5:26 p.m. CDT, May 7, 2013
If Ray Harryhausen had designed only one sequence in his cinematic career, any one of his real lulus — let's start with the skeleton army battle in “Jason and the Argonauts” from 1963 — he'd still be the master of stop-motion animation special effects.
The master died Tuesday in London of natural causes at age 92. In 1981, the year he designed Medusa and Pegasus and other delectables for “Clash of the Titans,” he visited the School of the Art Institute's Film Center (now the Gene Siskel Film Center) and said: “I'm worried about all this concentration on special effects. It breeds the seeds of its own destruction.” This, from a film artist who made his living concentrating on special effects. He knew the value of selectivity. And of story.
Harryhausen's imagination scared the hell's bells out of me when I was 8. Friday night, sometime in 1969.
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“Mysterious Island,” the 1961 picture featuring Harryhausen's giant crab, to say nothing of the giant bee and the flightless oversize chickenlike bird monster, was on WGN-TV. I was watching with my father. I wasn't temperamentally a monster-movie kid — more of a comedy nerd — but this one had me.
The sequence in which the monstrous marauding crab squares off against Jules Verne's adventurers was enough to make me very, very quiet for a minute (a miracle; I talked near-constantly). Then my dad said, “Huh. Wonder how they did that. Something with little models. I think they move a leg, or a claw, maybe a millionth of an inch, and then film some more. And then put it all together.”
And there it was: Harryhausen's genius with model animation on screen, explained.
When he was 13, the Los Angeles-born Harryhausen had his mind blown by “King Kong” at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Sixteen years later, for “Mighty Joe Young” (1949), a sequel of sorts to that fantasy classic, Willis O'Brien won an Academy Award for visual effects. He was credited as supervisor of the film's stop-motion animation effects.
Harryhausen was O'Brien's assistant, and by most accounts, he did most of the animation. The atomic age ignited the age of atomic beasts in Hollywood. Harryhausen's monster in “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” floored moviegoers in 1953. The monster, for the record, was a prehistoric rhedosaurus unleashed by the A-bomb. The amusement park finale? Fantastic. I still look for that creature every time I get on a roller-coaster.
Digital effects today strive for fluidity. Harryhausen's stop-motion model animation strived for something rougher, more transparently artificial — “partly mechanical, partly lifelike,” says Barbara Scharres, director of programming at the Film Center. She was there, in 1981, working as the Film Center's technical director and an unofficial programmer, when Harryhausen came to Chicago for a tribute. She remembers him opening up his little suitcase during the question-and-answer period with the audience.
“He was like a traveling salesman,” she recalls, “except his suitcase was full of little skeletons and creatures.”
In Mighty Joe Young, the scene where Joe gets the little girl off the ledge, the little girl was a stop action creature with an armature base. It turned out that most of his original armatures for his monsters were made by his father.
. Im at Penn State for a little conference and one of the admins told me that they were going to be showing a bunch of his movies this weekend. I said that I would think that over a bit cause several hours of Harryhausen movies could be better than valium
Im not that much of a fan that I could stand more than 1 Harryhausen movie every 6 months or so.
Just like Lucas or that Kiwi guy who did the LOTR series.
When "Fluidity' and super accurate rendering of surfaces (like hair) becomes the order of the day, you no longer are AMAZED . MAybe Harryhauen knew what he was doing
Tue 7 May, 2013 09:44 pm
I can enjoy some of his work, but not all the time, myself. I watch Mighty Joe Young in bits and pieces.
Tue 7 May, 2013 09:47 pm
Someone has done a compilation containing every Harryhausen creature
I do believe that the dinosaur from 'The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms' featured in the first nightmare I can ever remember having. I would have been maybe three or four and there was a cartoony mexican, with hat, on a hill and a bolt of flame went through his ears - draw back and there is said beast breathing fire.