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Ray Harryhausen

May 7, 2013


Ray Harryhausen has died. I know he was 92 and it was no great shock, but I wanted to note his passing, as it’s definitely the end of an era. The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad was probably the first film I ever saw at the cinema and almost certainly set me on the course to a lifelong obsession with monsters, horror and fantasy. It was scary, thrilling and delightful in equal parts and was Better Than Telly, because you were sat in the dark and got swept up in the whole delirious fever dream of it.

It was Harryhausen’s monsters that made it. Ray, of course, gave them the time-honoured Kong-like build up they deserved. You were waiting for the next monster to show up. It could come blundering out of a snowstorm, creep out of a cave, or hatch from a giant egg. Ray’s monsters were lovely, because he was a great artist. They were beautifully designed, expertly built and then animated so well that they all had their own, individual characters.

Ray was living the dream, of course. He’d loved King Kong as a boy and wound up becoming friend and protege to that film’s special effects genius, Willis O’Brien. But while O’Brien struggled throughout his life trying to get projects off the ground, Harryhausen was fortunate to hook up with producer Charles Schneer, who gave Ray the foundation on which to build his fantasies.

Ray could also do it all economically – Dynamation was his technique, that allowed characters to be matted into real life scenes, saving on expensive set building and allowing the monsters to interact with men. But while frugal, the films didn’t skimp on detail. There’s an amazing anecdote (which I won’t bore you with here) that details Ray’s method of animating the Gwangi allosaurus, from within a model cage. Ray made it even more difficult for himself by making the model appear literally behind bars. He could have faked it, but that would be cheating.

I visited Harryhausen at his home in London about ten years ago. Wish I still had the video, it was great. He told me the story about animating a character and then being interrupted by the phone, only to come back having forgotten which of the Hydra’s seven heads was going in which direction. It was a very strict discipline, for sure. (He was also a sharp businessman: he didn’t want us to film his room of props as be had a book out and didn’t want to give away the behind the scenes stuff for free.)

God, look at that sequence with the seven skeletons from Jason And The Argonauts. That scene is 50 years old now, but I can’t even begin to get my head around they began to plot out the moves, the combination of live action and animation… And all done without the luxury of post-production. When seven skeletons move, they all move at the same time; you couldn’t do one and then go back and do the moves for the next one. The concentration involved must have been phenomenal. As Ray once said of the work: “It’s not for everyone.”

The sequence still works and will work forever. Your brain says you’re seeing some stuntmen on a cliff top in Italy in the summer of 1962, making moves where some articulated puppets will be added some months later via optical trickery… But your heart knows these are the Argonauts in Ancient Greece, fighting skeletons borne from the teeth of the Hydra.

Like O’Brien before him, Harryhausen was creating art that couldn’t be done in any other medium. His was a purely cinematic skill, one that had only been developed at the beginning of the 20th century and is now not extinct, exactly, but certainly less common than it was.

The skellingtons are maybe the most memorable of Ray’s creations, but there are dozens more and I don’t know if I can pick one favourite. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms cornered at the Coney Island fairground. The Ymir from Venus, fighting an elephant, which accidentally sits on its owner. Poor old tragic Gwangi, lassoed by cowboys and dying in a funeral pyre in a Mexican church. That creepy snake woman from Seventh Voyage. The goddess Kali – a very good swords woman. The flying saucers careering into Washington with a hellish shrieking noise.

And they were scary – there’s always a brilliant but of staging when Harryhausen’s monsters appear. The scariest of all is the great statue Telos, who creaks into life when the reckless Argonauts try and pinch his loot. Is there a more menacing sound in movies? I doubt it.

I met the Seventh Voyage skeleton the day I met Ray and I was glad to have the opportunity to encounter them both in the flesh (well, in Ray’s case, anyway). What’s nice is that after all those years sat in the dark, staring at models, Ray had thirty years of retirement, lapping up the admiration and acclaim. And, while special effects got obsessed with space ships instead of Greek fantasy and stop motion made way for CGI, the films that Ray Harryhausen made will continue to pop up, like those skeletons popping out of the ground. Only, these moves will be a lot tougher to kill.