Ray Harryhausen: 1920-2013

One of cinema's last wizards is gone.

I met Ray Harryhausen once. I interviewed him briefly backstage at a comic book convention and I found him to be personable and nice and very sharp for a man in his 80s. Talking to him was amazing, but the real thrill for me came at the beginning and the end of the interview, when I shook his hand. That hand had been responsible for some of the greatest creatures and fantastical moments I have ever experienced in the movies. 

Harryhausen's career began where so many of modern movies' biggest dreams did: King Kong. He saw that film dozens of times and was inspired to follow in the footsteps of the great stop motion pioneer Willis O'Brien. O'Brien himself gave young Harryhausen some advice after seeing the aspiring filmmaker's home movies. Harryhausen ended up working with O'Brien as an assistant animator on Mighty Joe Young, a film that won O'Brien an Oscar.

In many ways Harryhausen wasn't that different from the fans of today who hope to follow in the footsteps of their heroes. He hung out in LA with likeminded nerds, joining the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society at the urging of his fellow fan, Ray Bradbury. Those two became great friends with the head of the Society, the original fan, Forrest J Ackerman. Imagine hanging out with those three in Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown LA, talking about Flash Gordon and pulp scifi stories. That trio would go on to change the entire face of science fiction and, along the way, American culture itself.

Harryhausen's great feat was the way he seamlessly integrated his stop motion creatures with live action. He avoided expensive optical printers, which also had the bonus of reducing image degradation that was common in special effects work at the time. What Harryhausen sought was a perfect meeting of the live action and stop motion, which would in turn give the animation a more realistic feel. 

His first solo film was The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which saw him working with Bradbury (the producers of the film learned that Bradbury's short story The Fog Horn had a sequence very similar to one they wanted in their movie, so they bought the rights to keep him from suing). That film was a major success, and Harryhausen's career took off. He was involved heavily in every step of pre-production, essentially directing the pictures himself. It was common knowledge in Hollywood that the director on a Harryhausen film was only there to help facilitate the animator's vision. 

Harryhausen's body of work is astonishing. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Earth vs The Flying Saucers, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad - those are just his masterpieces from the 50s. The 1960s saw unbelievable, imagination-soaked movies like Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years BC and Valley of Gwangi. As Hollywood changed around him Harryhausen's output slowed in the 70s, and he made the brilliant Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger before unleashing perhaps his greatest - and final - work, the original Clash of the Titans

What Ray Harryhausen did was simply magic. He brought inanimate objects to life on screen, and he gave them character and personality that often dwarfed the so-so actors who were up against them. It is no hyperbole to say that the mind (and hands) of Harryhausen shaped the geek revolution that has swept pop culture in the last few decades. The creatures and scenarios he created are the embodiment of our dreams projected on screen. Harryhausen's work is the definition of wonder, a perfect encapsulation of the awe and joy we get from the movies. 

He was one of the last real wizards, and our world is a little less magical now.