It might seem strange to outsiders that the death of a 92-year-old former visual-effects man for B-movies should attract so much media coverage. But to begin to comprehend the impact that Raymond ‘Ray’ Harryhausen has had on the movie industry you only have to look at the names of those directors who claim him as their inspiration: Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, George Lucas, Guillermo Del Toro, and then there’s the special effects gurus like Stan Winston, Dennis Muren, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin.
What’s even more incredible, considering the profound influence that Harryhausen had on the generations of filmmakers that came after him, is that he only ever made 16 feature films. Yet all of them (okay, with the possible exception of The Animal World) are regarded as classics, not only of the fantasy genre with which he is associated, but in their own right.
Harryhausen’s own inspiration was Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion animation pioneer who so memorably brought to life the giant gorilla Kong in 1933’s King Kong, and it was with O’Brien that Harryhausen got his first break on the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young. Hired as an assistant, Harryhausen ended up carrying most of the animation himself and helped to earn his mentor that year’s Academy Award for Special Effects.
Harryhausen went solo in 1952 with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, adapted in part from a short story (written by his long-time friend Ray Bradbury) in which a prehistoric creature is woken from its slumber and drawn to a lone lighthouse by its foghorn. For Beast, Harryhausen built on O’Brien’s methods to create a new technique (later termed ‘Dynamation’) whereby carefully choreographed live-action footage would be shot for the background and foreground of the scene with Harryhausen’s stop-motion animated models sandwiched in-between.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms helped spawn a genre of giant monster movies of the 1950s (in particular, the Beast’s ability to breathe fire, dropped for budget reasons, inspired a certain Japanese monster by the name of Godzilla). At the height of this craze, Harryhausen’s follow-up film, It Came From Beneath The Sea, depicted an attack on San Francisco by a giant octopus – a creature famously given six limbs, rather than the traditional eight, due to budgetary limitations. The film also marked Harryhausen’s first collaboration with producer Charles Schneer, a partnership that led to several of Harryhausen’s most memorable movies, including alien invasion films Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles To Earth, a trilogy of Sinbad adventures that proved hugely successful at the box office, and the 1981 all-star fantasy epic Clash Of The Titans.
In an incredible body of work punctuated by one landmark film after another, the standout has to be Jason And The Argonauts (1963). There are several fantastic sequences in the film but the highlight has to be the celebrated skeleton battle in which Jason (played by Todd Armstrong) and two other human characters engage in a swordfight against seven reanimated skeletons. It took Harryhausen four months to animate the scene (which he did single-handedly) and the result, from concept to execution, is a stunning example of Harryhausen’s creative genius. The gorgeous 2011 Fantasy Scrapbook, co-written by Harryhausen and film historian Tony Dalton, quotes Tom Hanks (speaking at the 1992 Academy Awards where he was presenting Harryhausen with a special Oscar) as saying: “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane… I say Jason And The Argonauts is the greatest film ever made!”
Although best known for his distinctive stop-motion effects and mythological monster creations, Harryhausen’s input typically went way beyond providing special effects shots. He was so involved all the way through the production process, from early conceptualisation, through script and storyboard development, that he effectively co-directed many features (it was only Hollywood’s Director’s Guild rules that meant he was denied his proper credits).
Ultimately, the increasing prominence of more sophisticated effects technology, coupled with a predilection for historical fantasy worlds that refused to adapt to changing audience tastes, saw Harryhausen retire from active filmmaking soon after Clash Of The Titans.
Many older commentators like to harp on about how Harryhausen’s armatures and split-screen Dynamation techniques look better than most modern-day digital effects, but they are missing the point. Tempting though it is to think of the 1950s as a much simpler time, Harryhausen’s creations, unlike today’s computer-generated creatures, were never intended to convince audiences they were real – how could they? But they proved you could be astonished by something without needing to be convinced by it. Harryhausen’s enduring popularity lies not in the fact that his ‘creatures’ are quaint, or even the painstaking effort that went into animating them, but because he invested these characters with such life and personality. If he’d been born later chances are he would have embraced computer animation technology just as passionately, and used this technology to create CG characters with real depth.
In losing Ray Harryhausen we have lost a genuine Hollywood legend, but his legacy lives on, not just in his own body of work but in the films of the numerous filmmakers he inspired. Harryhausen was so much more than a visual-effects man, and his films are so much more than fantasy films – they are a genre in their own right, because there are no other films like them, and nobody quite like him.