Sunday, May 12, 2013

In Appreciation of: Ray Harryhausen

Karen: Ray Harryhausen, the master of stop-motion animation, passed away this week on May 7th at the venerable age of 92. He was a legend in the special effects world, an unparalleled artist whose work influenced untold numbers of film-makers, writers, artists, and other creative types, and fueled the imaginations of generations.

Karen: He was one of my first guides to the world of the fantastic. His films played often on the local TV stations, and whenever they came on, I was transfixed. It took a few years before I learned the secrets of how he gave life to his creatures, but it didn't diminish their magic; if anything, it made them even more impressive.

Karen: Ray's work was elegant; his creations all had personalities of their own. He managed to convey a tremendous amount of emotion through such limited figures. The body movement of a Harryhausen figure was unmistakable -as a kid, I would imitate the strange yet graceful moves of the Cyclops or Ymir. He made monsters, yet they were all beautiful monsters.

Karen: Harryhausen was so incredibly talented. Think about it: he could sketch, paint, sculpt, and even learned photography, so he take the pictures of the stop-motion figures himself. Any one of these fields would be difficult to take on, but he was proficient in all of them. His imagination knew no bounds. Look at the amazing array of creatures he designed over the years. From dinosaurs to mythical beasts to flying saucers, Ray could envision them all and bring them to life. 

Karen: Modern CGI effects may look more "realistic" but to me they seem to lack the artistry that Ray's work brought to the screen. Where is the soul? Can anyone name a CGI 'artist'? I have no doubt that Ray's work will be remembered for as long as there are movies. I'm grateful to have experienced the thrill of seeing his films as a child, of having them make such a powerful impression upon me, of experiencing their magic and being able to close my eyes and picture the Cyclops or Talos  whenever I please. Thank you Ray, for all the wonderful films.

I'd like to also point readers back to a previous post, regarding the (hopefully) soon to be released on DVD documentary, "Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan." This is a fabulous documentary!


Rip Jagger said...

Ray Harryhausen will long be remembered as one of two giants in the field of stop motion, along with his mentor Willis O'Brien.

And there's no denying the influence his films made on generations of science fiction and fantasy fans hungry for big screen realizations of the grand spectacles they read about and imagined.

In the days when such movies were rare and to be savored, Harryhausen's name was a brand which guaranteed quality. His creative process was obvious enough to be appreciated but still mysterious enough to inspire awe.

That all said, I do have to say that despite the eagerness many filmmakers and such seemed to have to get Harryhausen to do commentaries on his own films and the films of O'Brien, his work in this area is often a crashing bore. I don't intend to be unkind, but Harryhausen seemed to be by nature a soft-spoken and gentle man who while clearly a great artist of significant skills, seemed utterly to lack the ability to speak about his work at length or in much illuminating detail. It's not his fault they kept coming to him to do it, but I've sadly learned that movies featuring his commentary work are not the treasures a fan would hope they'd be.

A lot of discussion of movie making can be quite dull in general after a while, but the drudgery which stop motion clearly was, and the largely solitary nature of the work did not make for vivacious discussion after a point.

I'm reminded of Stan Lee, who despite his voluble nature rarely has anything of detail to add to the never ending conversation about comics. Stan like Ray is fine gentleman but has little to say despite being asked over and over, which as I said ain't his fault.

Rip Off

Edo Bosnar said...

Karen, that was a wonderfully written tribute. I know it's cliche to say so, but you really took the words out of my mouth, only formulated much more elegantly. Thanks for posting it - and also thank you to Ray from me, too.

Inkstained Wretch said...

In the special features section of one of his movies Terry Gilliam says he avoids special effects, especially monsters, that are not created "in-camera" because the computer-generated stuff never looks quite right to him. There's always something that is not quite right with the CGI or other Industrial Light & Magic-type effects, he notes, like how the monster moves or how the light reflects off of it.

I think the same thing goes for Harryhausen's effects. Now obviously the creatures are not in the same frame as the actors, but the fact that the creatures are real, three-dimensional models that are actually moving (albeit via stop-motion animation) gives them a realism that is hard to beat.

How Mighty Joe Young scratches his head, the way the Harpies' wings flap and the skeletons march in "Jason & the Argonauts," and how the six-armed statue fights in the "Golden Voyage of Sinbad" are all done in real life, so to speak, which is what makes them look so good.

CGI has mostly become a crutch for today's filmmakers who aren't interested in putting the care and thought into a film that Harryhausen did.

I'll miss him. His films were such a joy growing up and I could never pull away when one turned up on television. But 92 is a good run and I am grateful that he was able to have a full, long career.

My favorites are the "Golden Voyage of Sinbad" and "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers". The latter is due to the fact that it is mostly set in DC, where I live. The climactic battle is just awesome.

Doc Savage said...

I wouldn't even agree that CGI is more realistic. I remember watching the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies and seeing moments where the action was just so obviously fake I wondered why they didn't just hire a stuntman to put on the costume. Or when CGI backgrounds look wrong, it shakes a film's foundations. At least with green screen we know it's SFX so we forgive more.

Anonymous said...

CGI figures often have no weight to their movements, appearing to glide over the set rather than move within it. It may be more obvious when the figures have to interact with live action, so I think computer animation is best suited to all-CGI cartoon-type movies (Toy Story, Cars, Wreck It Ralph). Also, Harryhausen and Willis O' Brien actually gave their monsters believable personalities, which you seldom if ever see in more recent monster movies like Jurassic Park. Of course, posing models and moving them one frame at a time is painstaking and tedious, so an interview or article about it is bound to be dull. Better to show clips and let the work speak for itself.

Anonymous said...

Another master passes on ....

Well I don't have much to add except to say that I agree with everyone here - Harryhausen was a humble genius whose work will never be forgotten. As I mentioned before in a previous post, even though I knew his creatures were obviously stop motion models, his Medusa, Ymir, the Hydra and of course those famous fighting skeletons (I'm still amazed how fluidly he got them all to move) scared the snot out of me whenever I viewed them. His Medusa especially was infinitely more frightening than the bland CGI one in the recent Clash of the Titans remake.

As for him being boring describing his work - obviously, talking about painstakingly moving a metal armature inch by inch is about as exciting as watching paint dry. "I moved the skeleton's arm an inch here, then I moved it another inch here .....", well, you get the point. Stop motion is a laborious, time consuming, extremely meticulous job which would induce sleep on anyone who doesn't have a clear vision of what he/she is creating.

If you asked Van Gogh or any other master to describe how they create their work, they probably couldn't give you a good coherent explanation. Their genius lies in creating the work, not talking about how it is done.

- Mike 'farewell to another master' from Trinidad & Tobago.

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