Ray Harryhausen: Creator of Dreams

by Zack Figueroa


From Mighty Joe Young to Clash of the Titans, Ray Harryhausen had captivated movie audiences with his creations. He was a master of a craft that has been long since gone from the mainstream. Though he influenced many future film makers, he was mostly ignored by his peers, usually during Oscar time, to only be remembered by his “children.” It was the culmination that has spilled over, to be now witnessed by a whole new generation, barely out of their terrible twos.

The films he made became fertile grounds for the imagination. From the Cyclops’ roar, to Talos’ creaking joints, it looked as if he had breathed life into his characters at sheer will. One different from the next, the monsters that he put on the screen were those that were often imitated but never duplicated. Leaving the theater, one feels as though one were coming out of a dream, with a sense of wonder and enlightenment with cinematic memories which cannot be conjured anywhere else. Unfortunately, those days are a long gone. Nothing is left, but what either comes on cable television, and the magic of DVD or VHS.

The process he invented was called Dynamation. It was the joining of live action and imaginary creatures that would not be tricked into the film months later. The latter was known as Stop Motion Animation. By means of moving a puppet that had been fitted with wooden or metal armatures, they could be moved slightly, to be photographed by a single frame of film at a time, only to be moved again for the next shot. Frames, which run by twenty–four a second at regular speed gave the illusion of movement. It is a method that is hardly seen on the big screen.

Once in a while, a movie like The Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride grace the theater; but on a whole, it has become obsolete by today’s Hollywood standards. Its seventy-year reign ended with its short-lived alter ego known as Go Motion, which was soon replaced less than a decade later by Computer Generated Image, or CGI that would now take armies of technicians. In retrospect, Harryhausen worked alone and for long hours, without the aid of video to tell him where he was last. The finished product was only seen after the animation was completed. They were dreamlike sequences by his own ways of interpretation literally by his hand, unlike the strive for reality which is done by that of the monitor and the hard drive.

Nonetheless, Harryhausen’s methods caused a chain reaction, which lead up to how visual effect are created today. Just as Willis O’Brien was an influence to him, film makers of the following generations were influenced by his brilliant talent, as they all went to him, so they could immerse themselves in the mind of a true genius.

Even animators that came after him like Phil Tippet, Jim Danforth, and the late David Allen, while the method was still alive and strong, gave Harryhausen full credit for the field they had chosen. No doubt to them, that he was a fountain of information that was never ending as they invited him to sets, in which his artistry had no place; yet, his aura was enough to inspire prolific thought to those who seek to be at the top of their form. All of them, including the average person who is not in show biz, were exposed with visions that will stay with them as long as their brains still have the capability of reason.

Incredibly enough, although recognized today, Ray Harryhausen was constantly ignored on the whole by the peers of his day. Throughout an entire film career that had spanned thirty–two years, he never received one Academy Award nomination for his visual effects. As critics and film wizards of recent times look back, it was hard to believe that such a thing could happen; including Jason and the Argonauts, which many considered to be his pinnacle achievement, was also overlooked.

Whatever ground for the Oscar slights, they had righted the wrong in the form of the Gordon E. Sawyer lifetime achievement award in 1992, fifty–nine years since he went to see King Kong, which set off his own powder keg, that also ended with encounters with George Pal, Charles H. Schneer, and a lifelong friendship with Ray Bradbury; all this was thanks due to the campaigning done by all those who were in the film industry that enjoyed his movies as children.

This renaissance, which hopefully this time will never go away, can now be seen in forms that never occurred when he first started in his family garage, in the form of DVD and VHS to be appreciated by adults, and cherished by children all over again.

For the studious, there are countless articles in magazines that range from Fangoria to The American Cinematographer, as well as books like An Animated Life. Models of Harryhausen’s creations can be found in hobby stores and eBay, to pose as centerpieces, or to lurk in the corner of ones private office; his published sketches are also at easy access, to get a closer understanding of the man who is referred as “The Master Animator.”

His creatures are in most of the mind of every fantasy film student as they cross the threshold of New York University for the first time, with the hope of at the most, gaining half of his notoriety once they embark on their careers. And also to the common person, who wishes to escape from the monotonous routine that they face day in and day out, to enjoy clean family viewing with wholesome qualities.

From being ignored through his career, to be recognized over a decade later since his last film, Ray Harryhausen, has become a legend himself. His work in a now obscure field, has resurrected a whole new interest by a much newer generation. In the time which now everything is done by means of CGI, his abilities send all of us back to a time when life itself was simple, when the only thing that was needed was a camera and a vision. Through the modern magic of video, or the ancient usage of books, his shared knowledge and wizardry is there for the taking.

The dream portal has been opened, only children up to one hundred and twenty–one need apply.


Copyright © 2006 by Zack Figueroa

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