Another childhood hero gone. I just found out that legendary special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, the master of stop-motion animation, passed away on May 7th at the age of 92.
The first film I ever saw which Harryhausen worked on was actually his last one, Clash of the Titans. I was six years old in 1981. When Clash of the Titans came into the theaters, it totally blew me away. I kept asking my father to take me back to see it again. I must have seen it in the theater at least half a dozen times.
Since I was just a kid, I didn’t pay any attention to the film’s credits. So the first time I found out about Harryhausen was several years later, in 1988. The science fiction magazine Starlog printed an extensive interview with him, complete with numerous photos from his various films. I realized that not only had Harryhausen done the special effects for Clash of the Titans, he had also worked on numerous other sci-fi and fantasy films over the decades. Some of these I had seen on television, such as Mighty Joe Young, which he worked on in 1947 as an assistant to stop motion pioneer Willis O’Brien, as well as some of his later solo efforts, namely Mysterious Island (1961) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).
That article in Starlog pointed the way to many of Harryhausen’s other great movies, which I began searching out on television and video cassette. My father, who had grown up watching a lot of those Harryhausen classics in the movie theater, often would join me in front of the TV, sometimes tracking down those films on VHS for me. I remember watching Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) with him. Now that I think about it, when my father first saw those films in the movie theater when he was a kid, he would have been pretty much the same age I was when I saw Clash of the Titans. Maybe when you are six years old it really is a magical age.
It might be difficult to explain to younger people in this age of super-realistic CGI, but back before the advent of computer animation, stop-motion effects were the best way to create monsters and aliens in a super-realistic fashion. And the master of giving life to these tiny, detailed puppets & models, imbuing them with emotion and subtle gestures, was Ray Harryhausen.
Stop-motion animation required the utmost patience, as well a tremendous skill. The process involved moving the model a minute amount, shooting one frame of film, moving the model a bit more, shooting another frame, and repeating the process numerous times until you had several minutes of footage. And at the end, after all those long days of work, hopefully you had something that looked natural and alive, rather than awkward & jerky. Well, I tell you, Harryhausen’s creations definitely possessed a smoothness & fluidity.
The sequence at the end of the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts is considered one of the greatest achievements of Harryhausen’s career. Having killed the Hydra and obtained the Golden Fleece, Jason is making his way back to his boat the Argos. Jason and two of the Argonauts stay to hold off the forces of the vengeful King Aeetes while the rest of the crew retreat to their vessel. Aeetes takes the teeth of the slain Hydra and sprinkles them on the ground, in effect sowing them. And the bitter fruit that sprouts up are “the children of the Hydra’s teeth,” seven skeletal warriors. Aeetes bellows “Kill! Kill! Kill them all!” and the undead soldiers charge. We then have an absolutely amazing fight sequence, as Harryhausen seamlessly integrates the live action footage of the three actors with his stop-motion animation of the seven skeletons.
(If you do a search on YouTube, I’m sure you can find the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts posted there. If you haven’t seen it before, it is definitely well worth viewing.)
I had long often hoped that one day I would have the opportunity to meet Harryhausen, so I could let him know just how much enjoyment his films brought me. Unfortunately, that’s now never going to happen. But I do know that in the 1980s and 90s, appreciation for Harryhausen’s work grew by leaps & bounds in sci-fi fandom, and a great many other people did have the chance to tell him how much his work meant to them. This included a number of individuals who went on to become very successful filmmakers in their own right, among them Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, and John Landis. So I’m glad to know that Ray Harryhausen lived a long, productive, happy life, and that he was received recognition for his amazing creative accomplishments.