Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The World Loses Ray Harryhausen, Part I

Harryhausen animating the skeleton in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad

It’s just about one month shy of the first anniversary of the passing of Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) one of the Great Men of American Letters.  Sadly, we now mourn the loss of one of the great visionaries of American Cinema, Bradbury’s friend Ray Harryhausen.

In an age when the cinema is glutted with fantasy and science fiction films bloated by special effects, it’s perhaps difficult to remember that genre films were the exception to the rule, and that special effects were once, well …, special.

Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) was born and raised in California, where he became friends with young Ray Bradbury, a fellow science fiction fan.  Like many of an entire generation of science fiction and fantasy buffs, the release of the original King Kong in 1933 was a seminal event in his life.  The mighty Kong fell not only from the Empire State Building, but he fell on Harryhausen as well, metaphorically smothering the boy and making him and a fan of stop motion animation.

The young Harryhausen went Kong-Krazy, and did all he could to learn how the effects of Kong were achieved.  It was then that he learned of Stop Motion Animation, a process by which models were filmed – literally one frame at a time – with slight alterations in posing.  When played sequentially, the animation effect simulated life – making steel-skeleton puppets covered with rubber, fur and miniature costumes come alive.  Harryhausen started building models and making amateur films while in his teens.  Footage of these early films still exists, including one where the young animator has envisioned the world of Venus.  A story that has passed into Harryhausen lore is that he appropriated his mother’s fur coat to create the model of a mastodon….

Harryhausen, in many ways, resembled the great studio painters of yore in that after showing early aptitude, he got to apprentice with an established master.  A friend arranged for Harryhausen to meet Willis O’Brien (1886-1962), the brilliant special effects pioneer who created King Kong.  O’Brien was impressed by Harryhausen’s experimental films, and urged him to take drawing and sculpture courses to hone his craft. 

Harryhausen started his professional career animating short films for science fiction auteur George Pal (1908-1980); the series was called Puppetoons, and specialized mostly in fairy tales.  He also worked with Frank Capra during World War II, mostly as a camera assistant.

After the war, Harryhausen went to work with his mentor, O’Brien, and together they made one of the most impressive fantasy films of the 1940s, Mighty Joe Young (1949).  The film won O’Brien his long over-due Academy Award, which is ironic in that Harryhausen did most of the actual animation while O’Brien focused on solving technical problems.

After that, there was no stopping Harryhausen, and he went on to create the special effects for some of the most celebrated and best-loved fantasy and science fiction films of the 1950s and 1960s: It Came from Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and Mysterious Island. He also produced many of his own films (such as Jason and the Argonauts and the original Clash of the Titans), and was always the guiding vision behind each and every film on which he worked.  This led to a unified body of work, similar in tone, outlook and depth of feeling.  No ironist and blessed with a sense of adventure and optimism, Harryhausen opened a world of the imagination to generations of movie goers and future film-makers.  When Harryhausen was honored with a special Academy Award, actor Tom Hanks told the audience, "Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane...I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made!"

Like painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), there is little “color” or drama to Harryhausen’s life.  If Sargent’s epitaph was “he painted,” then Harryhausen’s could well be, “he created.”  He married late in life (in 1963), to Diana Livingston Bruce, and lived quietly in London and Spain, tirelessly breathing life into his magical puppets, and consequently bringing a little magic into the lives of all of us.  Ray Harryhausen loved fantasy, science fiction, hamburgers, his fans, and Diana.  His passing is a great loss to anyone who loves the world of the imagination.

Tomorrow: The Essential Ray Harryhausen Film List

Ray Animated an Elephant and Dinosaur for the Climax of
The Valley of Gwangi

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