“Some people think it’s childish to do what I’ve done for a living, but I think it’s wrong when you grow to be an adult to discard your sense of wonder.”
“Raymond Frederick “Ray” Harryhausen (born June 29, 1920 – May 7, 2013) was an American visual effects creator, writer, and producer who lived in London, England from 1960 until his death in 2013. He created a brand of stop-motion model animation known as ‘Dynamation.'”
I grew up on Ray Harryhausen’s movies, and the two times I got to meet him were the highlights of both San Diego Comic Cons. Yes, I know. Out of all the uber-geeky and awesome things to do at the biggest nerdvention ever, I chose meeting a ninety-year-old special effects dude as the one I remembered most fondly.
Ray Harryhausen didn’t just make special effects – if he did, his movies wouldn’t have held up. Most of them aren’t very well-written, and the less we say about the acting, the better. Honestly, they were a lot like today’s SFX-laden blockbusters – we’re only here for the monsters. And since he used stop-motion photography, which is generally agreed to have aged about as well as chroma-key, well…
with Harryhausen’s movies, it’s different. See, it doesn’t matter if you use state-of-the-art CGI, men in rubber suits, stop-motion, or even claymation. Good special effects will hold up forever. Bad ones won’t. And it’s not purely a matter of realism. Jurassic Park’s CGI is pretty obvious now that you look at it, but the dinosaurs FEEL real. It’s in their movements, their mannerisms, and… well, and the non-CGI shots of animatronic dinosaurs, but you get what I mean. It’s the same way with Harryhausen – sure, that cyclops was a little jerky, but it FELT real. It ACTED real. Medusa from 1982 looked better than Medusa from 2010. The stop-motion model may have been more obviously fake, but something about her movements and mannerisms just clicked. The skeleton duel in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad was just as good as any big fight with a CGI monster – though that one was due to a combo of the awesome stop-motion work as well as Kerwin Mathews’s really convincing choreography. Compare the Kali Fight from Golden Voyage of Sinbad to Obi_wan versus General Grievous – the former just looks better. The latter seems… odd, somehow. But I’ve apologized for liking his movies enough.
I grew up on Harryhausen’s movies – although King Kong was the first movie I remember watching (He didn’t work on it, but he was inspired to go into filmmaking after seeing it), it was that darn cyclops from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad that haunted my nightmares all through my childhood. Come on, why wouldn’t it? It was huge! For a little kid, scary! My Dad fed me a great diet of monster movies – and yes, this included the Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Jason & The Argonauts, 20,000,000 Miles to Earth, Clash of the Titans… you name it! A little while later in my childhood, I came across a short documentary on Ray Harryhausen, and I watched it so many times it wore out the tape. No, he didn’t inspire me to go into filmmaking, but when it comes to monsters, this man was my hero.
As I said, he had really been inspired when he first saw King Kong – not just because of the incredible (for the time) special effects, but also because of the sheer realism of it. Kong had personality. his death had pathos. He wasn’t just a flat monster. Harryhausen sought to inject the same personality into his work – and you’ll notice that even his foulest villains (like Calibos from Clash of the Titans) have a certain amount of depth… and Calibos’s death scene is surprisingly sad, despite not involving his human actor at all. This also appplies to Medusa and the Kraken from the smae movie, again in spite of their actual behavior.
Ray Harryhausen was unafraid to try new things – one common argument you see nowadays is that “CGI sucks! I hate new technology!” But that’s completely missing the point! If he were making movies today, he would probably use CGI, but he’d make it good. Remember, it’s about personality. For one example of this – we all agree that movie colorization is bad and wrong and stupid and whatever, right? Except Harryhausen had no problem colorizing a few of his movies in 2009. Why? Because he had wanted to make those two in color in the first place, and colorization technology had advanced enough to make them look good. Besides, the originals are still available. If it’s done well, it’s not bad. So go ahead and use stop-motion, or CGI, or a man in a rubber suit – just do a good job!
Also, if not for Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Tom Baker would never have been Doctor Who. Think about THAT for a while!
So, here’s this little special effects guy. He made a lot of B-Movies. Despite being part of The Hollywood Establishment, he was married once and only once, from 1963 until his death. His father helped make a lot of his stop-motion models. You’d think that he would have fallen into obscurity long ago just like many, many other filmmakers from the era.
But look at the people he influenced! Dennis Muren, Tim Burton, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Sam Raimi, Joe Dante, Stan Winston, Kevin Yagher, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, John Landis, Rick Baker (makeup artist), Peter Jackson, Ivan Reitman, Joe Johnston, John Lasseter, Nick Park, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, George Lucas, Henry Selick, Rob Bottin… and me.
Thanks for all the movies and the monsters, Ray! We’ll never forget you!
“Without Harryhausen’s effects work over the last five decades, there never would have been a ‘Star Wars’ or a ‘Jurassic Park.’ His films continue to set our imagination on fire.”
-Stephen Spielberg, 2003
Okay, look, I’m contractually obligated to make this about toys, so here’s a toy photo.