Ray Harryhausen, who passed away today in London at age 92, was certainly inspirational. He sparked a love of movies and special effects among not only lifelong movie fans but boys and girls who grew up to be directors and, like their idol, special effects wizards.
But for me, Harryhausen was more than just the creator of great movie creatures like Medusa in “Clash of the Titans” or the sword-fighting skeletons in “Jason and the Argonauts.”
Harryhausen lent an air of respectability to the wildest fantasy stories kids could hope to see in movie theaters.
That’s because Harryhausen and his writing and directing partners adapted classic stories – a series of Sinbad movies or “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms,” based on his friend Ray Bradbury’s melancholy “The Fog Horn” – that were almost impossible for parents to say “no” to. Really, faced with the possibility of letting your kid see Harryhausen’s version of mythology or a “Godzilla” flick, what would you say?
Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation techniques – not the first, since the process pre-dated him with “King Kong” – were also the kind of effect you could show your parents and prompt awe. Look, we would say: He moves the small model of the gorilla a fraction of an inch, then exposes a frame of film, then does it over and over and over again. This was moviemaking at its most artistic and most craftsman-like at the same time. Anyone could recognize it as hard work. Even parents.
Magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland – edited by another Harryhausen pal, Forrest J Ackerman – let us revel in the process and marvel over those detailed models.
Harryhausen is being memorialized all over the web tonight, and there’s not a lot I can add to that. Except for a few personal favorites:
Harryhausen worked on “Mighty Joe Young,” the 1949 follow-up to “King Kong,” and made a giant gorilla downright cuddly. Who wouldn’t love a simian who rescued tykes from a burning orphanage?
Beginning with “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” in 1958 and running through “Clash of the Titans” in 1981, Harryhausen made history his own, giving us cyclopses (cyclopsi?) and minotaurs and sabre tooth tigers and fantastic and eerie creations like Medusa, with her snaky body and hair.
The world changed and the world of moviemaking changed and by the time “Clash of the Titans” came out, two “Star Wars” movies had been released and the world was turning to a more sophisticated type of computer-controlled-camera-and-model animation that itself would be replaced within just a few years with computer effects.
But Harryhausen’s legacy was long since in place, as evidenced by the sly references to his work, including the restaurant named after him in “Monsters Inc.”
Harryhausen made us believe that legends, gods and monsters walked among us. And until his death today, they truly did.