Ray Harryhausen, an iconic figure in film and animation, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 92. While hundreds of geeked-out obituaries have already exhausted words like “legend” and “inspiration,” those are still some of the most appropriate terms we can use to describe a man whose mark on cinema reaches as deep as Harryhausen’s.
For creative types, Harryhausen was one of us, but way more successful. At a young age, Ray Harryhausen was permanently changed by the titular character of King Kong (1933), the gargantuan, marauding ape brought to life through the magic of cinema, and the machinations of stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien. After studying O’Brien’s techniques and experimenting with his own ideas on surplus reels of 16mm film, Harryhausen eventually took the initiative to pursue work alongside O’Brien, and subsequently became a collaborator and close friend. To some, he was one of the most prominent names in the burgeoning science fiction genre, alongside Forrest J. Ackerman and Ray Bradbury. That Harryhausen would evoke the same fascination that he experienced as a child in thousands of others is one of his greatest achievements as an artist.
As an innovator of the stop-motion form, Harryhausen was careful to distinguish between different schools of stop-motion thought. Stop-motion which paired live action with animated forms fell under his “Dynamation” category, while films created entirely with stop-motion elements were, to him, “puppet animation,” employed by current films such as ParaNorman and Coraline. There’s an undeniable visceral difference between watching Jack Skellington stalk across an unfurling, spiral hill and watching a handsome actor engage in a convincing swordfight with a small army of ferocious skeletons. Harryhausen’s Dynamation didn’t create fantasy, but instead brought our own reality closer to the fantastic in a way that burrowed into millions of minds, one undulating frame at a time.
Often working with a small budget and an even smaller staff, Harryhausen engaged in a very hands-on, do-it-yourself approach to filmmaking, employing friends and relatives to assist in assembling film props and characters. It’s this distinctive and infectious spirit that motivated multiple generations of filmmakers and animators to continue to innovate and push the outer boundaries of animation, and made possible further explorations of the form; tumbling AT-ATs and Rancor battles would not have been executed so believably without the works of Harryhausen from which to build. Large Marge wouldn’t have terrified Pee-Wee with her transforming face, and Donovan may not have suffered so graphic a fate when he chose the wrong Grail.
Harryhausen kept many artifacts from his films, and during interviews, he’d whip out a multi-headed Hydra to demonstrate the delicacy of animating a model, or manipulate the arms of a scaled-down Shiva to the mesmerized delight of his audience. On screen, these models were integrated with reality, imbued with vitality and autonomously moving, generating awe and terror. In Harryhausen’s hands, they were the world’s greatest toys. It was apparent that Harryhausen was a man who spent his life playing, to the benefit of creators and film fans the world over, and he couldn’t have been happier doing it. Ultimately, Harryhausen wanted a museum to eventually house these models, having kept hundreds of thousands of keepsakes and props from films he worked on. Many of these were donated to the National Media Museum in Bradford, England.
As film technology changed, Harryhausen expressed a concern that artisans like himself would be forgotten. It gradually became easier to digitally create and manipulate an imaginary object than it was to fabricate a physical object and reposition it thousands of times in infinitesimal increments. The economy of filmmaking dictated that spending a month crafting a beautiful two-minute scene in three dimensions didn’t mesh well with cheaper, faster, computerized alternatives. For purists and artists, it’s the difference between an MP3 and vinyl. For many, the tactility and warmth of an object would far surpass the qualities, both perceptible and imperceptible, of a digital reconstruction of an object. Sure, there’s a nostalgic element that exists at the core of a lot of this, but it doesn’t exist without an appreciation of the intense efforts made by Harryhausen to bring his own ideas to the screen.
This kind of energy has found its way into countless modern works, and while not too many creators pursue the labor-intensive kind of art which Harryhausen kept alive, you can always find Harryhausen’s spiritual progeny laboring over a miniaturized version of something, pushing it with unbearable slowness across a scene, one frame at a time. You can’t play through Doug TenApel’s claymation opus The Neverhood without seeing Harryhausen. “He opened my eyes to visual magic, trickery and wonder,” says the creator, who is currently working on Armikrog, another claymation-based game, and maintaining the indomitable spirit of Harryhausen.
Steve Forde of GoHero, a company specializing in reproductions of vintage science fiction props, toys and action figures, had the fortune of working with Harryhausen’s creations, taking part in an effort to create an even greater awareness of the creator by capturing them as scale figures and replicas. “I started Go Hero as a response to what Ray and people like him inspired in me. It was just criminal how Ray’s work was underappreciated in the mainstream, and the fanbase was under-served. So in 2007, we began to develop projects that would honor Ray’s work as an artist – not just in film, but as an illustrator too.
“Harryhausen had the magic to imbue objects with emotion, meaning, depth, mystery, and purpose on an epic yet intimate scale. This is an approach to all creative work that people should study, absorb, and strive for. I feel like I lost my elementary school art teacher… a mentor who taught me about Greek mythology, flying saucers, and Sinbad.”
Forde describes a simplicity and elegance inherent to the work of Harryhausen, and his ability to redefine a familiar object into something new without losing that familiarity. When a skeleton didn’t look mean enough, Harryhausen gave it a frowning forehead, incorporating bone structures that never existed on any biologically possible human head. That angry skeleton, both ferocious and fragile at once, established the perfect balance of sympathetic, terrible and disconcertingly realistic, even with the trademark “Harryhausen brow.” It’s as if the menace of the human skull was missing that one element all along, and Harryhausen finally got it right.
We mourn the passing of Ray Harryhausen, but also celebrate the long life of a man who got to do what he loved and share it with an appreciative world. Thanks, Ray.
Image: Stuart Crawford