I feel quite fortunate to have first caught Ray Harryhausen as he was meant to be seen – a summer matinee at my neighborhood theater – before he retired from moviemaking. The movie was Clash of the Titans (the good one), and I was nine. I can’t imagine a more ideal way to experience his unique magic. His stop-motion creations spoke to that unique age in life, when we were open to wonders and could believe in monsters like his. He influenced a staggering number of other young children, some of whom had names like Spielberg, Lucas, Jackson and Cameron.
We knew they were just stop-motion even then; we could see the inherent unreality of their artificial forms. But they felt real just the same because they all had souls. We could see the light behind their eyes, we could sense the weight of lives lived and experiences forged in their articulated shapes. That came from their creator, whose endless, meticulous work infused a part of himself into them. They gave him a status unheralded among visual effects artists: genuine auteur. We’re hard-pressed to name the directors of the various films he worked on. They’re always “the Ray Harryhausen pictures,” final proof of the enduring strength of his work.
Harryhausen picked up the mantle left by Willis O’Brien, who pioneered stop-motion animation with King Kong and whose career floundered in the years that followed. He took inspiration from Kong the way so many future filmmakers took inspiration from him, starting with a series of fairy tale shorts before emulating his hero in 1949’s Mighty Joe Young. That film formed a fitting stepping stone between past and present – a funnier, more upbeat take on Kong that paved the way for future greatness. It also helped give Harryhausen his own voice; never again could he be compared to another.
The sci-fi movie boon of the 1950s provided ample opportunity to flex his muscles. His creatures showed up in the likes of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. Those films were all reflections of Cold War paranoia, and they were glorious indeed. But Harryhausen proved far more interested in fantasy and fairy tales than little green men. His most beloved films were based on ancient myths, which spoke to a more positive outlook on life than the sci-fi thrillers he started with. His was the realm of adventure, not fear: he embraced the excitement of exploration, not the terror of the inhuman Other. His creatures were sometimes tragic, yes, but never horrors to be feared. The first pure expression of that ethos came with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in 1958 and continued throughout his career. 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts proved to be the strongest example, with new wonders waiting around every corner. But even when he returned to sci-fi (as in 1964’s First Men in the Moon) or took a shot at genre-bending (as with 1969’s The Valley of Gwangi), he brought a whimsy to the project that set it apart from others.
He broke the mold in more ways than one. Look at the actors in his films, for example: with the glorious exception of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. (who represented an entirely different sort of spectacle), you can hardly remember any of them. They existed to play off the monsters rather than exist of their own: screaming and running away instead of holding our attention. With any other movie, that could be considered a failing. With Harryhausen, the exact opposite occurred. His monsters had more humanity than the humans; we connected to them more keenly than the often cardboard-thin characters who battled them.
And even when technology began to outpace him – when those little children he entranced grew up and started entrancing children themselves – he exited the scene with as grand a flourish as any filmmaker since. His final curtain call, Clash, arrived four years after Star Wars and stood side by side with Raiders of the Lost Ark. The latter film showed those young hotshots at ILM at the top of their game… and yet Clash could still match it marvel for marvel. (Marvels, I might add, that were utterly lacking in the CGI-laden 2010 remake.) Just as Mighty Joe Young signaled a passing of the torch, so too did Clash cede the stage to Harryhausen’s heirs: not with sad pathos, but a fierce affirmation of his creative power.
His passing can be seen in similar terms. He’s gone, yes, but his accomplishments live on. They’re irretrievably woven into the fabric of filmmaking, not only with the films themselves but in the countless pieces of spectacle that followed him. Even today, we judge that spectacle by the standard he set. Does the effect have a soul? Does it live? Does it breathe? Or is it just empty technique? We understand where that line lies because of him, and if we ever grow confused, we need only look to his brilliance for a reminder. RIP Mr. Harryhausen. Your visions will never be forgotten.