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RIP Ray Harryhausen

When I was a kid my parents bought me a book titled “Monsters & Vampires.” I don’t remember exactly when they gave it to me, but it’s copyright 1976 so I’m guessing I was pretty young. Its late-70s publishing date puts it just before the slasher films of the 80s, and instead focuses heavily on Universal monsters and the Hammer films. The inside cover of the book is covered with a two-page, full color spread of two dinosaurs fighting as a cowboy on a horse jabs a spear into one of them. I didn’t know it at the time, but the scene was from 1969’s The Valley of Gwangi, one of dozens of films that featured the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen. To say that book had an affect on me is an understatement; it’s sitting here in my lap as I type these words.

As a kid I remember loving all the Sinbad and Jason and the Argonaut films which is where I first became aware of Ray Harryhausen’s work. The skeleton battle made a particularly strong impression on me. It seems to me like I’ve posted this clip before, but if so who cares — watch it again. And while watching it, remember that each of those little skeleton figures had to be moved and photographed 24 times per second. Think about that the next time you’re complaining about a web page taking too long to load.

In the early 80s, two television specials aired: Everything You Wanted to Know About Monsters and SPFX: The Empire Strikes Back. Both specials had small tributes to Harryhausen and his work. I videotaped both specials and watched them many, many times. (I recently converted both tapes over to DVDs.) By the time each aired, The Clash of the Titans featuring Harryhausen’s fantastic work had been released.

I had both the Kraken (which was huge) and the Pegasus toys from that movie. You don’t know how many times the Kraken was killed by carefully choreographed X-Wing Fighter attacks in my bedroom.

It was particularly fitting that Harryhausen was featured on the Empire Strikes Back special, as Star Wars was heavily influenced by his work. The animated chess pieces from the original Star Wars as well as the Taun-Tauns and AT-ATs from Empire could have come directly from Harryhausen’s studio. Later stop motion works were more than influenced by Harryhausen’s work; some of them were direct homages. The scorpion battle from Clash of the Titans…

…looks similar to the scorpion battle in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids:

Although CGI animation has largely replaced the time consuming art of arduously animating armatures made of wire and clay and frequently covered in fake hair, there was a look and a charm that emitted from those tiny models that computers have yet to be able to reproduce (ask anyone who still watches the old Rankin-Bass Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman Christmas specials year after year).

I’ll leave you with this, a montage containing many of Ray Harryhausen’s most iconic creatures he quite literally brought to life on the big screen. Like a good slight of hand magician, knowing “the trick” to stop motion animation makes me appreciate these movies more, not less. Knowing the time and dedication that went into turning these small models into larger than life monsters makes me smile more than ever.

RIP, Harry.

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2 comments to RIP Ray Harryhausen

  • “Knowing the trick” doesn’t mean a thing. Many years ago when I had my first camcorder, I got it in my head that I was going to try stop-motion. It was one of the first things I did. And it’s hard (nigh-on-impossible to do in video; it’d actually be worth trying again now that one can just take digital photos and string them together as a video piece in a computer). Even with the ability to expose one frame at a time, I can’t imagine that made things any easier. The amount of time he must’ve put into any major effects sequence is mind-boggling to think about.

    Looking at Harryhausen’s work is a reminder of why quite a few people regard CGI as “cheating.”

  • Harryhausen isn’t just about stop motion photography: it’s about stop motion blending in with live action. Ray would be the first one to tell you that. He considered stop motion films like Wallace and Gromit as mere animation or puppet shows. That’s a big reason why he retired. When ILM used computers for modern stop motion work, it made Harryhausen’s work obsolete and that’s why the studio never funded a sequel to the popular “Clash of the Titans”. Ray could have continued his career by simply doing just stop motion (no live action involved) but, like I said, he thought that was beneath him and mere “puppetry”.

    I can see Harryhausen’s point of view once I appreciated how difficult it was to combine live action with stop motion work. First of all the actors line of sight have to match what they are looking at. Ray did a really good job of that (I’ve seen many animation/live action scenes where they did a poor job) and the only real improvement I’ve seen since Ray left the business is they use ping pong balls on sticks for the actors to look at (like they did in Dragonheart) and then cover the balls in post-production with CGI or animation.

    Another, much more difficult, technique you have to perfect in matching live action and animation is getting the color and lighting to match. Ray was an expert in that field and most of his scenes are seamless: no discernible difference in the lighting of the live action actors and the clay models. Nowadays it’s difficult to see any differences but in the early days of CGI you could easily see the differences.

    I’m sure stop motion with live action still has a place in the modern movie industry, it’s just sad to see that Ray Harryhausen will not play a part in it.