How do you measure the worth of a man's life?
Do you collect all of his accomplishments, the things he's done, and showcase them with an eye for quantifying their impact? Is that the best reflection on the person now departed? Could you show this catalogue to someone who is unfamiliar, with the hope that they'll understand?
These are the sort of questions I asked myself as I thought about the true impact that Ray Harryhausen had on my imagination growing up. There's an entire segment of me that would be irrevocably lesser if not for the work of this wonderful man. Consider for a second how drastically different Sunday mornings sprawled out on the carpet in front of the TV would have been if that time was not filled with the wonderfully fantastic creatures brought to life by Mr. Harryhausen.
The news of his death has lit the Internet up like a Christmas tree. The star at the top is none other than YouTube. If there's ever been a man whose impact can be best experienced via the social video sharing site, it's Ray Harryhausen. As I jumped from video to video in glorious Dynamation, I couldn't help but be struck by how well the technique holds up. Perhaps this is because the style isn't shooting for the "realism" so desired by today's movie goers, but instead for a fantastique movie magic aesthetic that has the ability to instantly transport you back to your childhood. These creature effects enhance the viewing experience, and in some of these films' cases may be the only reason to watch. Conversely, think of the underground tunnel/truck flood sequence from Die Hard with a Vengance; the green screen effects are so badly dated that we watch the film despite them (that particular one is so bad now that it rocks me out of the film each time).
Where did it all begin though? Just as with all of us, Ray Harryhausen was influenced by the films he saw as a child. He was particularly captivated by 1933's King Kong. I won't bring geek shame to bear but if you haven't seen this masterpiece, please search it out. It's wonderful for so many reasons, many of which are thanks to early stop motion pioneer Willis H. O'Brien. Unlike most of us, Ray sought advice from and then eventually worked with his idol. Together they brought Mighty Joe Young to life, winning the Academy Award for special effects in 1949. As you watch the trailer for it below, pay particular attention around the :33 mark, as a man is pulled from his horse at a full gallop by the great gorilla. All three actors in play there (horse, man, and monster) were stop motion. Consider all of the little needed intricacies to make that work and marvel at how amazing it still looks!
Mighty Joe Young
Another moment where imagination and visualization clicked for me was when I first set eyes on the alien ships of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956). I was probably seven or eight at the time and had newly discovered science fiction books. This key moment in my life would define how I visualized flying saucers in my mind's eye to this day. Harryhausen consulted with George Adamski, a famous UFO abduction claimant from the 50's, on the the exact look of the disc shaped space vessels.
Earth vs The Flying Saucers
In It Came From Beneath the Sea, I learned that not even iconic bridges were safe from the monstrous creations of Ray Harryhausen. I've linked that particular sequence below. Take a look at the exquisite detail on the Octopus' tentacles. The painstaking detail labored over here even makes the acting and rear projection car driving shots look laughable by comparison. Consider that after sixty years it's the creature effects that held up and bring us back to revisit, not the quality of the acting. Also keep in mind that without the exceptional miniature work of Mr. Harryhausen, it's likely we wouldn't know of WETA or have gotten definitive Lord of the Rings films.
It Came from Beneath the Sea
Perhaps his most enduring work, and the one to which my mind instantly flashes when he's brought up, is the Skeleton fight sequence from Jason and the Argonauts. What I wouldn't give to be able to travel back in time and see this film open at a drive-in! This is the kind of sword and sandal high adventure which would see a renaissance of in the mid to late 90's on shows like Hercules the Legendary Journeys. As you watch the sequence below try to imagine how every move and maneuver of the actors had to be taken into account. Notice how no shortcuts are taken, how each intersection of the swords looks real and has impact. That's a master at work and it's little wonder that this scene still excites to this day.
Jason and the Argonauts
A man is not just the collection of his individual works, his quality is reflected in those whom he had influence on. Consider then that all of these cinematic luminaries, these wonderfully imaginative world builders, count Ray Harryhausen as an influence to them: George Lucas, Rick Baker, Steve Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Ivan Reitman, Stan Winston, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, Frank Daravont, John Landis, and James Cameron. Look at that list and try to imagine a world without Ghostbusters, without Star Wars, without E.T., without An American Werewolf in London, or any other number of seminal works from these masters of the movies, who will in turn influence another generation to create great works.
I highly encourage you to surf YouTube, shredding the wave of Ray Harryhausen's great works. The world grew a little bit dimmer yesterday with his passing, but the light of his imagination will shine on; lose yourself in it, at least for a little while. It's a wonderful thing.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.