Wednesday, May 8, 2013

An Animated Life: A Tribute to Ray Harryhausen

On May 7th, 2013, one of my greatest personal heroes passed away, Mr. Ray Harryhausen. It's very sad to me that many people don't even know who this man was, or just what he meant to the movies they watch today. But to me, I've been an avid fan of his, and he has meant an awful lot to me since childhood. Not only did I gradually get to witness his great works as I grew up, but I also remember getting a book from the library at one point that talked about movie special effects that had a part on Mr. Harryhausen and stop-motion animation. I was enthralled not only with the magic that he weaved on the screen, but the magician's secrets he employed to bring these wonders to life. I can honestly say that Ray Harryhausen and his films were just as important and impactful a part of my childhood, and helping to shape who I am today, as were dinosaurs, Godzilla, and Nintendo. And I can also honestly say, with great sadness, that I actually teared up a bit when I found out that he had passed.

Ray with Mr. Mighty Joe Young, his first big film.

To truly understand what Ray Harryhausen has meant not only to me, but to so many, including other major figures who have shaped the film industry, such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Tom Hanks, Tim Burton, etc., you also first have to understand who the man was himself. Raymond Frederick Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles on June 29th, 1920. From an early childhood, much like yours truly, he had an avid love of film, as well as all manner of dinosaurs and monsters. The seminal event of his life, that changed him forever and set him on his course of destiny, in 1933 at the age of 13, was when he first saw the now-legendary film King Kong. He was so enthralled with what at the time was still a relatively new medium (film) and an even younger art form (stop-motion animation), that he went back to see the film many times, becoming obsessed. Back at this time, film's magic secrets were simply not as open and available to the public as they are now in interviews and special features on DVDs. Back in the "Golden Age" of cinema, most film secrets were indeed as well kept as those of a stage magician's tricks. And as such, including to young Ray's eyes, the animated monsters in King Kong were truly alive, and the secret of their life was a complete mystery. Many people theorized on how it all worked, as people of course knew the monsters weren't truly real. But it wasn't until years later that Ray stumbled across a magazine that featured the secret finally coming out, that Kong and his pals were in fact small models called "armatures", jointed metal skeletons with foam mold and skin or fur coverings. And it was then that he also learned that the man who would become his hero, Willis O'Brien, had been the one to create and animate this process.

A very young Mr. Harryhausen working on Puppetoons.

Unlike most of us, Ray actually got to not only meet, but work with his hero, as he contacted Mr. O'Brien who invited him to come down to the studio where he was working, to see how it all worked. Ray brought with him some of his own armature models that he'd been making with the help of his parents, and while impressed, O'Brien pointed out the unrealistic look of them, and told young Ray that he needed to study anatomy. That he did, as he got better and better at this new hobby of his over time. His first major work was with producer George Pal's "Puppetoons", a series of theatrical cartoon shorts done with stop-motion, and based on old fairy tales and Mother Goose type stories, amongst others. Ray then got drafted during World War II, in which he worked on films for the military, along with such people as famous director Frank Capra, and even the man who would go on to become "Dr. Seuss", Ted Geisel. Once the war was over, he had collected up a bunch of discarded 16mm surplus film, and used it to create his own fairy tale based shorts, originally 5 in all (the 6th finally being completed with help in 2003).

But it was after all of this, after the war, that he got the opportunity of a lifetime, contacted by O'Brien to help him make his newest project, another "giant ape" film, called Mighty Joe Young. So, now getting to work side by side with his hero and mentor, while O'Brien was mostly busy handling the technical issues of the special effects for the film, Harryhausen as his assistant actually wound up doing most of the animation work himself. The film was a major success, and it was off to the races from there on. For Ray, it was a case of the student succeeding the teacher, for his own career flourished while O'Brien's gradually faltered (for many sad reasons that will be explored another time), and while there were other stop-motion artists who would come along over the decades, for roughly 30 years, Ray Harryhausen more or less single-handedly kept O'Brien's art-form alive on the silver screen. Years later, in homage to his friend and mentor, after his death, Ray took up the shelved project that Willis O'Brien had dreamed of, a fantasy-western film featuring cowboys and dinosaurs, which he would complete as 1969's "The Valley of Gwangi".

A major scene straight out of my childhood.

Now Ray went on to have many major hits, such as "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms", "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers", and perhaps his most famous work, "Jason and the Argonauts". But for me, personally, the first Harryhausen film I remember seeing, was "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad". Now I'm quite sure that I had perhaps already seen King Kong as a child before this, and it too surely captivated me and was one of my favorite films. But 7th Voyage really had a profound effect on me. Between this and a non-stop-motion, unrelated film called "Captain Sindbad" (which is non-the-less still a great movie), I was actually inspired at the age of 6 years old to name my first dog "Sinbad" after the titular hero. It is, quite simply, just a fantastic piece of cinema, and while I'll certainly give it it's own entry down the line (because it deserves it), it to this day is still my favorite Harryhausen film, and one of my Top 5 favorite films of all time. Mr. Harryhausen certainly made more technically impressive films down the line, such as Jason and the Argonauts, and what I consider his greatest work (and final one), Clash of the Titans. But to me, while I love all of his movies, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is still the one I love best, it's just perfect to me, the story, the cast, the acting, the great score, the amazing monsters. You name it, there's nothing not to like about it, and it really had a profound impact on me growing up.

Ray with some of his final creations, Medusa, Dioskilos, and Calibos.

It needs to be said before I go on, that while Mr. Harryhausen was not a director in his lifetime, outside of the fairy tale shorts that he made early on, there is still a reason why his fans (myself included) refer to the films he worked on as "HIS films". Because honestly, they are. Almost every single movie he worked on was a good movie on it's own merit, and would have still been at least decent if not even (a few) great films on their own had he never worked on them. But it WAS his work, his magic, specifically, that brought them to life in a way that literally almost no one else was doing, for decades. It was his stop-motion work that made these films come alive, made them unique, and thus emblazoned them into the minds of many young people who would go on to have major impact in the world of film themselves. Willis O'Brien created the concept of detailed armature models for use in stop-motion filming, but it's fair to say that Ray Harryhausen perfected and in many ways even innovated it during his career. And as such, because he literally "owned" the films he worked on with his signature magic, they really are, for all intents and purposes that matter, HIS films. He was also more than just a special effects man, as especially later into his career, he also got his projects off the ground, was the main idea man behind them, co-produced many of his own features, and even wrote the story for his three Sinbad films.

His most enduring and infamous scene, the Skeleton Warrior fight from Jason and the Argonauts.

As already mentioned, the first Harryhausen film I'm fairly certain that I ever saw was The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. It was certainly one of the first VHS tapes (remember those?) that I ever owned. A little later into my childhood, thanks in large part to the subject of one of my very first articles here, namely TNT's Monstervision in the early '90s, I also had the distinct pleasure of seeing such great works as Jason and the Argonauts, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth, First Men in the Moon, his other two Sinbad films "Golden Voyage" and "Tiger's Eye", and of course Clash of the Titans (which originally released the year I was born, 1981). In fact I was literally able to see most of his catalog, even more obscure films like It Came From Beneath the Sea, One Million Years B.C., and The Valley of Gwangi, all because of Monstervision. So Monstervision absolutely had a massive impact on my early life (also introducing me to many of the Godzilla films I had never seen), and it was through Monstervision that Harryhausen's work had a profound impact on me as well. It was literally through his films, as well as others I had seen, and Godzilla, that in my later childhood years I developed an avid fascination/obsession with monsters and mythology. I had been obsessed with dinosaurs for as long as I can remember, but it was mostly due to Harryhausen's films that I also later became interested in mythology, folklore, and fantasy. So the man not only entertained me, he also helped educate me. As I said......he was a personal hero of mine, and his works have colored my life with a sense of wonder and happy memories that I'll always cherish, no matter how rough (and downright shitty), adult life can be.

Much like lifelong friend Ray Bradbury, he always remained a kid at heart.

When I heard of his passing, I became quite sad. He was 92 years old, and had lived a full, in fact rather legendary (at least to other people who admire him) life. And certainly he had been retired from his work, actively, for several decades (since 1981), so it's not as if I'll be missing out on new Harryhausen productions. No, my biggest reason for being sad at his passing, is perhaps a slightly selfish one. That being, that while I am a writer at heart, and that is the career I want to succeed in most of all, I have also long harbored the dream of someday being able to work in film as well, and I had thus also harbored the "longshot" hope for many years, of someday getting to meet the man, and be able to shake his hand, tell him what his work meant to me, and hopefully get to sit and talk with him for hours, pick his brain, get his advice, hear his stories. And now, of course, I'll never get the chance to do that. Something I'll always have a small bit of regret for, I'm sure, as I never even got the chance to meet him just as a fan.

But regardless, he will always mean the world to me, in a way that very few (JRR Tolkien, Stan Lee, etc.), ever have. And I will always, always not only personally love and cherish his works, but I will also spend my life continuing to champion them to others, and to champion the survival of a (still-surviving) art of stop-motion animation that he dedicated his life to. His two best friends, author Ray Bradbury and fan/historian Forrest J. Ackerman, had both passed on before him, and now I'd like to think that he's where they are, all sitting around and chatting it up like old times, sharing that passion I also share, for the wondrous and spectacular. Rest in Peace, Mr. Harryhausen, you were one of the absolute greats, and you will be missed.

Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013.


  1. Oh. That was nice, Jesse.
    (Peter from Chelloveck)

    1. Thanks a lot man! He meant a lot to me, as does yours and others' coverage of his work and life. I wish more people knew about him and appreciated just what he has meant to not only film history, but video game history, the entertainment industry, and pop culture in general. He was a Titan among men.

  2. Saw your link at cinemassacre.
    Great obituary to Mr. Harryhausen, very well written. His art was(and still is)outstanding. You can't call yourself a movie-fan without knowing about Ray.
    Thank you for this tribute

    (Marcus from Hannover,Germany)

    1. You're very welcome, and thank you for reading it!

      Mr. Harryhausen was a singular individual in the movie world, and had arguably a bigger influence/affect on the industry than perhaps any other one person in the history of film. I think you're right, to be a "movie fan" or "film buff", knowing about Ray and his work is an absolute prerequisite.


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