Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ray Harryhausen, Stop-Motion Master

The world of cinema lost another legend this week with the passing of Ray Harryhausen. To those of us who grew up on the sci-fi and fantasy flicks of the 1950s and ‘60s, the words “Harryhausen,” “stop-motion” and “cool” always ended up in the same sentence, spoken in breathless tones. Seeing Ray’s name in the credits guaranteed that even if the movie was less than terrific, the special effects would be spectacular.

I’m sure moviegoers today can’t imagine how the flicks of yesteryear muddled through without computers and CGI. Welllll … some of them didn’t. A lot of those movies were chintzy-looking even by ‘60s standards. If you needed a dinosaur, you glued spines onto an alligator. Or, if you wanted to do it right, you hired Mr. Harryhausen.

Ray was the master of stop-motion animation, the premier special effects method in the pre-computer age. Remember the original King Kong? That’s stop-motion. Ray apprenticed under Willis O’Brien, the man who created Kong. Ray soon became the leader in the SFX field, and created lasting memories for millions of kids in movie theaters and sitting in front of the set.

Here’s how stop-motion works. You build a model monster on a metal armature. You make a miniature set and put your model on it. You move the model a fraction and click a frame of film. Then you move the model another fraction and take another click. And so on and so on, for weeks or even months at a stretch. The model acts like a 3D flip book; when you run the film, all those separate frames run together and give the illusion of life.

It’s a time-consuming process, to be sure. Months of work produce maybe a couple of minutes of screen time. And that’s just for one model. If you’ve got two dinosaurs fighting, or a seven-headed snake, or an octopus attacking the Golden Gate Bridge, all those limbs have to be moved and coordinated with each other, one frame of film at a time. Mess up even the littlest thing and the mistake will be there on the movie screen, larger than life, for all the audience to see.

This was Ray’s life, and he gave it his all, and more. He gave his creations personality. Gwangi the allosaur stalks onto the scene, stops and scratches his muzzle. The evil Cyclops, turning hapless sailors on a spit, hungrily licks his lips. A wounded skeleton warrior holds his arm as if he still had flesh and nerves. Mighty Joe Young, locked in the back of a van, drums his fingers on his knee. Little touches that added time and extra effort to an already-tedious process, but which turned eighteen inches of rubber on a metal frame into living characters. This was Ray’s magic, and this is why we remember those movies, and him.

I think I’ve seen pretty much all of Harryhausen’s oeuvre, even the crappy ones. I’d happily watch them again. So what if the dialogue’s clunky and the plot has more holes than a Pennsylvania highway? Check out the dinosaurs! They look real, not like alligators with glued-on spines. That’s vitally important when you’re six. With Ray’s movies you can be six again, and give yourself over to the wonder.

My personal favorite: Jason and the Argonauts. Talos, the original Iron Giant! Harpies! A hydra! And the scene everybody remembers, the climatic fight with the skeleton army. When Star Wars first came out and hit it big, practically everybody associated with the movie got interviewed. The special effects crew was asked what or who inspired them. To a man, they all said, “Ray Harryhausen,” and cited Jason and the skeleton fight. I feel safe in saying that without Ray Harryhausen we wouldn’t have had Star Wars or Jurassic Park or any of our modern blockbusters. If we did, I'll bet they wouldn't look as cool. Ray fired our imaginations, and inspired dreams.

Ray retired from moviemaking back in the ‘80s. The movies were changing, and didn’t mesh with his sensibilities any more. This was the dawn of the CGI era. Computer programs were taking the place of physical models. Today, except for movies like Chicken Run and similar projects, stop-motion is all but extinct.

Ray Harryhausen left a whole generation with more than vivid movie memories. He gave us example after example proving that true magic in the movies was possible. The bar’s been set way up there, CGI programmers. Let’s see you try to top it.

I need to get my VCR fixed so I can watch my copy of Jason again. And The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. And The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Haven’t seen The Valley of Gwangi in a while. They don’t make ‘em like that any more, and now they never will again. RIP, Mr. Harryhausen. Thank you for the magic.


Savanna Kougar said...

Pat, what a wonderful, illuminating blog about Ray Harryhausen and how stop-motion was accomplished. I never knew a whole lot of that 'cause I wasn't into those flicks as much. However, "Jason and the Argonauts" is an oldtime fave of mine! And one reason, I adored Xena, Warrior Princess... there were similar 'ancient godesses/gods' themes. And lots of kickbutt ACTION!!!

Again, thanks so much for this cinematic history and a inside look at how the magic was created.

Pat C. said...

Buried somewhere in a box in my book room is an oversized paperback I bought years ago, "From the Land Beyond Beyond." It's an overview of Ray Harryhausen's movies and career, packed with behind-the-scenes into and photos. If it rains tomorrow like it's supposed to, I may go digging for it.

I also have a book on the Three Stooges by Moe Howard himself. My personal library is a treasure trove of weird.

Savanna Kougar said...

Pat, luv it! My late brother loved the Three Stooges. I wonder if he ever read that book? Although, he learned to read by reading comic books. He was a math whiz kind of guy.