eventually) cheaper process, Computer Generated Imagery, or CGI. It is the preferred choice of film technicians everywhere today and there are whole companies devoted to it, but it lacks the one thing that was always present in Harryhausen’s films … the human touch. More on this point in a moment.
Harryhausen’s final feature would come in 1981. CLASH OF THE TITANS would be all new: new studio, the biggest budget of any of his films, an all-star cast (including Sir Laurence Olivier as Zeus) and a return to one of his favorite topics: Greek mythology. It would also be the first time he would share the major animation duties (in order to make MGM’s targeted release date), calling upon fellow animators Jim Danforth and Steven Archer to assist. He would save one sequence for himself to mark the capstone to his animation career – the fateful battle between Perseus and Medusa in her temple. An atmospheric and suspenseful scene, it is the highlight of the film, with Perseus and his men going from hunters to hunted and being calcified by the Medusa’s gaze one by one. Harryhausen’s design for the Medusa is a triumph as well: half-woman, half-snake – a slithering nightmare with a quiver of arrows to distract you and a deadly stare to send you instantly into eternity.
The film boasts other wonders, too – from the magnificent Kraken to the beautifully rendered Pegasus, and the assorted giant scorpions, vultures, two-headed dogs and Athena’s mechanical owl Bubo. CLASH was a feast for the eyes and one of the best films of the summer of 1981. With the completion of the film, Harryhausen announced his retirement and spent his remaining years writing, sculpting, attending conventions and doing commentary tracks for DVDs, both for his own films and others (including KING KONG, the 1935 version of SHE, etc.) – he was always a welcome guest at many animation studios and film sets, usually bringing all work to a halt as everyone wanted to meet him and tell their stories! At Industrial Light and Magic, they have a permanent bronze statue of Ray and the skeleton from 7th VOYAGE (seen at right). His legacy continues to live on.
The above is only an overview of Harryhausen’s career. There are a number of books available that cover every facet of his films, ranging from Harryhausen’s own books (including his oft-updated Film Fantasy Scrapbook) to the exhaustive three-volume set “Ray Harryhausen: Master of the Magicks” by Mike Hankin. In addition, there are websites, magazines and documentaries on the man and his films (the best of which is director Gilles Penso’s 2011 film RAY HARRYHAUSEN: SPECIAL EFFECTS TITAN, which uncovers long-lost effects and test footage and shows how it all came together).
In the documentary, Harryhausen is called “the godfather of special effects” – it is as good a name as any, but doesn’t really relate WHY he was so important to fantasy filmmaking. Part of the the reason is because he was making films no one else could make … and he was doing it alone. The painstaking detail required in stop-motion animation requires the patience of a saint, the memory of an elephant and the stamina of an athlete – all so some jointed models can move convincingly across a movie screen. Others tried to do what Harryhausen was doing, with limited degrees of success. The only other animator who came close was Jim Danforth (see his WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1971)). The list of BAD stop-motion goes on and on – two examples of how NOT to put your finished product on the screen would be THE BEAST FROM HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (1956) and DINOSAURUS (1960).
The other reason is because of the personality he was able to instill in his models, an amazing trait that instantly signals a creature on screen as one of Harryhausen’s “children”. From the newly hatched Ymir rubbing his eyes and crying at his unfamiliar surroundings in 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH to the surprised and enraged Cyclops finding human interlopers on his island in 7th VOYAGE (and later licking his lips in anticipation of the slowly-cooking sailor over his fire), all of his models have not just movement, but a cinematic spark of life to them that completes the suspension of disbelief when watching the films and connects with the audience, young and old alike. His creation’s deaths are always tragic as well; whether it be the irradiated Rhedosaurus burning from within as he destroys the roller coaster in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS or the confused and defiant Ymir being blasted from the top of Rome’s Colosseum via bazooka, Harryhausen always invested his creatures with personality and pathos. Reflect on that for a moment … all of this with incremental moves of models only inches high, made of fur, rubber, and metal joints, moving an inch at a time and still managing to bring forth not only movement but also personality. He was a gifted artist and his craft touched a nerve for many young men and women. Take a look at the accolades on his passing – George Lucas (just to use an example) said, “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars.”
I was one of those young men back in the 1960’s and ’70’s who relished each of his new films, having discovered his artistry with a viewing of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. I vividly remember going with friends in 1974 to see THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD and being so awestruck by it that I immediately sat through a second showing! I also remember a violent storm passing through Minnesota in June of 1981 and the local paper showing the damage to the theater marquee due to high winds. The film on the demolished sign? CLASH OF THE TITANS.
My fondest memory of Ray Harryhausen, however, was my chance to meet him and his wife Diana in 1990. I was volunteering as a projectionist for the FANEX film convention in Towson, Maryland, and Gary and Sue Svehla (the organizers of the show), knowing of my admiration for him, had arranged for me and my friend Mark to take them to lunch, to have time alone with them away from the convention. We both peppered him and his wife with questions (all of which I’m sure he had heard a thousand times before) and were able to get to know more about him and his films, if only briefly. I was surprised when he mentioned that Boston (my home city) was always a hard market for his films (not due to me, as I saw them many times when they arrived!) – it was a treasured time for both Mark and myself, and a bit of carpal tunnel syndrome for poor Mr. Harryhausen as both of his fans had plenty of items for him to autograph – the photo here is from that convention.
While I am truly sad at his passing, I am comforted in the knowledge that Ray Harryhausen lived long enough to see the fruits of his labors, not in the films he made, but in the lives of the many people he inspired with his films. So many times an actor or artist goes to their grave not knowing if what they toiled and slaved for all their lives made a difference. In 1992, he was awarded the Gorden E. Sawyer Award, an honorary Oscar for his lifetime of achievements in the field of special effects. Tom Hanks, who presented it to him at the ceremony, said, “Some say Citizen Kane is the greatest motion picture of all time. Others say it’s Casablanca. For me, the greatest picture of all time is Jason and the Argonauts.” Director Terry Gilliam said of Harryhausen, “What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before but without computers. Only with his digits.” I think the final word, however, belongs to the man himself: “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.”
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services