There are few other figures in the history of cinema that did more to capture the eternal appeal of fantasy than the late Ray Harryhausen. Mr. Harryhausen, who died last week at the age of 92, was also the bridge between the creative innovations in the fantastic cinema of Georges Méliès in the 19th century and the brave new world of digital special effects in the 21st.
Méliès, who was the subject last year of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”, was the French cinema pioneer of making magic. He thus established the tradition of “special effects” in movies in order to make the impossible, possible. And the “special effects” of Méliès, though regarded as primitive by contemporary standards, continued to impress audiences when Harryhausen was born in 1920.
When he was thirteen, he saw the movie that would define his life: “King Kong”. This 1933 classic about a giant ape who battles dinosaurs and rampages through Manhattan before climbing and dying atop the Empire State Building, lit a fire under the young Harryhausen and many other fantasy filmmakers to be. No other film up until then had so effectively put across every child’s wish to see the real world and the world of fantasy intersect. Twenty years later, Harryhausen and his colleagues, both in the United States and Japan, would use the basic premise of “King Kong” – a giant beast at war with modern cities – as the model for the new science fiction of the nuclear age.
The effects in “King Kong” involved a process of animated three-dimensional miniatures integrated with live action scenes, which intrigued Harryhausen and motivated him to become an animator from the very beginning of professional life, eventually leading to an apprenticeship with Willis O’Brien, the man responsible for the magic in “King Kong”.
After years of practice with George Pal and his “Puppetoons”, he obtained his first major opportunity to work under O’brien’s supervision in “Mighty Joe Young”, a more sentimental variation on “King Kong”, featuring a smaller and gentler primate.
Immediately afterwards, often in collaboration with producer Charles H. Schneer, Harryhausen created a series of financially successful science fiction films, such as “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”, typically involving a giant beast destroying cities. However, by the end of the 1950s, his focus shifted to mythology with “Jason and the Argonauts” and “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad”.
Harryhausen had his limits as an artist; whether in science fiction or mythology, his movies demonstrated more ambition in their desire to impress and entertain than to illuminate the human condition. Nonetheless these films were peerless in their capacity to excite a young filmgoer’s imagination. The scene in “Jason and the Argonauts”, for example, where Jason and his Argonauts engage in a swordfight with a troop of living skeletons, or the snake-woman in “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad”, or the Allosaurus attacking a Mexican village in “The Valley of the Gwangi”.
As a child I was taken in by Harryhausen’s movie magic the way Harryhausen himself had been taken in by “King Kong” and it was what prompted my first fascination with films not only as entertainment, but as a craft and as an art. However, in my adolescence, a companion complained that it was blatantly obvious that Harryhausen’s creatures were the result of stop-motion animation.
Such a criticism was not without merit and may be even more valid now in the digital age. Live-action motion, when filmed, is slightly blurred from frame to frame in a 24 frame per-second strip of film, whereas each movement in an animated figure is captured with sharpness and clarity, thus putting across a slight artificiality when projected onto a screen, especially when contrasted with live action, either in the foreground or background. This artificiality was even further enhanced in his weakest film, “Earth vs the Flying Saucers”, in which he chose to animate the falling mortar of destroyed monuments.
At the time, I did not know how to respond to such criticism. It was indisputable, but I still loved the fantastic films of Ray Harryhausen. It might have been due to the fact that his efforts, in his attention to even the smallest details in his creations, such as the manner in which a creature might move its head or even fingers, put across a sincere love of the fantastic and magical. Contemporary digital technology is more “advanced” than the animation that preceded it, but it lacks this element of personal charm.
And though he was not regarded as a “great” artist on the level of a Jean Renoir or Akira Kurosawa, he made a major contribution to modern movies nonetheless as a significant influence on the themes and imagery many of the most important filmmakers of today, such as Stephen Spielberg, Guillermo Del Toro, Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriguez, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi and James Cameron.