We take for granted now days the number of special effects bonanzas that come out every year at our local multiplex. A look at the end credits for any major blockbuster shows a nearly endless slew of artists and special effects companies that help bring the production to life. For example on Avengers, one studio and team may handle Iron Man, while another handled Hulk, and another was in charge of the explosions.
However this was not always the case. Special effects used to be fairly limited in terms of their scope and scale. That is until the pioneering work of one special effects genius by the name of Ray Harryhausen . No other special effects artist had enjoyed the level of notoriety that Harryhausen obtained. In fact the name of Ray Harryhausen often superseded that of the directors he worked with.
A pioneer of the art of stop-motion animation, he was best known for the classic films Jason and the Argonauts, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and the original Clash of the Titans. Numerous titans in the film industry credit him as an influence. Directors Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, George Lucas, Joe Johnston, John Favreau, John Lasseter, Gullirmo Del Toro, and special effects wizards Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Phil Tippet, and Denis Muren all cite Harryhausen as an influence.
Harryhausen himself was influenced by another classic special effects creature, the 1933 version of King Kong. At the age of 13, upon seeing the original King Kong he spent a great deal of time experimenting with stop-motion. Willis O’Brien, the animator for King Kong saw some of Harryhausen’s work and encouraged him to attend classes to improve his craft. He would work with O’Brien on the 1949 Kong-esque film Mighty Joe Young. Harryhausen was also friends with another famous ‘Ray” of sci-fi and fantasy, author Ray Bradbury. The two would go on to collaborate on the film Beast from 20,000 fathoms.
He would make dozens of other films, including Them, One Million Years BC, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Each creature he would touch would carefully and meticulously be brought to life through the art of stop motion animation. It truly is an underappreciated art form, even more so in our digital age. Each shot has to be done carefully as a little figure is moved ever so slightly and then the pictures are run together to create the illusion of movement .If one frame is out of sequence or missing the whole effect is lost. It is an art that takes a lot of time, effort and patience to achieve.
It was through these films that he introduced us to his giant spiders, clattering Skelton armies, and dinosaurs. His most famous creation was the Kraken from the original Clash of the Titans, an adaptation of the story of Perseus from Greek Myth. While the Kraken wasn’t the name of the creature in myth the film became so iconic and the creature was so memorable that it superseded the Cestus from the original tale. It was a creature that was big, menacing terrifying and all out awesome. And it was a creature that only Harryhausen could bring to life.
I was 9 years old when I saw my first Harryhausen film. A friend had lent us a copy of Jason and the Argonauts .My younger sisters didn’t care much for it, but I loved it. The skeleton armies, the monsters and the living statues were al as amazing as the creatures in Jurassic Park and Star Wars. The careful and meticulous work to bring them to life was evident as they were seamlessly integrated into the story. Most movie goers prefer Harryhausen’s version of Clash of the Titans over the remake, largely because not only was the acting deemed better, but the original had much better effects, for a film made in 1981.
Harryahusen died this past week at the age of 92. Like the great story tellers of old he filled our seas with dreadful monsters, but it was because of those monsters we saw the might of our heroes. His inspiration will be felt by the current generation of film makers and will be remembered for years to come.
Somewhere in the world right now , some youngster is watching his Clash of the Titans for the first time and hearing those immortal words, “Release the kraken” and watching as Harryhausen monster is bursting not only from the sea but from Harryhausen’s imagination to make that young viewer say one word:” “Awesome.”
Thank you, Mr. Harryhausen for all your awesome creatures.