If I were to mention the name Ray Harryhausen in general conversation, I’d probably get a lot of blank looks, BUT I know there would be at least one nerd in the room whose eyes would light up and the two of us would end up careening into a super enthusiastic conversation that would lead everyone else to awkwardly shuffle away to go talk about something cooler.
Who is he, you ask?
You know how some films are director’s films and some are actor’s films and some are writer’s films? Well, when Ray Harryhausen was involved in a film, it was his movie. Sure there might have been awesome directors or legendary actors involved, but the thing that stuck in people’s minds were the iconic creations of this genius fellow’s mind.
I suppose his official title was “creator of special visual effects,” but to me, he will always be The Monster Dude. You’ve seen (or at least I hope you’ve seen…) his works in fantasy classics like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and Clash of the Titans (1981), and if you haven’t seen them, GO SEE THEM!. Although the dramatic quality of said films was sometimes uneven, the real magic was found in the fantastic creatures that Harryhausen and his special effects team brought to life.
One doesn’t really see stop-motion animation in films much anymore unless it’s a fully animated film like Fantastic Mr. Fox or Coraline, but the technology was such an industry standard that when Jurassic Park was in pre-production in the early 90’s, a great many screen tests were made bringing the dinosaurs to life via stop motion animation because CG was deemed too experimental and limited by many at the time.
Obviously times have changed, and in the age of computer animation, stop motion animation now feels really dated, but there’s just something about it that’s still thrilling to me. I know it takes a lot of artistic talent to create and render a digital creation, but the sheer painstaking work that goes into animating a stop motion character shouldn’t be ignored.
When it comes to Harryhausen’s creations, there are so many iconic creatures that were so terrifyingly well animated that, when the digital age tried to take a stab at redoing them, the results were met with a chorus of “mehs.” One good example is his Medusa from Clash of the Titans. In the original film, she’s spooky as all get out, slow, methodical, and completely inhuman. Scared the crap out of me as a kid. In the new version that came out in 2010, Medusa is well animated, but she has no real weight or texture. She’s just a pretty illustration wrapped around an actor’s face. But Harryhausen’s Medusa is the stuff of nightmares.
There are a whole bunch of others, like the demonic skeleton army in Jason and the Argonauts or the adorable mechanical owl Bubo from Clash of the Titans or the giant wasp from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, but suffice it to say, the man changed cinema and we are forever grateful for his unique and game-changing work. It saddens me that he’s no longer with us, BUT his work will live on! His singular aesthetic is something that was less rendered outdated than replaced with something different. As a result, his films are still visually spectacular today.
So, if you ever get tired of CGI creatures flailing about, put in a copy of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and enjoy the ride. And don’t say “that looks so fake!” because I will roll my eyes and reply “I didn’t say it was realistic. I said it was cool!”
Now I really want to marathon his movies…
I’ll see you on Monday with my review of Warcraft, a movie featuring a great many monsters who owe their on-screen existence to Harryhausen’s legacy.