Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Ray Harryhausen (1920–2013)

It was inevitable; after a wonderful run, the great Ray Harryhausen has died, at the ripe old age of 92. His influence on visual effects cannot be overstated. (As one of my brothers observed, without Ray Harryhausen, there'd be no "full-motion" dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Yep.) Harryhausen's stop-action animation technique, which he called "Dynamation," required meticulous planning, discipline and patience. For his most complex scenes, such as the wide shots in the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, even working all day might yield only a second of footage, because he had to move seven independent models a frame at a time. That dedication is part of what made him a master, but the key element was that he was a great storyteller. Watch his films, and if you focus on just the effects, they may look dated, even a bit cheesy at times. But get sucked into them as movies, and the scenes still work. They're well-constructed. Harryhausen sets up the physical space and makes sure to get plenty of reaction shots. The creature sequences serve as spectacle scenes, but in the hands of a lesser artist, that's all they'd remain. Harryhausen makes them dramatic. He makes them part of a story. As I wrote for the mediocre remake of Clash of the Titans (the 16th film reviewed here):

I was a fan of the original film as a kid, despite some misgivings. I didn't like all of the liberties it took with the mythology, but Harryhausen was pretty cool. In later years, when it happened to be on TV (the Turner stations loved it), I'd sometimes switch over just to catch the Medusa sequence, which is masterful and still holds up.

Here's Ray Harryhausen's official site. There are obituaries from The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the AP and the BBC.

There are also appreciations from Rob Vaux, Pixar's Pete Docter and Krishna Bala Shenoi. The Los Angeles Times also rounds up Hollywood reactions, examines the complexities of Harryhausen's process, and looks at some of the people he's influenced. (If you have a Harryhausen appreciation I missed, feel free to link it in the comments.)

Still, the best tribute to Harryhausen is his own work. Here's the famous skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts:

Many viewers have remarked on this scene from the same film featuring Talos, the bronze giant. Although he's ostensibly a foe, Harryhausen gives him a touch of pathos here and makes him slightly sympathetic:

Here's Harryhausen on Medusa:

And here's the Medusa sequence itself. (Unfortunately, there are some cuts added, and the transfer is dark, but you can still get a decent sense of Harryhausen's excellent shot selection to build tension.)

Finally, here's the Harryhausen monster compilation:

Thanks for all the magic. There's no doubt that his influence lives on.

(The leads in Monsters, Inc. dine at the restaurant Harryhausen's.)

No comments: