Of Genies and Dragons: The Career of Ray Harryhausen

Article excerpt

Years before the 19th Century turned, a family named Herrenhausen left Germany to seek a brighter future in the United States. At the port of entry, a befuddled immigration clerk, who could neither spell nor pronounce their name from the hand-scribed paperwork, promptly changed it to Harryhausen. It was a cavalier ritual that befell many European emigres; entire lineages were transformed with the slip of a fountain pen. Thus, without knowing it, the bureaucrat invented a name that generations later would be equated with the absolute quintessence of movie magic.

To Fred and Martha Harryhausen, the first family line of American natives, a son, whom they named Ray, was born on June 29, 1920 in Los Angeles. It soon became obvious that the serious-minded boy, who showed promise with pencils and modeling clay and haunted the prehistoric artifacts of the La Brea Tar Pits, was something special.

Ray Harryhausen's name is unique in the world of motion pictures, as are his spell-binding images. From his arch animation of Mighty Joe Young to the sword-wielding skeletons from hell in Jason and the Argonauts to the slithering Medusa in Clash of the Titans, Hanyhausen set a standard for stop-motion animation and composite effects that has been scrutinized, canonized, and emulated by the succeeding generation of fiknmakers. His groundbreaking trick work, which is encyclopedic, affected an entire industry and made him the ninth recipient of the Academy's Gordon E. Sawyer Award in 1992. Hardly an effects person working today hasn't said at some time or other, "If it wasn't for Ray Harryhausen's Saturday matinees and continued influence, I wouldn't be in the business."

During his 35 years in the business, Harryhausen created alternate universes and realized most of his dreams without skipping a beat. Inspired by Greco-Roman myths, pulp paperback science-fiction and treasured children's fables, he populated his worlds with animals and creatures of his own design and construction. To his legion of fans worldwide, his pictures were relished events.

Ray Harryhausen gave us special effects that could act. His Cyclops, skeletons, demons and dinosaurs snapped, breathed, lunged and sprinted with macabre choreography and trademark nuances. Their heart-stopping realism struck psychological chords that were difficult to define. Often they died like opera tenors with drama and pathos, and with body language that others have imitated but never equaled.

His output during the Fifties and Sixties was extraordinary - while the studios were bludgeoning patrons with papier mâché monsters and men in rubber suits, Harryhausen put his heart and soul into his miniature beings, and did so on shoestring budgets that today would barely cover digital corrections on postproduction ledgers. In a sea of schlock, he gave us surrealism.

A master of misdirection, Hanyhausen reveled in tricking the audience: just when you thought you spotted a matte line, another rabbit jumped out of the hat. His animated creatures came alive through his talent for expressive pantomime. With all the current energy being expended by small armies of computer artists and technicians, it speaks well for Harryhausen that he churned out his best material essentially alone in his London studio, with a vintage Mitchell camera, a pair of sliding matte glasses, a painting and partial miniature here and there, and a process projector circa 1947.

Harryhausen claims that he's been lucky, and clearly he has. But the impact of his work was the product of a passion for the movies and of his unflappable discipline in the study and practice of character animation, sculpture, and cinematography. Instead of being hired to supply prescribed scenes, he often conceived and initiated entire films with elaborate key drawings and first drafts that flowed off his typewriter. As co-producer of his films, he had enormous influence on the music, the production design, and the final cut. …