Two days ago, on May 7, 2013, we lost a legend. For many of us, it’s hard to imagine a time when there was no Ray Harryhausen. Most of us grew up with his films, either at the cinema or on TV. Even before ever hearing of French writer Jules Verne, I had seen Harryhausen’s version of the author’s MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. (Due to my single-digit age at the time, I didn’t know anything about Captain Nemo. All I could tell my grade school pals was “it’s a film with giant crabs, bees and chickens.”) A few years later, a local TV station began the tradition of showing THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD on Thanksgiving, which my cousins and I watched while the adults chatted and readied the holiday dinner. Older and wiser, I knew who Captain Sinbad was, having been given a copy of Tales From the Arabian Nights by an aunt one Christmas. But I had not yet started to study or appreciate the people behind the movie magic known as special effects. I knew how animated cartoons were made, but had no idea about stop-motion animation (or “model animation,” as it is known overseas).
One day, I think I was in either 5th or 6th grade, while trying to find the latest issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, I stumbled across another monster mag that I had never heard of; Castle of Frankenstein. Issue #19, to be exact. There, glaring out at me from the cover, was the Cyclops from THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD. But there were a bunch of other monsters, and even dinosaurs, as well. Glancing inside, I was introduced to Ray Harryhausen, the man behind so many of the films I’d seen on TV. Little did I realize just how many films I admired had come from his talent and imagination. (I recalled having seen FIRST MEN IN THE MOON prior to finding the magazine, and knew some of the creatures moved in a way reminiscent of the monsters from Sinbad, but never suspected they came from the same source.) The cover story in that issue of Castle of Frankenstein was the first half of a two-part and very in-depth interview. Not only did this introduce me to Ray Harryhausen, but explained the process of model animation well enough that I would borrow my uncle’s old 8mm movie camera and try some stop-motion experiments of my own. (Little did I know that afternoon back in 1972, as I shelled out my 60 cents for the magazine, that I would one day correspond with Ray while doing a series of articles on his career.)
My being inspired by Ray Harryhausen to pick up a movie camera and experiment with special effects is not a unique story by any means. There were a great many kids with cameras before and after me to do the very same thing (and more than a handful of them are now working in the motion picture industry). Ironically, that’s just the way Ray started out. Having seen the original 1933 KING KONG upon its initial release (at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre no less), the 13 year-old future filmmaker was blown away by the special effects epic. (As were most audiences. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, the turnout to see KING KONG was so tremendous that some theaters started showing the film around the clock.) Ray’s enthusiasm for KONG was such that he eventually contacted Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion pioneer who had been responsible for bringing the prehistoric ape to life on the screen. “O’Bie” (as O’Brien’s friends called him) encouraged the young man and, over time, a friendship was formed between them. It would not be long before the two of them even worked together briefly, on George Pal’s PUPPETOON shorts.
The advent of World War II brought an abrupt halt to Ray Harryhausen’s embryonic career. But after the war, Willis O’Brien—and Hollywood—would again come calling when the team behind KING KONG launched a new giant gorilla picture, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Although he was technically O’Brien’s assistant, Ray would do the majority of the animation on the Academy Award-winning adventure/fantasy. Even on that first feature film assignment, it was noted that the young man worked quickly and had a natural knack for instilling life in inanimate objects.
Initially brought on board as a “gun for hire” on such fare as THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, Ray’s contributions quickly rose from merely visual effects to story development and, ultimately, even producer. An artist, animator, sculptor and writer, Ray Harryhausen was a 20th Century Renaissance Man. No other person in field of special effects in general, or stop-motion animation in particular, has had such influence or creative control over their work. For fantasy film fans, he was as much a brand name as Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas or Steven Spielberg.
Probably many here reading these words grew up collecting highlights of your favorite films in 8mm and Super 8. In those pre-cable/pre-VCR/pre-Internet days, it was about the only way to relive cherished movie memories. Fortunately, a great many of Ray Harryhausen’s films were available to us in the home movie format. How many miles did we put on those digests and projectors as we played and replayed them, either for the sheer thrill of the film or to try to figure out “how’d he do that?” And, in those days before the invention of big screen TVs, the home movie projector allowed us to see our monsters on a L-A-R-G-E screen. Just as there is something more intimate about the creations of Ray Harryhausen when compared to the CGI creatures of today, there was something a bit more interactive about threading up the projector than there is in dropping a video disc into a machine. The hands-on experience seemed to draw us in and make us feel like we were a part of the action. Many of us here still fire up the old projector, the “magic lantern” guiding our way to back to the Never-Never Land of optimistic youth. For those of us 8mm and Super 8 showmen, the passing of Ray Harryhausen marks the end of an era.
Ray, as Bob Hope would say, “Thanks for the memories!”
May 9, 2013