Saturday, June 8, 2013

Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013)

"No art is lost, or ever will be lost." -Ray Harryhausen (SciFiNow #80, p.115)-
"Among the fantastical monsters and creatures of Clash Of The Titans is the robot bird Bubo. What's it doing there?  It doesn't matter; it's great." -SciFiNow #80 (it actually matters but that's hysterical)-

"It was the inspiration for the Japanese to make Godzilla." -Friend and biographer Tony Dalton referring to The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) as an influence on the great Japanese classic, not to discount the innovation of Toho, Eiji Tsuburaya, the man in the suit or director Ishiro Honda's legacy (SciFiNow #80)-

"Trog in Eye Of The Tiger is one of his most extraordinary creations.  It is very human, and the actions and personality that Ray seemed to put into that model is just phenomenal.  And the whole face moves - it was wired so he could change the brow and mouth." -Tony Dalton accurately reflecting on the incredible creation that was Trog (SciFiNow #80, p115)-

"Ray designed it, built the models, shot, animated and edited it as well, so that sequence is almost pure Harryhausen.  Ray Bradbury said it's the best sequence that Ray ever did." -Tony Dalton referring to Ray Bradbury's take on the creation of Medusa in Clash Of The Titans (the remake's take on the classic Medusa character positively paled in comparison) (SciFiNow #80 p.115)-

"Heroes were not heroes anymore; they'd become antiheroes." -Tony Dalton on Ray Harryhausen's take on the changing culture noting Ray's films were "black and white" (SciFiNow #80 p.115)-

The loss of another key figure in the shaping of my childhood and my many fond memories of it always gives me pause.  There isn't enough that can be said about special effects genius Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013).  Plenty has been written about the man's achievements and there are more than a few places to go and research the wonders of this special effects titan.  I would point you to the increasingly scarce book Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life (2003) by Tony Dalton and Ray Harryhausen with a foreword by Ray Bradbury and The Art Of Ray Harryhausen (2006). A terrific Blu-Ray documentary exists in the United Kingdom called Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan.  It's a 97 minute gem and is unavailable stateside.  What a shame considering the man was American born, but became something of a hero in the UK where he passed away.

In fact, I made a rare trip to Barnes And Noble this week to pick up the latest issue of SciFiNow #80.  There was a splendid spread featuring a wonderful tribute to the man in the form of The Complete Guide To Ray Harryhausen. As brief retrospectives go the UK publication generally does a nice job paying attention to the details.

I'll take this late opportunity to reflect on the influence of such a talent on shaping those beautiful, simple moments of my own childhood.

The American visual effects wizard (Dynamation!), writer and producer had a hand in the creation of an abundance of iconic creatures in fantasy and science fiction that graced the covers of magazines while stunning us in awe on the big and small screens for many years.

Harryhausen's stop-motion animation was magical because of its almost other-worldly qualities.  Often imitated but never outdone, his many fantastical creations became part of this Sci-Fi Fanatic's childhood.  Harryhausen holds a special place alongside so many that influenced what made being a child so terrific in the 1970s and 1980s.  Along with the late Gerry Anderson (Thunderbirds) and creators like Tatsunoko (Gatchaman), John Byrne (Fantastic Four and The Uncanny X-Men comics), Toho's Godzilla and actors like Bill Bixby (The Incredible Hulk), Harryhausen's awe-inspiring creatures riveted the imagination during the creatively fertile 1970s.

Whether it was the countless times of watching Jason And The Argonauts (1963) or The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1958), The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (1974) or the much-maligned Sinbad And The Eye of The Tiger (1977), these mythical adventures never failed to impress me.  Perhaps seeing Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger today would reveal its shortcomings, but as a child, sitting in the cinema with a bucket of butter-covered and heavily salted popcorn, I sat riveted and hung on every emotion of Harryhausen's troglodyte creation - Trog.  He made stop-motion incredibly sympathetic infusing his creations with real emotion.  The skeletons of Jason And The Argonauts were fierce, unrelenting, evil monsters.  The Cyclops was somehow ferocious yet somehow misunderstood.  The sensitive troglodyte of Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger could move us to tears.

After seeing these many films in the cinemas featuring the likes of Doctor Who's Tom Baker or Patrick Troughton and the likes of genre favorites in Jane Seymour (Battlestar Galactica) as well as Honor Blackman and Ursula Andress (007), Harryhausen's vision culminated in the wonderful Clash Of The Titans (1981).  Talk about going out on top. It is hands down a far superior film over the cold CGI creation of the 2010 remake.  That film could never reimagine the warmth, heart and spirit of the Harryhausen original.  This is why Clash Of The Titans, the original, worked so well.  It captured all that was special about Jason And The Argonauts, a film Tom Hanks once called "the greatest film ever made," and simply built upon all that was special about those heroic adventure films.

I remember seeing the remake with my then young son. I walked away completely stunned by its complete and utter lack of charm.  It was simply mindless, soulless entertainment.  In fact, like me, he doesn't have any special memories from that film, because it was cold and lacking of heart.  I also recall thinking what a pointless waste of a tribute it was to Ray Harryhausen when the overrated Sam Worthington actually uncovered the non-CGI creation that was Athena's beautiful, mechanical owl Bubo only to demonstrate the creator's general disregard for all that was imaginative and special about the original film.  Bubo was simply a prop thrown in for a good laugh and then discarded.  Back to the CGI scorpions and the post-edited 3D efforts. Terrible.  I could watch the original anytime, but would have no interest in seeing the 2010 remake ever again.

Harryhausen's films still hold up today and are splendid for all ages, but nothing holds a candle to seeing these films through the eyes of a child.  Harryhausen transported us as children and while his work was bountiful these were the films that filled my world and made being a kid an absolute blast giving us a fertile playground in our imaginations.  Harryhausen will never be missed because his films and his creations will live on with people like myself who love them.  Ray Harryhausen was 92.

SciFiNow #80 list 12 of his Titanic Creations (in no particular order).

1. Fighting Skeletons.
2. Medusa.
3. Talos.
4. Crab.
5. Cyclops.
6. Octopus.
7. Bubo.
8. Gwangi.
9. Kali.
10. Flying Saucers.
11. Snake Dancer.
12 Mighty Joe Young.

Of course the aforementioned list is solid, because anything by Harryhausen was precisely so, but like all writers and critics, once again, Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger is entirely overlooked with its creations not registering on the SciFiNow list.  The film gave us some of the best of Harryhausen.

To rectify this, here are my favorite Harryhausen creations in ranking order.

12. Kali (The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad).
11. The Sabre-Toothed Tiger (Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger).
10. Harpies (Jason And The Argonauts).
9. The Minotaun (Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger).
8. Kraken (Clash Of The Titans).
7. Baboon (Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger).
6. Cyclops (The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad).
5. Bubo (Clash Of The Titans).
4. Talos (Jason And The Argonauts).
3. Trog (Troglodyte) (Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger).
2. Medusa (Clash Of The Titans).
1. Fighting Skeletons (Jason And The Argonauts).

This rousing and impressively crafted sequence is just a sample of what Ray Harryhausen left fans.  It was the precursor to the truly extraordinary fighting skeletons sequence that positively wowed audiences in Jason And The Argonauts five years later.

Selected Filmography: Mighty Joe Young (1949)/ The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)/ It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955)/ Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956)/ 20 Million Miles To Earth (1957)/ The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1958)/ The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960)/ Mysterious Island (1961)/ Jason And The Argonauts (1963)/ First Men In The Moon (1964)/ One Million Years B.C. (1966)/ The Valley Of Gwangi (1969)/ The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (1974)/ Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger (1977)/ Clash of The Titans (1981).


Roman J. Martel said...

Another nice tribute. Harryhausen meant a great deal to me as inspiration as a writer. I always loved his stuff, and held his fantasy films in high regard.

I also agree that the remake of "Clash of the Titans" was a soulless exercise that was so cynical it hurt to watch. I'm not a big fan of Bubo, so that moment did get a laugh out of me. But at the same time, the lake of joy or the spirit of adventure and wonder that was in all those Harryhausen films was very absent. It is a trend I've seen more and more in Hollywood films and it keeps me revisiting films I do enjoy.

Great to see Kali on the list. She is probably my favorite creation - so deadly and beautiful. But I'm also very partial to "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad". Minotaun is my favorite creation of "Eye of the Tiger". I just wish they had used him more in the film. He goes out like a punk. ;)

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thanks Roman.
So right.

"Soulless" and "cynical." It hurt me to watch as well.

I was just pained at the theatres watching that behemoth of a modern monstrosity.

Minotaun really did go out like a punk. What a shame. Agreed. I would have liked to have seen a bit more. That character creation could have been pretty frightening in a labyrinth sequence rather than just a boat rower. : )

And I might have put Talos above Bubo - in fact I will.

Thanks Roman - it was indeed the stuff of inspiration.

J.D. Lafrance said...

What a fantastic, heartfelt tribute to a true legend of cinema. It is really the end of era as sadly few people seem to want or have a desire to carry on doing what he did... And, of course, CGI has made it obsolete, but as you pointed out in your tribute, there is a tangible quality to Harryhausen's creations... an articulation of feeling and the illusion that these things are truly alive that most CGI has not been able to convey.

I still remember fondly going to see CLASH OF THE TITANS on the big screen when it first came out and being scared by Harryhausen's rendition of Medusa. That whole sequence still gives me chills.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thanks J.D. Enjoyed your additional reflections here.

Like you, I saw Clash in the theatres. It was a very Superman-sized movie moment. Very memorable.

Thanks again pal.