The Mastery Of Ray Harryhausen
Today, May 7th 2013, Ray Harryhausen died . . . many may not know him by name, but all have enjoyed the influence of his work.
Before Star Wars & Harry Potter, long before computer generated effects, Ray Harryhausen labored alone in his workshop painstakingly creating screen magic that a generation of 10 year old boys sitting in Saturday matinées will never forget, and screen magic that beget Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Tim Burton George Lucas, John Landis, James Cameron, etc, etc, etc, all of whom have said that they make movies because they saw a Ray Harryhausen film in their youth and were never the same.
From the creature films 'Mighty Joe Young' & 'The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" through the B&W Sci-Fi classics 'Earth vs. the Flying Saucers' & '20 Million Miles to Earth' to his fantasy masterpieces 'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad' & 'Mysterious Island', Harryhausen captured the hearts of young and old alike, and captured the attention of other great filmmakers. When Ray needed an actor to play Zeus no less than Sir Laurence Olivier stepped up, when he needed stirring music the great Bernard Herrmann (of Hitchcock films and 'Taxi Driver' fame) was always there. And when Ray Harryhausen was being awarded a special Oscar, Tom Hanks introduced him announcing to the audience ~
"Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made."
Harryhausen excelled in two crucial areas of his life's work; first, and simply put, technically, no one did the kind of special effects work he did so well. His technique was stop-motion animation - this is not 'animation' in the drawing of cartoons sense, Harryhausen constructed small models of his film characters, a cyclops or a centaur, etc, and would them move them a fraction of an inch after a fraction of an inch in front of a camera . . . when the film was put together, the creatures appeared to be moving, and Harryhausen's creatures appeared to be alive, and thinking.
And that is the other feature of his work that remains unmatched. Technically, the design of the creature, the lighting and camera work, etc, were all simply better than anyone else's, but where Harryhausen made it all magic was how he gave real character, personality, to these little poseable figures. He made his creatures, not merely a giant or terrifying monster for the actors to react to, but he made them a real character in the film, they had motives and feelings, etc . . . other filmmakers had monsters, Ray Harryhausen made creatures that you could see thinking and caring, and plotting.
Today, with CGI, movies can show us dinosaurs or monsters that look fully real, that move like real animals move, muscles flexing, etc - but there's no such thing in our world as dinosaurs and monsters, they are not real . . . Harryhausen's creatures moved and acted otherworldly, not real real, like us and cows and dogs, etc, but fantastically real, like if you came across a living skeleton or Medusa it moved like it would move in it's fantastic reality, not like we and cows and dogs, etc, move in out real world.
Following is a list of Harryhausen films, not a full list of all his films, but the ones I would encourage anyone to see . . . while they are not all equally good, they all have interesting creatures and effects, and some of them are indeed some of the best films ever made.
Jason and the Argonauts
First Men in the Moon
The Valley of Gwangi
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger
Clash of the Titans
Mighty Joe Young
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
It Came from Beneath the Sea
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers
20 Million Miles to Earth
The The Three Worlds of Gulliver
7th Voyage of Sinbad
'Earth vs. the Flying Saucers' and '20 Million Miles to Earth' are the best 'outer space' movies of the era of 'outer space' movies. 'Forbidden Planet' & 'War Of The Worlds' were fine, and 'This Island Earth' was great - but these two Harryhausen B&W classics have the best flying saucers ('Earth vs. the Flying Saucers') and the best alien creature ('20 Million Miles to Earth') ever put on the screen.
For many filmmakers, 'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad' is the film they point to as stirring in them the first interest to make movies - it may be his finest work.
'Mysterious Island' might be my own personal favorite. The Civil War, Pirates, underwater cities, giant bees and crabs, etc, and Capt. Nemo and the Nautilus - this is the ultimate 10 year old boy movie. All the performances are top-notch, the story is compelling, and the characters' final solution to their shipwreck is just plain cool. But the most magnificent feature of this film might be Bernard Herrmann's stirring score . . . with his orchestra you can hear the waves crashing on the beach of a fantastic island, you can feel the heart's of our heroes as a runaway balloon carries them further up and further away.
'Jason and the Argonauts' is many of my generation's favorite, literally thousands of men and women to this day remember sitting in the theater one Saturday afternoon and watching (and hearing) that giant statue's head slowly turn to look at the men who trespassed into the treasure room of the gods he eternally guards. And of the two men, one is Hercules . . . and Harryhausen's Hercules is unlike any other screen Hercules - he's not a handsome young muscleman, Harryhausen's Hercules is a middle-aged world weary, hard drinking man whose strength doesn't come from bulging muscles but because he is the son of Zeus.
'First Men in the Moon' is another of my very favorites . . . the scene when the scatterbrained professor's diving-bell painted with anti-gravity paint crashes through the top of the greenhouse and soars through space on it's way to the moon is one of my favorite moments in film. In 'The Valley of Gwangi" Harryhausen has cowboys corralling dinosaurs. The Sinbad squeals 'The Golden Voyage' & "The Eye of the Tiger' are not nearly so great as 'The 7th Voyage' (which stared the gifted Kerwin Mathews) and 'Clash of the Titans' doesn't have the same sweeping storytelling as 'Jason' and others, but all of them have glorious creatures in them and are well worth watching.
Ray Harryhausen, one of the great filmmakers of all time, and the creator of so many of my favorite films and film moments, and the author of so many wonderful memories with my kids, died today at 92. George Lucas and Peter Jackson have both said their 'Star Wars' and 'Lord Of The Rings' movies, respectively, would not have been made had it not been for the inspiration and influence of Ray Harryhausen's work. Nobody could put anything on the screen close to as wondrous as his cyclops fighting a fire-breathing dragon, right in front of you as you sit in the dark, like he could . . . thank you Ray Harryhausen.