You probably know that Ray Harryhausen, the special effects maestro behind such classic films as JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, and CLASH OF THE TITANS, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 92.
I’ve been blown away by the press coverage of Mr. Harryhausen’s life and career following his passing. Every news outlet I follow has run a tribute to him and his work, citing praise of Harryhausen from George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Edgar Wright, Peter Jackson and others. USA Today even transformed the logo of their “Life and Arts” section, applying Medusa’s serpentine locks to their usual purple ball.
I think it’s safe to say that Harryhausen’s influence over the modern filmmaking scene, even if his methods are considered out-dated, cannot be overstated.
I’m not here to talk about how Harryhausen lived, or how he died. So many others have already covered that. I want to tell you about what he meant to me.
My association with Ray Harryhausen’s body of work dates back to 1990 or 1991; given that I was born in 1987, I think that says something. My absolute earliest cinematic memory – the very first film I can remember seeing in any context – was CLASH OF THE TITANS on TV. My parents sat my three-year old ass in front of the tube, put that on (I’m thinking it was showing on HBO or TBS) and took a breather while I sat there enthralled. Barney and Friends doesn’t compare to Perseus decapitating Medusa, let me tell you! I had no conception of special effects – and I was beyond blown away by beasts like Medusa, the Kraken, even the scorpions that spring from Medusa’s blood.
Needless to say, CLASH immediately became my favorite film of all time, a title it holds to this day. My parents quickly learned to scan the TV listings for it, plopping me down in front of it every time it came on. I somehow never had a copy of the film on VHS, but I picked up a copy damn quick when I made the switch to DVDs.
Almost as soon as I could read, I began getting books about monsters (and monster movies) out from the library, and from these I learned the name of the man – nay, warlock – whose hands gave life to the monsters of my dreams: Ray Harryhausen.
I began to seek out his other films: JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH. THE VALLEY OF GWANGI. THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. I loved them all. Every one of them a gem, an unassailable masterpiece of special effects artistry. Even if the story around them wasn’t too exciting, Harryhausen’s marvelous monsters more than made up for any screenwriting deficiencies. Who cares that JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS ends before the main plot pot – Jason overthrowing the unjust king – is resolved? There’s a skeleton fight! Jason battles an entire squadron of skeletal warriors, in a scene that takes four minutes on the screen and took four months to animate. Who can care about – or even notice – plot holes when faced with such an awe-inspiring sight as that?
Eventually I began to experiment – tentatively – with stop-motion animation myself. Lacking the wherewithal to build actual puppets, I created short animated clips of action figures moving on their own. I’d still like, someday, to make an actual stop-motion puppet and film something worth showing. With work and other real life concerns constantly pressing, it sometimes seems unlikely, but I try to maintain my inspiration from Harryhausen – the man saw KING KONG when he was 13 and made a career off it – and I know someday I’ll get that film shot.
Thank you, Mr. Harryhausen, for everything. Thank you for the Rhedosaurus, for the octopus, the Ymir, the Flying Saucers, the skeletons, the cyclops, Medusa and the Kraken. But most of all, thank you for opening a doorway to cinematic wonder and excitement for me, and so many others like me. Rest in Peace, and may Zeus hang your portrait in the sky as he did Perseus’ and Andromeda’s.