The Things That Made Me: part 1

Here’s my list. It may appear random, but all the things on it have been significant to me. They were the accompaniments to my finding myself, the books, films, TV programmes and objects that had profound effects on me when I was a child. (And in some cases, the allure of what I yearned for but never got, like a Topstone latex rubber mask!) Some of what’s here you might expect to see, and much of it, probably not. It’s also my ‘coming out’ list, inasmuch as there are items here that my parents didn’t approve of. The horror magazines and the Mars Attacks collector-cards were frowned on by my mother, and I quickly learned to put them away where she wouldn’t see them. This made me uncomfortable. Conflicted. They were pleasures tarnished with guilt.

I’ve been conflicted most of my life about the things I’ve loved that might be considered lowbrow. Next month I’ll be six-five. A nicely rounded figure, though inconceivably high. It’s time I got over being troubled about what made me who I am. There’s nothing wrong with any of the things that thrilled me in those formative years. Time to celebrate them. Time to own up!

No words and no explanations. Just the pictures. I leave it to you to put titles to the films represented by photographs.



















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.