He was, simply, one of the finest and most singular artists--of any medium--to hail from the 20th Century; absolutely no one could match him. No one. Ray Harryhausen, who remained kind and giving to every single one of his fans up until his recent passing, laid his deft hand onto almost every stage of special effects history. He was a sculptor first, an animator second, a director and producer third. With his toned eye and his careful hand, he was one of cinema's unqualified marvels. If there were a true Olympic medal for athletic moviemaking, along with stuntman Yakima Canutt, he might very well be its only winner. He was an utter superman, moving steadily at a second's fraction.
Ray began shaping his individual style of stop-motion animation (which is, for those who do not know, frame-by-frame manipulation--24 times a second--of wire-framed, latex-coated puppets, in order to create the illusion of their actual movement) after meeting his predecessor, the great Willis O'Brien (the genius behind the effects for 1925's The Lost World and 1933's original King Kong). O'Brien acted for a short time as Harryhausen's caring mentor and then, after a stint in the WWII effort--as a film loader working under Colonel Frank Capra!--Harryhausen was off to aid on George Pal's Oscar-winning Puppetoons shorts, where he honed his craft as one of Pal's many assistants. I can't be sure of his work on Jasper Derby, since he isn't credited, but given the 1946 time frame, it seems likely he threw in on this one:
Harryhausen soon moved on to creating his own animated short films, based on classic works by Aesop and the Brothers Grimm. This series of shorts (which include the stories of The Tortoise and the Hare, King Midas, Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood) is astounding even today; their smoothness and lack of many aspects fans associate with Harryhausen's works (read: monsters) are surely staggering. Take a look, for instance at Harryhausen's work on The Story of Rapunzel, which not only reveals his aptitude for extremely expressive animation and character design, but also for vivid, inventive direction:
Harryhausen's first major feature film work was certainly memorable: He collaborated with Willis O'Brien on 1949's truly unique Mighty Joe Young, injecting a vivacious personality into the charismatic mini-Kong. Though King Kong is obviously the groundbreaker, I always felt more deeply for Mr. Joseph Young, who was so much sweeter and funnier than the insanely horny Kong (he's especially clever and friendly in his more intimate scenes with lead Terry Moore). In this famous clip, you get to see Harryhausen learning how to incorporate, through extraordinarily convincing matte shots, the real with the unreal (the effects earned movie veteran O'Brien a well-deserved Oscar):
And then there is the distinctive finale, in which Joe tries to save his best friendfrom a flaming building. I kind of love the red tint here (and I don't know, but don't think, it was something that was conceived as part of the original film):
Although Ray Harryhausen was tapped to do a movie called The Monster from Beneath the Sea, the studio ran into a stumbling block in that they had stolen the concept from pioneering science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who had crafted a magazine piece called The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. So, in response, the studio bought that story, too, to avoid legal problems. This confluence proved to be a wonderfully fateful meeting of two great minds: Bradbury and Harryhausen. They would remain dear friends until Bradbury's death in 2012 (also at age 92--the same age that took Harryhausen from us). With 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Ray set the template for his later works in his revolutionizing the blending of filmed footage of actual people and locales with his ridiculously superb stop-motion work. Here, I have, side by side, examples of Harryhausen's stultifying efforts on both Beast and the subsequent 1955 production It Came From Beneath the Sea (where the monster was changed to a shiny-tentacled, extra-giant octupus). Can you imagine how amazed 50s-era moviegoers were by this stuff? Hell, it's still amazing to this day:
To quote a perfect passage from Wikipedia: "It was on The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms that Harryhausen first used a technique that split the background and foreground of pre-shot live action footage into two separate images into which he would animate a model or models so seemingly integrating the live-action with the models. The background would be used as a miniature rear-screen with his models animated in front of it, re-photographed with an animation-capable camera to combine those two elements together, the foreground element matted out to leave a black space. Then the film was rewound, and everything except the foreground element matted out so that the foreground element would now photograph in the previously blacked out area. This created the effect that the animated model was 'sandwiched' in between the two live action elements, right into the final live action scene. Most of the effects shots in his earliest films were done without resorting to expensive and time-consuming optical printer work. Harryhausen's careful frame-by-frame control of the lighting of both the set and the projector dramatically reduced much of second generation degradation common in most usage of back-projection. His use of diffused glass to soften the sharpness of light on the animated elements allowed them to match the soft background plates far more than Willis O'Brien had achieved in his early films, allowing Harryhausen to match live and miniature elements seamlessly in most of his shots. By developing and executing most of this miniature set wizardry himself, Harryhausen saved money, while maintaining full technical control to achieve a variety of superior and convincing special effects techniques."
1956 saw the release of two more Harryhausen masterpieces. In the extremely unusual Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, his monsters became simple flying saucers, wreaking havoc on Washington DC. This remains some of his most exceptional work, because it relies not on monsters, but on technological demons as acting villains. Plus, in an a plucky fashion, he dramatizes the somehow joyous destruction of the USA's most treasured monuments and buildings, including the Washington Monument (my favorite moment, with its collapsing bricks and the dazzled saucer) and the crumbling Capitol Dome:
In the same year, he again collaborated with Willis O'Brien (who was, at this point, too elderly to complete the task alone) to craft the epilogue to Irwin Allen's 1956 documentary The Animal World. I see this as kind of a color redo of Willis' epochal dinosaur work on 1925's The Lost World (this must have been a thrill for Harryhausen to participate in; imagine working side by side with your own idol!):
The following year, 1957, Harryhausen created the Ymir, maybe his first notable and certainly his first namable creation, both feared and tortured by humans in 20 Million Miles to Earth:
1960 brought The Three Worlds of Gulliver, particularly illustrious because it includes little stop motion work but instead focuses in on Harryhausen's ability to combine two worlds at once: the minature and the seemingly gigantic:
And then 1961 featured Harryhausen's work on the nominal sequel to Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Entitled Mysterious Island, it had our heroes shipwrecked on a rock that contained huge chickens and such, including a massive crab that became one of Harryhausen's most treasured creations. In watching these clips, I am reminded of the remarkable, instantly recognizable lighting style of not only the effects, but of the movies themselves:
Strangely, Wikipedia (which I am using as a reference here, though the efforts of its multiple contributors are confusing me) seems to skip over Harryhausen's true masterpiece. 1963's Jason and the Argonauts is resolutely astounding, not for anything else than for his effects, for which it became a cult movie that many returned to again and again (I can remember first seeing it at a drive-in in the mid-1970s, upon a re-release that garnered many fellow afficianados). The movie itself--like all of the films Harryhausen worked on (you really spend your time WAITING for his work)--really acts as a delivery device for his sorcery. And, though his beautiful (and somehow tragic) Cyclops, giant golden statue Talos, wing-flapping Harpies and six-headed Hydra are each breathtaking in Jason and the Argonauts, absolutely none of his contained work is more fussy than this: Jason and posse's spirited battle with seven bloodthirsty skeletons. For me, as an adult and as a gobsmacked kid, the bones inside my own body would never be the same again. I still can hardly see how Harryhausen kept matters straight. This grind must have been a bonafide mindbender for him to conquer:
Somehow (probably because of the stilted nature of the films' acting and scripting--and I have to wonder what the movies would have been like with Harryhausen as the on-the-ground director), much of his '60s output (including 1964's widescreen H.G. Wells epic First Men in the Moon) failed to find an audience. But that didn't mean those in the know didn't appreciate his performance. He went on to be hired as the effects director for London's Hammer Films production of 1966's One Million B.C.--as expected, another dinosaur star project:
In 1969, Harryhausen came up with one of my favorite of his works. In fact, I would say that this is the movie of his that most dynamically combines competent acting, a fascinating story, a beautiful score by Jerome Moross, and Harryhausen's effects. It is called The Valley of Gwangi, and it remains perhaps (outside of the midget-driven The Terror of Tiny Town) the rarest of westerns, with dusty cowboys (led by James Franciscus) discovering a forgotten grotto where dinosaurs remain to be lassoed. For me, this is a movie lover's feast. You have a miniature horse, a brash ostrich-like dino, a clunky triceratops, and the mammoth Gwangi, who lords over the proceedings like nobody's business. I rank this, maybe against my better judgement, as among the top 60 westerns ever filmed, and I still think this is the movie they should have (re)made instead of Cowboys Vs. Aliens:
But the box office returns didn't reflect Harryhausen's artistry, and so he remained quiet for a few years (the studios even tried pairing The Valley of Gwangi with the counterculture hit Easy Rider, to no discernible results). Then, in 1973, Harryhausen returned as the producer of a new round of Sinbad films, starting with The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. The gloss of the match between the two styles of rich photography was gone with the demise of the glowing 60-era photographic richness, but Harryhausen's command over his puppet's movements remained intact:
By the time 1977's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger appeared, it just could not compete with George Lucas' and his Industrial Light and Magic's new vision of what special effects should be (they even revolutionized stop-motion in 1980 with The Empire Strikes Back, for which Harryhausen fan Dennis Muren developed a new process of frame-by-frame animation called Go-Motion, which managed to manipulate the puppetry while the camera was shooting, creating a smoother motion). Still, Harryhausen's artistry remained apparent, as with a memorable golden minotaur and with this snowy scene starring an angry giant walrus:
The onslaught of special effects advancements (which would not have been possible without his own work) overtook Harryhausen so that his 1981 summer release Clash of the Titans--featuring a giant cast that included Lawrence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Sian Phillips, Usula Andress, Burgess Meredith, Flora Robson, Claire Bloom, and then-newcomer Harry Hamlin--paled in comparison to its competitors. Still, to this day, "Release the Kraken" is a touchstone quote in the general culture, and that creature honestly doesn't even compare to his regal, snake-haired Medusa--a character that justifiably stands as his final stroke of wonderment:
With the passing of Ray Harryhausen, I find that there is nothing I can say; I'm truly without words to describe his achievements; i can only imagine the exactitude in his studio, from the 50s to the 80s, and the quiet attention to every single move he made. But it's all there in his movies. He was obviously talented beyond belief, and an jock in terms of immersion to detail and lighting. If only the present-day masters of CGI could garner more from his unique touch...I have to admit, no one out of that large cabal has branded themselves as someone with the wherewithal to infuse their creations with so much verve as Harryhausen was somehow able to do with his own brainchildren. I think it's wonderful--even if it came way too late--that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to recognize his achievements with a statuette in 1992. That seems the very least an industry could do for a man who showed an entire world the way to imagine the unimaginable. And now, truly tearfully, I say goodbye, and thank you, and rest in peace, to a man who opened a world of fantasy up to us all.
I prefer to work alone and do everything alone, even today. --Ray Harryhausen