R.I.P. Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen died yesterday, the visionary responsible for the animation in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, among many others.

Even before I knew or much cared to know his name, he inspired and touched me. If it were ever raining on a Saturday afternoon when I was a kid, we would tune in to Chanel 11 hoping that the Yankees were rained out, and the station would show an emergency double feature of films from Hammer Studios, maybe the B-list of Universal’s classic monsters, or the golden fleece itself: those garishly colored stop motion Greek myths.

To this day, I love showing friends the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts, but it’s worth remembering that Harryhausen kept making films into the Star Wars era. This film from 1973 made a huge impression on me, especially Kali wielding swords in all her arms.

It’s about as politically correct as Help! and full of adolescent Freudianism: just check out the busty heroine’s reaction to the “one-eyed centaur”!

Reading his obituaries, I’m struck by how many people he knew. Something many artistic legends have in common: how many people they cross paths with who also have the scent of legend around them, more than coincidence can really explain, and more than the obvious principle that “tuned in” people hang out with other “tuned in” people. Long before he had a successful career he joined a science fiction club with a guy named Ray Bradbury, and after he’d settled in London he married a descendent of the explorer Doctor Livingstone.

Every once in a while for as long as I’ve read about film, publications figure it’s their job to ask the question, how much special effects is too much special effects? The last time the NY Times did so, a few months ago, it rehashed the usual positions, and but added a science writer named Natalie Wolchover, who pointed out that the place where CGI turns people off is when it makes humans who are almost but not quite  lifelike. “We then respond to these creatures evolutionarily, as we would toward a diseased or reproductively unfit stranger.” Genius.

You didn’t have to worry about that with Harryhausen! His dinosaurs and gods were clearly otherworldly, and yet also looked like representations. The cheapness was an endearing part of their magic. They looked like rubber, or maybe Playdough, puppets. You could see where human hands altered them between shots, and appreciated the loving attention that every motion received. Sorry, CGI fans, but there is a difference between sitting at a computer and bending the arm of a three-dimensional sculpture, and when you watch one of Harryhausen’s scenes it feels better because you feel that attention; you experience the pleasure and meticulousness the sculptor himself was experiencing, and it’s just more fun to imagine that.

It’s the difference between Oz the landscape in the new movie and Oz the landscape in the real movie. Oz is a place with plastic flowers, bright blue water that gushes in its vinyl-lined stream, and painted horizons. I want to go there, not the place that never existed. I also want to go to the ancient Aegean and Asia Minor, thanks in large part to the genius who just passed away. Even before I was devoted to movies I could tell that Jason and Sinbad and all his other films were the work of one artist. He was 92. I guess it was time. RIP.

 

Comments

  1. As with most things, Steve Matuszak was onto it years ago:

    http://chaszak.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/otherworldly/

  2. It’s never time to RIP. Nice post.

  3. Reminds me of Clash of the Titans. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbG6GGqL4x0

  4. Thank you to Ray Harryhausen, special effects pioneer who is best known for using stop-motion technology in the pre-CGI era and Jurassic Park. We will not forget you and what you did for Hollywood, right?

  5. Exactly the same images impressed me as a kid – Kali and the skeletons. So much so that only a couple of months ago I downloaded the Golden Voyage of Sinbad to relive those moments!
    I’ve argued before and I’ll put it across again this time: those clay-mation scenes have more realism and life to them than CGI.

  6. RIP Ray Harryhausen. Jason and the Argonauts is a beloved movie in our house though my girls had to be a certain age before they were allowed to see it. Great tribute to a great man.

  7. Love the sword fighting scene. The first Harryhausen work I had ever seen was the The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Felt I had to do something for his passing: http://awesomeshstart.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/127-ray/

  8. sergeantmac says:

    Reblogged this on Sergeant Mac's Blog.

  9. Nice tribute. Thanks. The Kali sequence is brilliant, as is the battle with the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts. Here’s a link to the awakening of Talos, from the same movie. I saw it in a theater a few years ago, and the moment when Talos “awakens” was pretty amazing. Stick with the clip. The set-up creates a truly mundane world that will soon encounter something else: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q17dl_aUNf4

  10. “The cheapness was an endearing part of their magic.”

    Exactly the same way I feel; one seldom says, “Hey, is that real?” but one always says “Hey, is that ever neat!” Anyone who doesn’t delight in Harryhausen’s work has lost their inner child.

  11. I’m wondering whether Harryhausen did the “Chiller” six-fingered hand descending into the muck on WPIX in NYC. We were upstate and got NYC channels on cable (installed when I was 12, and I got turned onto old movies, so much so that I have a library devoted to B&W films).

    Harryhausen captivated me with “Jason and the Argonauts.” It played on the CBS movies one night, and even with the commercials, I was astounded at the stop-action work. Even Gumby blew my mind, frankly!

    I agree that CGI is a glossy cheat. Just as digital transfer has cut the life out of many classic voices on CD, so CGI, when employed with human figures, renders them soulless and drab. Thanks for a great post, and RIP Harryhausen, the master. THE master! Peace, Amy Barlow Liberatore

  12. I love models far more than CGI work. There is a lot to be said about tangibility, and hand-craftedness.
    Harryhausen should be remembered by all sci-fi and fantasy fans. Without him, the worlds of the screen wouldn’t exist as they are.

  13. Way before his time. Loved all these movies when I was growing up. RIP. Great writing! Cheers

  14. Thanks for all the responses. That clip about Oz, I realized today, was of course really Munchkin Land, which I have heard is at the far end of the yellow brick road from Oz. More on that movie soon. CB

  15. A life well lived.

  16. A great piece you’ve written, I quite enjoyed reading it and agree with you on many points.

    I think Harryhausen was one of those people in whose death represents a larger loss to their respective industry than some others. I would actually put his death on par with the loss when Gene Roddenberry passed away. Both men represented a dying breed who actually understood the finer nuances of what they were making and how to make it properly.

    Roddenberry was one of the last producers and film makers to really understand what truly constituted science fiction and cared enough to give us something deeper and more meaningful than just mindless laser battles set in space or vicious alien invaders that have come to represent the genre in the main as far as the film industry is concerned.

    By the same token, Harryhausen understood that making a visual effect was about having something that could be seen and tangible, an adversary for the hero that the audience could see and not simply imagine. It does not have to be about making it so real that the audience struggles to tell what’s the real and unreal parts of the picture in front of them.

    CGI has its place in film, but it often so grossly overused; I much prefer to see it used for subtleties and nuances than used to represent complete objects.

    I think a very good example of CGI used well was in a Czech film made in the early 2000s called “Dark Blue World” which was about Czechoslovak fighter pilots flying for the Royal Air Force in WWII.

    The aircraft in the air battle scenes in that film were real because the film makers had obtained outtake footage from the 1960s “Battle of Britain” film to make those scenes. Beyond being digitally cleaned up and a bit of CGI used to add in muzzle flashes and spent shell casings falling away when the aircraft fired their guns, the old footage was left alone. The aircraft are all still obviously real enough that you don’t even think for a moment about the CGI accenting.

  17. R.I.P. Ray Harryhausen, Quite interesting!
    Those were always my favorite movies growing up. He will be missed for sure

  18. Reblogged this on smackypro.

Trackbacks

  1. […] R.I.P. Ray Harryhausen: Well, sure, he’s dead now, but I’ll give him ten minutes till he turns in to a stop-motion skeleton. […]

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