Ray Harryhausen: An Appreciation

Photo credit: The Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation

Ray Harryhausen, the stop-motion animation genius who learned his craft from Willis O'Brien, the man who invented King Kong, died a year ago, on May 7, 2013, at the age of 92. Creating special effects entirely by hand and without the help of computers, Harryhausen directly inspired Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Jackson, James Cameron and Tim Burton. Not to mention the special effect he had on the rest of us, the movie-goers.

I grew up with Harryhausen's films and still get a kick out of them: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans. By today's standards, these movies aren't scary, but they were certainly scary to me. I can remember the first time I saw Jason and the Argonauts -- when a giant statue came to life and merely turned its head, I nearly jumped out of my seat. Even more amazing, it scared me more the second time I saw it. In 7th Voyage, a woman was put into a giant vase with a serpent. She was transformed into a half-woman, half-snake; her upper body was still female, but she had an extra pair of arms, and the rest of her body was that of a snake. She started to dance; I got completely freaked out. She seemed to be enjoying it!

Harryhausen was the author of several books, which he co-authored with Tony Dalton: An Animated Life (foreword by Ray Bradbury), The Art of Ray Harryhausen, A Century of Stop-Motion Animation. Basically, stop-motion animation is the art of creating the illusion of movement in an inanimate object. You take a model of a creature -- say, a dinosaur. You film a frame of the dinosaur, then walk to the dinosaur, move the dinosaur a fraction of an inch (a change too small to see with the naked eye), walk back to the camera and film another frame, then walk back to the dinosaur, move it again and repeat, repeat, repeat. Because there are 24 frames for one second of film, you move the dinosaur 24 times for only a single second of animation. This means 1,440 movements for every minute of film, and 86,400 for a full hour. As Harryhausen said, "The animator walks miles in a day, back and forth... patience is essential."

Even more of a special effect than the fact that these creatures seem to live and breathe is the emotion that Harryhausen gave them. He put himself into his creations, making sure each had "a mind and a soul." "I have always wanted audiences to feel sorry for my creatures when they are being destroyed," he wrote. His creatures weren't inherently evil, he explained, unless something else was controlling them. I can remember getting upset when the dragon died at the end of 7th Voyage. It was only protecting the magician's lair, a loyal guard. Its death was kind of sad and slow, too, like Camille's.

Harryhausen brought to life creatures that are familiar to us, such as baboons, bees, crabs, lions and chickens (though sometimes they were gigantic or two-headed or both), and magical beings from mythology (dragons, harpies, Cyclops) and animals from the past (dinosaurs, saber-toothed tigers). Sometimes he invented something completely original, such as the half-woman, half-snake with four arms. He referred to these as "creatures from the mind." He said, "Deep down I knew the images couldn't be real but in the back of my mind I hoped they were."

They will live on in many people's minds. Which is even better.