Tuesday, May 7, 2013

In Memoriam: Ray Harryhausen

“I think the whole point of any fantasy film is to stretch the imagination, because when one lives in a dream world like me, it’s always ‘what if this could happen?’”

– Ray Harryhausen (excerpt from Monsters in the Movies by John Landis)

Frequent visitors to this blog are likely aware of my professed admiration for the work of special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, who passed away today at the age of 92.  I previously discussed his painstaking stop-motion technique in films such as Mighty Joe Young and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which has directly inspired many gifted individuals in the special effects industry, including Dennis Muren, the Chiodo brothers, and Henry Selick.  Although Harryhausen’s last feature film, Clash of the Titans (1981), was completed more than 30 years ago, he continued to spark the imagination of fantasy film enthusiasts and effects professionals throughout his lifetime.  His legacy arguably resides in the DNA of many (if not all) of the creature effects animators who have followed in his footsteps.

To modern-day audiences, his stop-motion effects might appear archaic or quaint, but that’s missing the point.  They possess a warm, handcrafted quality that can’t be matched by sterile computer-generated imagery.  Harryhausen singlehandedly animated his creations, meticulously employing slight adjustments frame by frame, to create the illusion of movement.  He always added a special touch to each of his creations, imbuing them with distinctly idiosyncratic personalities.  He often performed miracles working with shoestring budgets, depicting the destruction of the Washington Monument by a flying saucer in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (which received a direct, ironically CGI nod in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks) and an assault on the Golden Gate Bridge by a giant octopus (minus two tentacles).

It would be virtually impossible for me to single out one of Harryhausen’s brilliant creations as my personal favorite.  Some highlights are: the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth, the intricately staged battle with skeleton warriors in Jason and the Argonauts, the titular beast in Mighty Joe Young, and the wonderful dragon from the aforementioned The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  Ray Harryhausen was all about possibilities; bringing life to creatures that never existed, yet making us believe that they somehow could have.  His contributions to film remain a treasure trove for the imagination – a lasting gift for all who wish to nourish our childlike sense of wonder.

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