Ray Harryhausen. 1920 – 2013

In all the advances made in the field of onscreen digital magic, there has been no exponent of special effects whose name has prefixed films in the way Ray Harryhausen’s once did for his millions of fans. As a kid I was always at a heightened pitch of anticipation for the next ‘Ray Harryhausen film’, and I’d scour American film-magazines… when I could find them… for clues as to what aspect of fantasy he’d turn his attention to next. (My parents were hugely disapproving of my addiction to Famous Monsters of Filmland, which added an illicit allure to the copies I could get my hands on!) Harryhausen gave audiences dinosaurs and cavemen, dinosaurs and cowboys, aliens, deep-sea monsters, Arabian adventures peppered with myriad unlikely creatures and Greek myths crammed with elegant inventions that swept us along on a tide of wonderment and excitement. And to all of them he brought his own brand of stop-motion animation combined with miniature rear-screen projection, the hallmark of Harryhausen films.

Harryhausen’s eohippus (Dawn Horse) sequence in The Valley of Gwangi swept me away with its delicacy and charm.

The darkly elegant Hydra from Jason and the Argonauts.

As an adult I attended a couple of his lectures, and was able to ask him questions about his craft that I’d always been curious about. He was unfailingly eloquent and entertaining in his replies, a consummate ‘maker’ happy to share his inventive techniques. And once I met him quite unexpectedly, and was able to speak to him privately, an occasion so significant that I wrote about it in the biographical chapter of my monograph.

The magnificent fighting skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts.

Despite my admiration of him, I didn’t become an animator, though I thought about it quite hard. Instead I studied dance, and later puppetry too. Interestingly, one of my questions to Harryhausen in later life was about whether he’d ever studied dance, as his creatures are invariably sleekly graceful in movement. (The Hydra in Jason and the Argonauts is an example, so serpentine and elegant in its appearance and choreography.) It turned out he hadn’t, but I figure that you can’t turn out work like that without possessing an endlessly curious eye. I think Harryhausen had the mind of a choreographer, but didn’t know it.

And here I am, an artist currently making images come to life by means of the stop-motion techniques I so admired in my childhood hero. This morning as I sat at the table pinning together a pair of skeleton horses with brads, Peter came downstairs with the radio tuned for me to the news of the great animator’s passing. I looked down at what I was doing, and there could have been no better moment to be grateful for the impact Ray Harryhausen had on my creative life. His creatures helped shape my imagination, and they proved to me that in visual matters, the ‘impossible’ can always be made real. I still watch the dinosaur-wrangling scene from The Valley of Gwangi with complete awe. He was the one who showed everyone how to do it!

UPDATE: I’ve been searching without any luck for a good online clip of the Hydra sequence from Jason and the Argonauts. However, click HERE and you’ll find a trailer for the film. Not an original trailer dating from the release, but a later one made from an excellent print of the film. It’s got a score added that isn’t the original, but it has drive and energy, and the glimpses the trailer affords of the Hydra illustrate just how beautifully the creature was realised by Harryhausen.

12 thoughts on “Ray Harryhausen. 1920 – 2013

  1. I did not know about his passing so this was news for me. In those days when children were allowed out on their own I went to see Jason and the Argonauts at the local fleapit. I watched it, then the supporting film and then watched Jason again. Those were the days when you paid in the picture house and stayed as long as you want. I only went home when the usherette came shining a torch in my face, looking for me. My mother had phoned the cinema looking for me but I had lost track of time watching such a brilliant film. To this day, if I see it in the tv schedules, I have to watch it. Must have seen it at least a dozen times over the years if not more. I love it when Hercules is chased by Talos and Hera’s eyes open on the masthead of the Argo. I’ve watched some of his others but Jason is my favourite. Great memories.

  2. Oh, I have been thinking about Harryhausen, too–so glad you wrote a post about his work, and about meeting him. When I heard yesterday, I immediately watched the skeletons in their eruption from the ground and ensuing attack.

    • That scene had me nailed to the spot when I first saw it as a kid, and it still hits the spot all these years later.

      I found THIS, a version with a new voice track and rather otherworldly music added by Joe Giardino, and it’s weirdly the same and yet entirely different. It’s just a part of the sequence, but worth a look nonetheless.

  3. Dear Clive,
    It seems appropriate that I found out about his death through your tribute. I figured you loved the man and his work but hadn’t a clue that you had met and talked with him. What an honor to treasure. I must read your monograph more carefully. I am eager to check the clip of the Hydra, thanks and take care, LG

      • It is indeed the original. I think the print looks a tad wan, which is why I went for the more recent trailer… 2009, I think… because the colour in that is warmer and closer to my recollection of first seeing the film.

        Just so that you don’t have to read the whole biographical chapter, Leonard, you’ll find the Ray Harryhausen recollection on page 197.

        • I agree the 2009 is more vital, but with my scratchy childhood “white-trash” black-and-white television the original wan coloring would have been jaw dropping indeed (-: Plus the voiceover is delightful.

          I will indeed read, as opposed to my previous skimming, the bio. I feel badly that I haven’t but I feel a sense of intimacy with you already, with or without the details.

          BTW I have been impressed and a bit awe struck in the sheer volume and productivity of your own stop-motion animation. I haven’t responded as I ought to have, but I have been keeping an eye. Great improvements upon the already masterful originals. I think in this new context your revisions seem more appropriate, particularly the Soldier.

  4. Pingback: Ray Harryhausen, an undeniable influence | Boondocks Babylon

  5. A beautiful, heartfelt tribute. I remember his animations well. I remember that miniature horse and how it made me completely unsatisfied with my stationary, plastic models. His innovations have had lasting influence… RIP.

    • His influence has been so far-reaching, it’s impossible to quantify. But there’s probably no-one working in the field of ‘creature creation’ who wouldn’t cite him as an influence on their career choice.

  6. I’m really sad to hear of his passing, But i’m glad I found out here on your blog Clive, especially in such an eloquent way.

    we went to see an exhibition of his models and props at the County Hall Film Museum in London a couple of years ago. It was great seeing his iconic ‘film stars’ up so close and being able to study them – the detailing was just incredible

    • At his talks he showed copies of the figures cast in non-perishable materials, produced specially for display because the latex originals were so compromised by decay. But at the conclusion of a talk I attended at the Arnolfini in Bristol, ever the showman he unwrapped a fragile and crumbling original skeleton from Jason and the Argonauts, and in unison the audience let out an appreciative exhalation of wonder. Afterwards we all stood the around the table entranced by it, standing on tissue paper in a little pile of perished latex detritus.

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