Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013)

Film Fantasy Scrapbook,
still on my shelf after 39 years
My oldest Ray Harryhausen memory is from second grade, when I took my father's copy of Harryhausen's Film Fantasy Scrapbook to school. My father was the TV critic for the local paper at the time; knowing this, and noticing the book on my desk, my teacher presumed my father to be an expert on special effects and asked him to give a presentation on the subject.

I was beyond excited to have my father in school on the day of the presentation, and I did not hesitate to leave my seat and wander to the front of the auditorium (the audience had increased somewhat from the time my father was asked to speak to the time of the actual presentation) to interrupt him for the sake of getting laughs and impressing my friends. ("Who are we, the Smothers Brothers?" I remember asking him in the middle of his explanation of stop motion photography. He replied that we were, but that I was to be Tommy, whose role it was to sit quietly while he, Dick, spoke. I'm not sure the Smothers Brothers followed that rule, but I know I didn't. My father was not amused.)

Years later, in seventh grade, I gave my own presentation during a "floor talk" in English class. I opened with a mention of Fay Wray and King Kong, tried demonstrating the stop motion technique using a model dinosaur I had almost completed, and concluded with a look at the same copy of Film Fantasy Scrapbook from third grade.

In the pre-VHS, pre-DVD days of my childhood I didn't see many of Harryhausen's movies, save for the few that were occasionally shown on UHF channels. I remained captivated, though, by Film Fantasy Scrapbook, by the monsters it depicted, and especially by the technique with which they were animated. I kept a lookout for stop motion effects in other movies — The Empire Strikes Back is a great memory of that — and was happy when Harryhausen returned to the screen with Clash of the Titans.

Eventually, as special effects evolved, I began to feel as if stop motion had reached its peak and levelled off. In discussions with friends, I would say that it had been perfected early on, meaning in Harryhausen's prime, and that it was as good as it would ever be, but that it was easily being eclipsed by modern techniques. I was skeptical of those who claimed otherwise, though I still remained fond of Harryhausen's work, which I began to collect avidly on DVD.

Then, recently, I watched the remake of Clash of the Titans (2010), and I quickly realized how much more effective Harryhausen's work on the original is compared to the computer effects of the remake. The digital monsters of the new film are nicely rendered, to be sure, but the action scenes into which they are inserted lack a grounding element — there is simply too much digital stuff filling the screen, tumbling beyond orientation, leaving the viewer lost in a flurry of pixelated scales, fur, claws, etc. Watching the original once more, I noticed how Harryhausen's creatures, while noticeably "artificial," nonetheless become part of the world inhabited by the human actors. The threat or benefit which they represent can be felt, because their relationship to the human characters feels more physical, more real.

So much has been said about the expressiveness of Harryhausen's characters and about his ability to "act" through them. Taking some screencaps for this post, I realized how valid this praise is. Watch the introduction of the troglodyte in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (above), for example, and you will see as natural a progression from aggressiveness to fear to curiosity to acceptance as could be given by any talented actor — and it was done by a man working with miniature models one frame at a time. The fluidity of this scene belies the days, weeks, or months that went into making it, the time between each frame that was spent repositioning the puppet, the skill required to virtually stop time and reassemble it a fraction of a second at a time, somehow remaining aware of how one pose would lead to the next to create a seamless motion and a polished performance.

Below are frames from all of Harryhausen's feature films, I think, except for The Animal World. Also included are frames from two of his several short subjects, both based upon fairy tales. They are presented here in memory of the man, who died today at age 92.

Little Red Riding Hood (1949)
Mighty Joe Young (1949)
Hansel and Gretel (1951)
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)
Mysterious Island (1961)
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
First Men in the Moon (1964)
One Million Years B.C. (1966)
The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
Clash of the Titans (1981)