Stop motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen has died at age 92. Before CGI there was Harryhausen, whose soaring imagination gave birth to creatures that inhabited the psyche of generations of SF and fantasy fans, and whose painstaking hand-done animation has never been surpassed for character and excitement.
Inspired by Willis O’Brien’s work on King Kong, the young Harryhausen began making his own models and figures, before actually working with O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young, His filmography includes The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Clash of the Titans, but his real legacy is the foes and battles he created for all.
Like Tom Hanks, I would have to say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest movie of all times for the seven year old who grew up in its orbit. I watched it and Harryhausen’s other films a dozen times each, unaware of the master behind them. (Before the internet you were dependent on books and friends with access to books and people to learn the secrets of moviemaking.) IN later years I met Harryhausen, to shake his hand and get his autograph and heard him speak on panels a number of times…the seven year old me would have passed out from excitement at the idea.
What entranced me so much with his work wasn’t just the excitement and fantasy of it. Although Harryhausen’s “Dynamation” process was ultimately amazingly analog — he used glass to project footage and then match the models to the live footage and then photographed the result—it was poetic and alive. His creatures—from the cyclops to Medusa to the famed skeleton army—possessed life and a kind of sad loneliness which gave their battles a grim urgency. Is there a more eerie or disquieting scene than the awakening and death of Talos, the bronze statue?
Very very few CGI critters have even approached the humanity and vibrancy of Harryhausen’s creatures. Modern movies substitute an army of insect drones from a single giant crab, and the effect is quite different. I’d say that Gollum is an exception, but I’m hard pressed to think of many others. Different mediums, different results. There will never be another Harryhausen, but his creations will continue to inspire filmmakers, dreamers and children for generations.