Legendary – Ray Harryhausen

Harryhausen with some of his creatures

Harryhausen with some of his creatures

I was deeply saddened by the recent death of Ray Harryhausen on May 7th, aged 92. It was another nail in the coffin of my childhood, like when they banned the blue Smartie and 5ive split up. Only, Harryhausen’s passing is infinitely sadder because a vast number of my childhood memories are inextricably linked to the master of monsters’ epic films – games populated by harpies, sea monsters and flying horses, being chased around the house by my dad pretending to be Talos and nightmares of being turned to stone by Medusa’s creepy, reptilian eyes.

Harryhausen’s fantastic creations have an enduring appeal and homemade magic that recent film incarnations have failed to capture. I recently watched Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and was surprised to find that the infamous skeleton army, the lustre of the golden fleece (how did they make it so shiny?) and the sheer power of the story had endured despite our modern penchant for CGI dominated, shiny epics.

 

the head of Medusa

the head of Medusa

Most of my initial knowledge of Greek myths came from Harryhausen films rather than Ovid (my school didn’t teach Classics – shock, horror!), and I, for one, am not sorry. Though I did go back and read my Ovid eventually (I do have a Literature degree, honest), it was the initial horrified attraction to those stop-motion hydras, harpies and multi-limbed, sword wielding gods that inspired a lifelong curiosity regarding exotic myths and legend. As the man himself said, “Our films had a lot more to them than entertainment value, and I’m glad that a lot of people recognize that now. People realize now the value of them as educational.”

 

What is so remarkable about Ray Harryhausen is that he was largely self-taught, taking courses in film editing and art direction while he was still in high school. After experimenting with film his attempts were denounced as characterless by Willis O’Brien, the visual effects artist for King Kong (1933). So began a long struggle that included aborted projects, Fantasia (1940), a stint in the army, unemployment and selling short, educational films about fairytales to local schools and libraries. A quest almost as arduous as Jason’s search for the fleece.

 

Eventually, O’Brien recognised Harryhausen’s potential and employed him as his assistant. They worked on several projects together and along the way Harryhausen developed his Dynamation technique, which involved use of a split-screen for live action sequences, rather than the expensive method of using miniatures and glass paintings.

 

Harryhausen making a soldier for his skeleton army

Harryhausen making a soldier for his skeleton army

Often the direction and cast failed to live up to Harryhausen’s incredibly rich, dynamic worlds and it was only with Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans (1981) that Harryhausen felt script, cast and direction matched his fantastical vision.

 

Harryhausen was a pioneer of special effects, a man who, like the heroes of his tales, had enthusiasm and dedication in abundance, and inspired subsequent generations of children and filmmakers. Without him we would have no Tim Burton, possibly no Lord of the Rings film trilogy and ambitious, technically ground-breaking films such as Avatar would not have been possible had Harryhausen not paved the way years before.

 

Jason fighting the skeleton army in Jason and the Argonauts

Jason fighting the skeleton army in Jason and the Argonauts

Time and again the skeleton army tops polls of favourite Harryhausen monsters. Harryhausen’s personal favourite was the terrifying gorgon Medusa. Mine, despite childhood trauma, is Talos. What’s yours?

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