Yesterday I read the news that animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen left this mortal coil for the studio in the sky. Many sites and social media users suddenly poured out their mournful feelings while more bemused younger people wondered who the ‘old guy was what ppl r talkin bout.’ It’s expected. There is always a slight element of sycophantic behaviour when someone of a certain cultural status passes, but in the case of Harryhausen there seems to be a real air of genuine feeling.
I know that when I heard the news I felt deeply saddened but also inspired to go to my movie collection and pull out a couple of DVDs to revisit some of his works. Since I was a young boy his movies have been part of my cinematic genetics, running through me like a clay vein. One of the first anecdotes I can remember my beloved Uncle Philip telling me was of the time he saw Jason and the Argonauts at the cinema in Stamford. So frightened was he by the army of skeletons that he ran from the cinema all the way home.
It’s hard to imagine a few models instilling fear but that was Harryhausen’s art. He didn’t make objects move, he made them live. The skeleton fight sequence was a masterpiece partly due to the fact that it was so tense early on in the scene as they emerged from the earth and stood awaiting command, but also because of the sheer fact that a skeleton is an unrelenting model to animate. Each of the creations had realistic motion, weight behind their movements. The little details as one is knocked down onto all fours is sublime and yet at heart you watch it and admire the fact that the skeletons are performing more convincingly than the live action actors.
My first experience with a Harryhausen film came when watching The Valley of Gwangi, a little known creature feature that saw cowboys facing up to dinosaurs. I was about five and thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen. Soon enough I had seen the Sinbad movies and Clash of the Titans but it was my teen years that saw me really dive into Harryhausen’s work. I became obsessed with monster movies of the 1950’s. I crammed in hundreds of low budget films into a couple of years and saw everything from a giant octopus destroying a bridge (The Golden Gate if memory serves) to a group of flying saucers crashing into various landmarks and monuments It wasn’t just Harryhausen flicks either as I crammed as many of these films into my eyes, but his always felt more refined. More lifelike. His obvious appreciation of form and movement gave an added level of detail to creatures that really only needed to stomp through a location and cause destruction. Curled lips, whipping tails and emotive expression gave us a wealth of creations that stepped beyond the restrictions of the times and provided a genuine sense of wonder in me as a viewer.
It is inconceivable to think of where we would be in terms of visual effects in cinema now had Harryhausen never made his films, sure there were other animation pioneers but in terms of sheer amazement and wonder I cannot think of anyone finer.
So in closing I am glad that his name has spread across the globe via social networking. I’m pleased that people are able to share their memories of his works and I’m happy that he has left a long lasting legacy of inspiration for anyone who ever wondered what it would be like to have a giant mechanical Minotaur row a boat.