Thursday, May 9, 2013

The World Loses Ray Harryhausen, Part II

Behold the Ymir!

We continue looking at the work of the late Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013), the man who put the “special” in “special effects.”  Harryhausen used the technique called Stop Motion Animation, where he would articulate a puppet (usually about 12 to 18 inches tall) against a miniature backdrop, and move them incrementally while photographing them … one frame at a time.  It was an exacting, exhausting, isolating craft, but one that he mastered in the course of a distinguished career. 

I was lucky enough to be acquainted with Harryhausen, and had met him or wrote to him on-and-off for the last 25 years or so.  My fondest memory of him was when we were invited to join he and his wife, Diana, for a private tour of the Smithsonian’s dinosaur collection provided by paleontologist Michael Brett-Surman, an avowed Harryhausen fan.  Harryhausen was delighted to be accorded such an honor, and the thing I most remember is that he was as excited as a young boy about it all, though he was then a man in his 70s.  (When done, we all went out for hamburgers, which, after dinosaurs, monsters and his wife Diana, seemed to be the great love of his life.)

I think it was this sense of wonder that is the signature note of Harryhausen’s work.  Unlike most grim and gritty fantasy fare today, Harryhausen showed audiences the fantastic, and made it fun.  He was also keenly aware that stop motion animation did not have the “realism” of later techniques, such as Computer Generated Images (CGI) used today.  But Harryhausen always maintained that special effects were a tool, and not an end to themselves.

He also thought that special effects had no obligation to look “real.”  Movies – particularly movies about dinosaurs and aliens, Moon people and mythical gods – are fantasies.  And if a special effect seems in some way other worldly, then all the better.  He was creating visions and illusions, not recreating life.  In that, Harryhausen worked with an artist’s touch, pursuing a personal vision until he realized it fully.  One has the sense that Harryhausen would’ve made films in his basement if he had not achieved success in Hollywood.

A genial, even-tempered and sweet man, Harryhuasen was also something of a loner.  Though he sometimes used assistants, he most frequently worked alone.  He was just so deeply involved in his vision that I think he had difficultly articulating what he wanted, and how he wanted it done, to fellow stop motion animation artists.  He was also very protective of America’s cinematic history, and had little taste for ironists or revisionists.  I well recall someone calling the original King Kong “campy,” and Harryhausen explaining with strained patience that acting, screenwriting and special effects techniques do change, but that in no way negates the quality of the work.  (I often have the feeling that, to many people, anything made without irony is “camp” – a particularly virulent intellectual conceit that diminishes what’s left of our critical faculty.)

Harryhausen was no mean draughtsman, and drew the storyboards for all of his films, as well as making various drawings of fantastic and science fiction images for his own amusement.

Harryhausen Concept Art

For those who wish to sample the best of Harryhausen, below are your correspondent’s five favorite Harryhausen films, along with one bonus picture.  All of them are available on DVD, at your local library, or on Netflix.  See one or all of them – you will not be disappointed.

Mighty Joe Young (1949) was made in collaboration with Harryhausen’s mentor, the great stop motion animator Willis O’Brien (1886-1962), the brilliant special effects pioneer who created King Kong.  Mighty Joe Young was produced by the same team that had created Kong 16 years earlier, and there is a similar vibe to the film, though Mighty Joe Young is a much gentler story with a happy ending.  In short, a producer (played by King Kong alum Robert Armstrong) comes to Africa looking for attractions, only to find an enormous ape that has been raised by a young girl (Terry Moore).  He takes girl and ape back to New York, where poor Joe performs in various seedy nightclubs.  Of course, Joe goes on a rampage, and, after the city issues an order of extermination, the producer, girl, and their cowboy friend (Ben Johnson in his first film role -- I kid you not), plot to get him back to Africa.  The dazzling finale has Joe rescuing children from a burning orphanage.  I know how this all sounds, but … trust me.  It is a spectacular and remarkable moving movie. 

Loosely (very loosely!) adapted from a short story by Harryhausen’s friend, Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was the  first live-action film to feature a giant monster awakened or brought about by an atomic bomb detonation to attack a major city.  The Beast was a tremendous commercial success, spawning an entire genre of giant monster films, including Gorgo (1961), Godzilla (1954), and Them! (1954). In brief: atomic testing awakens a long-dormant prehistoric beast frozen in the Artic Circle.  The monster makes its way to New York, and is finally killed within the framework of the rollercoaster at Coney Island.  For this film, Harryhausen created his own dinosaur, the Rhedosaurus, and it is an incredible conception.  At one moment, the beast knocks down a Manhattan building and the dust rises around him.  It’s a throw-away moment, but it’s a moment filled with magic.

With 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Harryhausen once again creates his own creature, the Ymir, a denizen of Venus.  When a US spaceship on a secret mission from Venus crash lands off the coast of Italy, an egg with an embryonic alien washes ashore.  Growing at an alarming rate, the Ymir escapes and wreaks havoc amongst the ruins of Rome.  Tremendous visuals and great fun.

Many consider Jason and the Argonauts (1963), where Harryhausen was associate producer as well as the master of visual effects, to be his masterpiece.  Retelling the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Harryhausen pulls out all of the stops, animating giant statues, many-headed snakes and his great achievement, a sword fight among Jason and his comrades with an army of skeletons.  I was fortunate enough to see this in the ruins of the great picture palace, Loew’s Jersey City, with Harryhausen in attendance.  The film is a great crowd-pleaser, and I strongly recommend you watch it with a young person to appreciate the full effect.

Jason Concept Art

My personal favorite Harryhausen film is First Men in the Moon (1964), where he again served as associate producer and special effects artist.  This film is an adaptation of the 1901 novel by H. G. Wells, with a screenplay by science fiction veteran Nigel Kneale.  The film opens with a breath-taking conceit: contemporary (1960s) astronauts land on the moon, only to find evidence of a prior visitation … made during the Victorian era!  Representatives from NASA and the media descend upon an aging, frail rascal currently residing in a nursing home, who details in flashback how he got there first, more than 60 years earlier.  For this film, Harryhausen animated the insect like Moon men, giant caterpillar-like Moon calves, and the Great Luna – the controlling intelligence of the planet.  The film is whimsical, thrilling, spectacular and sweetly nostalgic.  It is, in short, a masterpiece.  If you only see one Harryhausen film, make it First Men in the Moon.

One to grow on – though not a “good” film in the traditional sense, I have a remarkable affection for The Valley of Gwangi (1969), another film he produced as well as led the special effects effort.  Gwangi was originally planned as a vehicle for his mentor, Willis O’Brien.  How to describe Gwangi?  Well … cowboys in the Old West find a lost valley, complete with the last surviving dinosaurs.  They capture an Allosaurus and bring it back to tour in a Wild West Show … in short, we have King Kong in the Old West.  I find the mix of cowboys, show business and dinosaurs to be too delicious to miss, and Gwangi ends up in my viewing queue every couple of years.  The film climaxes with a breath-taking tussle between Gwangi and a circus elephant – and includes some of Harryhausen’s finest work.

We are all diminished by the loss of Ray Harryhausen, but his works remains to lighten up the dark corners of our imagination.

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