Last week, a true titan of the cinema world left us. Ray Harryhausen, the man behind the iconic stop-motion beasts of 1950s, 60s and 70s cinema, sadly passed away at the age of 92.
Harryhausen’s accomplishments were many fold – but his greatest was the establishment of special effects as a storytelling device. In the films he worked on, stop-motion wasn’t merely a background tool – it was placed up close and absolutely needed to work so audiences believed in what they were seeing.
Harryhausen ensured that special effects were taken seriously, and invested an astonishing level of care and detail in his craft. The process of stop-motion – whereby an inanimate object is moved frame by frame, creating the illusion of movement when the footage is played back – required extraordinary amounts of time to get right. It sometimes took years to simply convey the act of walking or running forward.
The mere utterance of the name Harryhausen will conjure up any number of weird and wonderful creations in the minds of film viewers. For me, it’s the classic showdown with Medusa in 1981’s Clash of the Titans (the last feature he worked on). The film is, to be honest, fairly ropey and more than a bit crap -but it all comes together in the spine-chilling scene where Harry Hamlin’s Perseus has to slay the monstrous Gorgon, lest she set eyes on him and turn him to stone.
Those of a certain generation can picture the scene. Hamlin is hidden behind a pillar, sword-drawn, terrified as the hideous Medusa skulks ever closer, rattling her snakes tail at periodic intervals, the menace accentuated by the torchlight and Laurence Rosenthal’s eerie, slithering score.
But the reason why the scene works is because Medusa herself feels palpably real thanks to Harryhausen’s extraordinary skill. The stop-motion may seem jerky and crude in comparison to today’s more sophisticated effects -but the very fact that there’s a rawness and edginess to Medusa’s movements somehow lends unnerving physicality to what is little more than a plasticine model. She has been crafted and painstakingly animated frame by frame by hand and consequently feels believable.
Compare it to the Medusa scene from the utterly diabolical 2010 remake and the results are plain to see. The modern-day version may be slicker, noisier and pacier -but it, and the new CGI incarnation of the Gorgon, are utterly soulless. The film is indebted to Harryhausen’s work but is completely bereft of his craft. Not that it’s the fault of the effects animators -they did a perfectly professional job in the service of a shoddy narrative that fails to find a proper context for the effects (a incurring problem with many of today’s blockbusters).
But let’s back up a bit here and talk a bit of the man himself. Born in Los Angeles in 1920, the young Harryhausen was inspired by a viewing of seminal 1933 monster movie King Kong. Having served in Frank Capra’s film unit in World War II, Harryhausen returned to America where his mentor, famed animator Willis O’Brien, hired him as supervisor on 1949 RKO film Mighty Joe Young. O’Brien was originally hired as principal animator but most of the work in fact fell to Harryhausen himself. The film ultimately won an Oscar for its Visual Effects.
Harryhausen’s path into Hollywood was secured. For the next several decades, his classic creations both enlivened and terrified generations of filmgoers in such classics as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts, and One Million Years B.C. Ask someone on the street to name their favourite Harryhausen moment and the answer is likely to be the famous skeleton attack sequence from Argonauts -a masterpiece of extraordinarily complex animation that again carries the robust yet magically off-kilter physicality that only stop-motion can bring.
Any form of special effect is ultimately smoke and mirrors, getting us to believe in something that isn’t really happening. But Harryhausen helped the industry to take effects seriously, highlighting stop-motion as an art-form that could bring remarkable mythic creatures to the big-screen. Last year’s animated stop-motion trio of The Pirates, Paranorman and Frankenweenie also of course owes a massive debt to his legacy.
His efforts meant that whole new worlds could opened up, paving the way for today’s blockbusters that routinely show us flying suits, warring superheroes and fighting robots. And yet, Harryhausen always acted in service of the story. His models were meant to enhance the narrative, not overtake it.
Compare that to the metallic, clanging shitstorm of the godawful Transformers movies – in which we’re not invested in what’s happening -and it’s clear that his storytelling abilities went hand in hand with his technical ones. Yet one only need look at a recent movie like Life of Pi to see that special effects can drive a narrative, rather than define it. And that guiding principle is all down to Ray Harryhausen.
As a potent reminder of Harryhausen’s remarkable work, here’s the classic Talos scene from Jason and the Argonauts.