Harryhausen : A Retrospective

It is a truly rare thing to have the utterly bitter sweet task of writing a retrospective on someone who was, is, and forever will be an inspiration to me. For me, 7th May 2013 will always be a ‘where were you when you found out?’ moment. Ask the vast majority of people where they were when they found out Diana died, or the older generation where they were when they heard about JFK’s assassination, and the chances are they’ll know. On May 7th, I had just sat down in front of my computer and had begun to read an in-depth article about Guillermo Del Toro‘s upcoming creature feature Pacific Rim. The irony of this happening will forever stay with me, as this was the moment I found out about the passing of a true hero of mine; the master of stop motion, the pioneer, Ray Harryhausen.

Speaking personally, the impact Ray Harryhausen had on me permeates several parts of my life, and gave birth to my lifelong fascination with monsters. One of my first memories is sitting on my grandfather’s knee, being allowed to stay up late to watch Clash of the Titans, at 5 years old. I was terrified, but my Grandpa was with me and helped quell that fear. Fear quickly turned to fascination that has stayed with me to this day. This bore fruit, when at age 24 I completed my Masters thesis ‘From Beowulf, to Buffy, and Beyond: The Evolution of the Medieval Monster.’ A solid year of researching monsters from all ages and cultures, comparing their depiction in the past and how they’d evolved in modern time often brought me around to one name: Ray Harryhausen. This shows the true influence of the man in modern cinematic society. To call him the godfather of his field just doesn’t seem to do him justice. I even dug up my thesis and gave it a read through in the wake of Harryhausen’s passing, and found him referenced in the text no fewer than 18 times. My academic life’s work has always surrounded monsters, the ‘other’, and their impact on society and entertainment, and Ray Harryhausen has been with me every step of the way. For that, I am truly thankful.

Born in 1920, growing up in Los Angeles, California, Harryhausen’s first experience with the monsters that would shape his life and career was seeing 1933 creature feature King Kong. After the creative itch hit, he spent his early years experimenting with stop motion model animation inspired by Willis O’Brien, the model animator on King Kong. We have a lot to thank Willis for, because without him urging Harryhausen (following an arranged meeting) to progress his work and hone his skills as a graphic artist, we may never have seen the wondrous works of the subsequent decades.

In 1947 Harryhausen was employed as an assistant animator on Mighty Joe Young alongside Willis O’Brien. Harryhausen took on the main bulk of animation duties, and their combined efforts netted O’Brien the Academy Award for Best Special Effects. This was surely a sign of things to come.

Harryhausen’s first feature film solo effort was the now famous The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in which a ferocious Godzilla-type mister wreaks havoc, killing untold amounts of people. This film was released in 1953, and was considered the peak of stop motion animation and visual effects. You can just imagine the effect it would have had to those viewing it. As such, it’s no surprise that it was a major international box office hit for Harryhausen and Warner Brothers.

The 50s also birthed the term ‘Dynamation’, a marketing term for Harryhausen’s unique methods of experimenting with colour stock to overcome the problems in color-balance-shift, and his unique style of having model animated characters interact with the live action world.

This unique, iconic, and frankly brilliant style resulted in what is often considered his masterpiece; 1963′s Jason and The Argonauts. There are few people I have encountered in my lifetime who haven’t seen this film, or at least part of it. It’s the film with ‘that scene’ in it; the iconic skeleton fight scene. This was the pinnacle of stop motion to live action interaction, and I personally think it’s stood the test of time. This scene, where seven stop motion skeletal warriors take on three actors has never been surpassed by a single individual, and it’s unsurprising, considering the, more than, four months it took to complete. Add to that such other iconic scenes such as the hydra battle, and it’s easy to see why Harryhausen and his work has touched so many people over the years and remains just as iconic as its first showing way back in the 60s.

Harryhausen revised the Sinbad character from earlier years to create The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and later, Sinbad and the eye of the Tiger (1977). Both films were great box office successes the latter really showing Harryhausen’s popularity, considering 1977 saw the release of a little known film called Star Wars.

1981 saw the release of the Greek epic Clash of the Titans. This is a film that is truly close to my heart, as it was the film that as I say, birthed my love of everything monster related. In terms of monsters, Clash of the Titans had it all. Pegasus, the monstrous Kraken, giant scorpions, and perhaps most famously of all, an incredible depiction of Medusa. Having studied these monsters as a classics student, I regularly go back to this film and marvel at just how right he got it. Not only did the film showcase his talent, the Harryhausen name even carried enough weight to get legendary actor Laurence Olivier on board, playing Zeus no less. This film always has been a personal favourite of mine for several reasons. It ignited my love of monsters, effectively changing my life, it brings back some truly nostalgic personal memories, and Harry Hamlin‘s acting (don’t get me started) aside, it’s a bloody brilliant film.

Clash of the Titans was Harryhausen’s final film, as post release he and long time producer and friend Charles H. Schneer retired from active film making. Following this retirement, Harryhausen focused on his trilogy of books, Film Fantasy Scrapbook, An Animated Life and The Art of Ray Harryhausen.

In his later life, Harryhausen remained close friends with Ray Bradbury until his death in 2012, and Charles H. Sneer who passed away in 2009.

In 1986 he created The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, a charity that not only works to preserve Harryhausen’s vast collection, but also promotes the art of stop-motion animation.

In the wake of his death, the real influence he had on the entertainment world became truly apparent with the tributes paid to him.

Some are as follows:

“I think all of us who are practitioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant. If not for Ray’s contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn’t be who we are.”

-James Cameron

“Ray has been a great inspiration to us all in special visual industry. The art of his earlier films, which most of us grew up on, inspired us so much.” “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars”

George Lucas.

“He is one of the true greats, if not the true great of stop motion animation. The unique craftsman has been my mentor and inspiration since my earliest childhood memories.

“The Lord of the Ringsis my ‘Ray Harryhausen movie’. Without his life-long love of his wondrous images and storytelling it would never have been made – not by me at least”

Peter Jackson

“Ray, your inspiration goes with us forever.”

Steven Spielberg

“He is one of the true greats, if not the true great of stop motion animation. The unique craftsman has been my mentor and inspiration since my earliest childhood memories.”

Nick Park

The pedigree of those paying tribute speaks for itself, and says more about the man than I ever could.

Ray Harryhausen died on 7th May 2013 at the age of 92 years old. The world of cinema will forever be changed by him, for the better. Without him, there would be no Star Wars, there would be no Aardman Animation. It’s only when you look back, you realise how much this great man brought to the world. He has left behind a legacy that may never be equalled. He changed the world, my world, in a way words cannot do justice. So I come full circle, eagerly awaiting this summer’s big creature feature Pacific Rim, knowing full well that without the life and works of Ray Harryhausen, it wouldn’t have been made.

You will always be an inspiration. I salute you, and I thank you.

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