The Genius of Ray Harryhausen

El Ray

To honor the memory of Ray Harryhausen, who passed away today, May 7, 2013, I am republishing this article that was originally published on November 11, 2011.

My love for movies started at an early age.  I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t overwhelmed by the magic of cinema.  I can remember being only about seven or eight and asking what the difference between a director and a producer was; I knew they were the most important people on a motion picture, but was only beginning to grasp what these people did to create the stories on the screen.  More than anything, movies with special effects swept me away, giving me a great love of the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  It’s no wonder that one of the first names I became aware of in filmmaking was Ray Harryhausen.

RayHarryhausen_7thVoyageOfSimbad_0 (15)

Any time one of his Sinbad movies came on TV, I was sure to watch.  I read movie magazines like Starlog, Cinemagic, and Cinefantastique that told how he animated his monstrous characters, inspired by Willis O’Brien‘s work on the original King Kong.  I was lucky enough to see the last two of Harryhausen’s movies in the theater, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and the original Clash of the Titans.  Even to my young eyes, the stop-motion animation looked fake.  The movements were jerky and the creatures didn’t precisely match the live action photography of the actors interacting with the fantasy creations.  It didn’t matter, because that was part of the magic–it wasn’t real, yet it was still convincing.  More than that, however, it was cool.  Knowing how Harryhausen had to sculpt the creatures from clay and build a complex skeleton that allowed movement, then had to slightly and precisely move the models for each frame photographed made me appreciate the effects all the more.  I have nothing against CGI and appreciate when it’s done extraordinarily well, but the cheesy stop motion effects had a real quality about them.  They were tangible; hands were actually placed on them with loving care.

Medusa from Clash of the Titans.

Again, I don’t want to take anything away from the hard work by computer animators because they are artists in their own right; but I wonder if we have progressed to the point where we no longer will have special effects geniuses who take the craft to the next level such as O’Brien, Harryhausen, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Stan Winston, John Dykstra, or Dennis Muren.  ILM and Weta still integrate practical effects with digital compositing to the point where the audience is largely unable to tell the difference (everyone assumed the effects in Lord of the Rings, for instance, were done entirely by CGI, despite a large amount of miniatures involved in the film).  These techniques are tried and true, and any advancements will just be improvements to current technology that is required by the particulars of a movie while little innovation will be needed.  Currently the biggest technological wizardry is seen in 3D cinematography, something that is leaving the audience with ambivalent feelings toward it.

RayHarryhausen_JasoAndTheArgonauts_0 (22)

There’s no doubt that movies look more realistic nowadays, though audiences tend to get used to the look of a particular effect and can see through it.  They recognize stop motion, rear projection, blue screen (or green screen), miniatures, prosthetics, and CGI.  It seems that the more proficient the effects become, the more cynical the audience grows toward them.  One common complaint is that CGI looks too much like video games.  Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with effects not being perfect.  I enjoyed the unreality of Harryhausen’s effects.  The movements replicated nature, but there was something not quite right about it.  Yet there it was on the screen.  I could take joy in the fantasy it created, knowing that it wasn’t real life except for the fact that the effects were real–physical objects made to come to life.  That’s what Harryhausen’s genius was, bringing to life the inanimate and making us want to believe they were living.  He was a magician that used film in place of slight-of-hand.

Harryhausen Skeleton

Thanks to Harryhausen and others like him, I fell in love with movies and that love is still strong to this day.  And because of him, I’m a sucker for anything with sword-fighting skeletons.

I need to acknowledge Roger Ebert’s Journal for the link to the following video, which shows every one of Ray Harryhausen’s creatures.  Thanks, Roger!

copyright © 2011 FilmVerse


6 comments on “The Genius of Ray Harryhausen

  1. […] The Genius of Ray Harryhausen (filmverse.wordpress.com) Share this: Leo Adam Biga's BlogEmailFacebookStumbleUponRedditPrintTwitterDiggLike this:LikeOne blogger likes this post. Categories: Bruce Crawford, Cinema, Entertainment, Film, Hollywood, Movies, Omaha, Writing Tags: Classic Movie Revivals, Film Historian/Impresario Bruce Crawford, King Kong Comments (1) Trackbacks (1) Leave a comment Trackback […]

  2. An excellent post. For those Harryhausen fans who would like to see some of the master’s early work, I heartily recommend the two-disc DVD, “Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection,” produced in 2005 by Harryhausen’s longtime friend and agent Arnold Kunert. Kunert was responsible for getting Ray his Honorary Oscar in 1992, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003, and many other things.

    By the way, someone in London recently asked Ray what he thought of the remake of “Clash of the Titans.” His response was “I haven’t seen it.”

    Case closed.

  3. Excellent post, Jamie. Modern CGI does have its place, but too many filmmakers are over reliant upon it these days. The old craftsman and masters like Ray Harryhausen and the others you highlight really brought a magic with them. Whether the effects looked super-realistic or not, the work up there on the screen was amazing and only added to the spectacle of cinema. I recently introduced my daughter to ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ on Blu-ray Disc and she loved it. Thanks.

    • I find it amazing that Ray Harryhausen is still alive, as he’s currently 91. I wonder what he thought of the remake of Clash of the Titans.

      • That is incredible, alright. One of the few things I appreciated of the CotT remake was Medusa and her back story from mythology. But, Harry’s effects work with the Gorgon still rank with the best in stop-motion animation and for working so well with the story. Thanks.

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