Ray Harryhausen Brought The Creatures Of Our Imaginations To Life

harryhausenHow you react to the news of animator Ray Harryhausen’s death today may depend on your age. If you’re under the age of 40 there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of him. If you’re over the age of 40, especially if you’re a fan of fantasy and sci-fi movies, you probably grew up loving his animation and special effects. You may not know him by name, but if someone said “skeleton sword fight” it’s likely you’d know exactly what they’re talking about.

When it comes to animation and special effects, we’re a spoiled lot these days. What has become possible with computer animation is pretty much . . . everything. Almost anything imaginable can be put on screen and look seamless and organic to a scene. We’ve become so blasé about it, that it’s not unusual for people to rag on special effects on TV looking “cheap” (because, erm, compared to a movie with a $200 million budget, an episode of television IS cheap).

So it’s quite possible to look at Harryhausen’s work from a present-day perspective and see them as kind of precious and quaint.

But to me—and many who grew up watching his films—they are still AWESOME.

I think the reason Harryhausen’s work resonated—and still resonates—is because he started out as a boy fascinated by dinosaurs and creatures, which speaks to all of us who were children fascinated by dinosaurs and creatures.

When his parents took him when he was a boy to see the original version of King Kong, he was determined to figure out how to make a creature like Kong. He started out with string puppets and eventually began studying how to do animation. He even started a studio in his parents’ garage.

Eventually, he met Willis O’Brien, who animated King Kong and The Lost World. On Obrien’s advice, he began to study art and anatomy. He went to work for producer George Pal, working as an animator on a series of shorts called Puppetoons. When he entered the Army during World War II, he joined the Special Services Division under directors Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak. There he worked on propaganda films, including some that used stop-motion animation.

A few years after the war, he was hired for his first major motion picture: Mighty Joe Young. The film won the Academy Award for special effects.

For the next 30 years or so, Harryhausen made many films using his stop-motion animation technique (dubbed “Dynamation” by producer Charles Scheer, who worked with him on twelve feature films). Some of his most famous are It Came From Beneath The Sea, 20 Million Miles To Earth, The Valley Of Gwangi, The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver, The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, Jason & The Argonauts, One Million Years B.C. and Clash Of The Titans.

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Jason & The Argonauts featured that army of skeletons I mentioned before, as well as a gigantic statue (based on the Colossus of Rhodes) that comes to life, a seven-headed hydra and an animated discus-throwing scene. Though the movie was not a box-office success at the time, it’s often been cited since as a classic of the genre.

Harryhausen’s feature film career ended with Clash Of The Titans because by 1981, the year of its release, special effects were already starting to evolve into what we are familiar with today.
Yet it’s difficult to imagine what we have today without Harryhausen’s pioneering work. Filmmakers such as Steven Speilberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, as well as many contemporary animators, cite Harryhausen as an influence. To film-lovers, his movies may not be great works in the sense of having complex characters, ingenious plots, or deep themes and ideas.

But, oh, they are SO much fun, SO imaginative, SO visceral.

Even Ross on Friends, who had a doctorate in paleontology, didn’t look down on a movie like The Valley Of Gwangi. In the episode The One Where Joey Speaks French, he looks like he’s enjoying the hell out of it, grinning like a kid. It’s not hard to imagine that Ross Geller was inspired to become a paleontologist because of a Harryhausen movie.

It’s not hard to imagine that Harryhausen inspired many people to a great variety of careers.

RIP, Ray. Thanks for all the fun and fanciful afternoons watching the creatures of our imaginations come to life on screen.

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2 thoughts on “Ray Harryhausen Brought The Creatures Of Our Imaginations To Life

  1. Great essay. I also posted about Harryhausen on my blog yesterday, in the context of his legacy and “the state of special effects today.” His FX served the stories of his movies, wheras nowadays too often the FX are a poor substitution for good storytelling.

  2. Marvellous film guy and a good article. Thanks for this. I’ve pinned the video of ‘fighting skeletons’ onto my Pinterest board ‘Weird and wonderful’.

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