Depending on how steeped you are in movie lore, especially that of science fiction and fantasy, you may not be familiar with the name Ray Harryhausen. If you are not it is simply because it is a name that has fallen into obscurity as time has gone on and the “big names” in special effects have changed. If you know the name it is likely you know it very well. And, like me, you are saddened to hear the news that today, at the age of 93, this pioneer of animation passed away.
Perhaps best known for his sword and shield wielding skeletons in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen was the inspiration for generations of filmmakers and special effects artists who followed. Using a process he dubbed Dyanamation this amazing artist made a name for himself in Hollywood as the master of creature animation. In addition to bringing lifelike movement to such creatures as the Minoton, a flying homunculus, a baboon prince, and Medusa the Gorgon, Ray Harryhausen was also their designer and had tremendous creative input into many of the films on which he worked over the years.
On a personal level I have been a fan of Harryhausen’s work since childhood, though I did not always know him by name. I marveled at the dinosaurs of 1 Million Years B.C. and Valley of Gwangi and the fantastic monsters that plagued the cinematic voyages of Sinbad. It was not until Clash of the Titans that I really became aware of the man behind the magic, an animator who was inspired by Willis O’Brien’s work on the original King Kong and would one day work with his muse and mentor on Mighty Joe Young. From humble beginnings using his father’s movie camera and a portion of his mother’s fur coat to create a short film of a prehistoric cave bear to animated features produced for U.S. troops in World War II through dozens of sci-fi and fantasy films ranging from Earth vs. Flying Saucers to The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Ray Harryhausen brought the fantastic to life in a unique marriage of live action footage shot on set or location and perfectly synched articulated animation puppets.
I had the opportunity to meet this childhood idol of mine one of the two times I had the good fortune to attend the Harvey Awards back when they were a part of the Dallas Fantasy Fair. In that way that all of us who are fans get when we have the opportunity to meet a favorite star I was terrified to approach him. Only on the constant prodding of Mrs. JediCole did I finally walk up to Mr. Harryhausen and his wife as they waited for the elevator. This was in a time when Jurassic Park had illustrated the boundless potential of CGI which, in as sense, became all too often overused down the line. Struggling to make something coherent come out of my mouth I could only manage to impart to him that in the budding age of computer generated dinosaurs I would always have a special place in my heart for good old Dynamation!
And this remained true in the years that followed. While the state of the art in CGI, which to his credit Ray Harryhausen acknowledged as just another tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox, continued to expand and astound movie goers, I could still break out Jason and the Argonauts or Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and find that they had never lost their magic. The extraterrestrial Ymir, the Cyclops and the Roc that menaced Sinbad and his crew, the destructive Kraken of antiquity, and the massive ammonite from Mysterious Island are all cherished icons of my childhood that resonate as pitch perfect today as they did in my youth. Indeed there will always be a special place in my heart for Dynamation and the incredible artist who made it the trademark of his craft. Farewell Ray Harryhausen, thank you for bringing your own special brand of magic to the movies!
To see more about the impression Ray Harryhausen made on my life (as well as others), check out the following links to The United States of Geekdom.
USG Episode 4: No Love for Bubo (A full episode dedicated to the life and career of the award-winning filmmaker.)