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The father of modern fantasy - a personal memorial for Ray Harryhausen

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Ray Harryhausen was not just a special effects technician, but a visionary artist whose work shaped popular culture for decades to come.

Ray Harryhausen was not just a special effects technician, but a visionary artist whose work shaped popular culture for decades to come.

I was six.

I'm not sure what woke me up, but I suspect it was hearing my name mentioned in the next room. I lay in bed, and I recall faintly hearing my father's voice saying, "James would know what they're called."

Intrigued, I crept out of bed (it was past my bedtime and I was supposed to be sleeping) and peeked out into the living room, where my family were gathered around the TV. On the screen, some people were gathered around a small enclosure, in which a tiny horse was trotting around.

Even Harryhausen's alien monsters were charismatic and sympathetic.

Even Harryhausen's alien monsters were charismatic and sympathetic.

My dad was right; I did indeed know what it was called. From the doorway, I said, "It's an eohippus. It means dawn horse."

"You should be in bed," dad said, but there was something in his voice that let me know I could stay in the doorway. My family knew how much I loved dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, and here was a movie with a tiny prehistoric horse in it. I strongly doubted they would send me back to bed.

I was right. There was some half-hearted muttering about how the movie had only just started and I would be tired and grumpy the next morning, but before too long I was perched in a chair beside my mum, watching the film.

His skeleton fight may be the most famous special sequence in cinema history.

His skeleton fight may be the most famous special sequence in cinema history.

And what a film it was! The people, who it turned out were cowboys who performed in a rodeo, went on an expedition to find the hidden valley where the tiny horse had been found, and they discovered a land where dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures still survived. There were little emu-like dinosaurs, big herbivores, and the star of the show, an allosaurus that the locals dubbed Gwangi.

After an amazing sequence in which the cowboys, riding on horses, tossed lassos over Gwangi's head and used sheer force of numbers to force him to the ground, they very cleverly loaded him onto a cart and took him back to the rodeo to make a fortune displaying him to the public. Predictably, he escaped and ate a bunch of people, though less predictably he fought with an elephant and was eventually burned to death in a church.

My life was changed. I rushed to the library the next day and found books about movie special effects, specifically stop-motion animation, and that was where I found the name: Ray Harryhausen. I didn't know it then, but at that time in the early 1980s Harryhausen's career was all but over, but he was already a legend in the field of movie special effects.

Half a century after it was made, Valley of Gwangi's dinosaur-roping scene is still amazing.

Half a century after it was made, Valley of Gwangi's dinosaur-roping scene is still amazing.

Whole chapters of these books were dedicated to him, and they featured images that made my young eyes boggle: Greek warriors fighting sword-wielding skeletons, a titanic octopus destroying the Golden Gate bridge, and yes, more dinosaurs. Harryhausen had made another movie called One Million Years B.C., though even at the age of six I knew the title was totally wrong.

In the days before VCRs, actually seeing one of his films on TV was a rare treat, a kind of cultural lottery win for a young nerd like me. While I did not see Jason and the Argonauts in full until well into adulthood, I did see its iconic skeleton fight on a clip show about classic Hollywood moments. I also saw the entirety of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad when I happened to see it was showing on late night TV.

I cannot know for sure how important the work of Ray Harryhausen was to my mind, but I suspect it was pivotal. I reached my teens and got interested in Dungeons & Dragons and computer games, and always in my mind the climactic battles with immense monsters were Harryhausen scenes. For many years I dreamed of being a fantasy novelist, and again, I think I dreamed in Harryhausen-esque stop motion.

There was something unique about the creatures he made. They never looked real, as such, but they had an incredible amount of character in them. His monsters were never just mindless beasts; there was always a degree of personality in the way they moved, from the alien Ymir shielding its eyes when the light is switched on, to the pure evil in the body language of those fighting skeletons.

Harryhausen influenced and inspired countless numbers of the filmmakers who created many of the touchstones of modern popular culture. George Lucas said outright that without Harryhausen "there would be no Star Wars". Peter Jackson started making home movies after seeing Harryhausen films and the original King Kong, appropriately the very film that got Harryhausen interested in animation, and Jackson has said that his Lord of the Rings films would not have been made without that influence. Even Edgar Wright, director of Shaun of the Dead, has said that Harryhausen films ignited his passion for movie monsters.

The big-name special effects technicians of today also cite Harryhausen's influence, and many were even lucky enough to have enjoyed his advice and mentorship. In the 1980s, after he stopped making his own films, Harryhausen spent countless hours providing advice to a new generation of animators and special effects artists.

Without Harryhausen, we may very well not have had the work of Stan Winston, who created the effects for Terminator, Aliens, and Jurassic Park. Phil Tippett, who created many of the iconic effects in Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back, is another who cites Harryhausen's inspiration. Nick Park, the animator behind Wallace and Gromit, credits him with inspiring his interest in stop motion.

While Harryhausen never worked directly on video games - he retired when the Atari 2600 was the exciting new home console  - that pervasive influence of his can be felt running through video game imagery. After all, modern cinematic-style games take their inspiration from fantasy and science fiction films, and those films all carry the creative DNA of Harryhausen.

Just think of that computer game staple: the nimble little hero versus the huge, lumbering boss creature. Whenever I see this kind of boss fight, I always think of Jason versus Talos, or Sinbad versus the cyclops, or those cowboys roping an allosaurus. In cinema, Harryhausen invented that trope. Where most films used puppets or men in rubber suits, Harryhausen's signature blend of live action and stop motion animation meant that these kinds of battles could be shown on screen dynamically.

Earlier this week, Ray Harryhausen died at the age of 92, and the world lost one of its great dreamers. Harryhausen hadn't made films since the poorly-received Clash of the Titans in 1981, but over thirty years later he was still a legend. It is impossible to imagine what our popular culture would look like today without his influence.

If you have never seen a Harryhausen film, drop into JB Hi-Fi or log into Netflix and grab a copy of Jason and the Argonauts or The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Though you are watching them for the first time, they will seem oddly familiar.

Goodbye Ray. You will be missed.

 - James "DexX" Dominguez

twitter DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez

5 comments so far

  • I remember stumbling across Jason and the Argonauts one Saturday afternoon when I was channel flicking because I was bored and I remember being mesmerisied by the special effects, even though they were a bit dated when I saw that movie. The sheer menace that he put into those skeletons was astonishing and I still vividly remember that sequence. I recognised it as stop motion and I couldn't figure out at the time how he managed to make them so menacing and make it all look so surprisingly real. It didn't take that much suspension of disbelief to accept that Jason and the argonauts were really fighting those skeletons. I've had to put more suspension of disbelief into some modern day films!

    Commenter
    Kit
    Date and time
    May 10, 2013, 8:20AM
    • Yeah - just like Kit, my first experience of Harryhausen's wizardy was stumbling upon Jason and the Argonauts on the TV as a kid.
      Awesome stuff - he will be missed

      Commenter
      AarghZombies
      Date and time
      May 10, 2013, 9:17AM
      • So very sad, but I did get to shake your hand Ray and thank you for what you did to inspire all of us and fuel our creativity. That was a special moment for me. I also remember thanking you for never forgetting about 'story'. You were genius crafting genius and so much a part of our lives, entertaining us along the way. We shall miss but never forget you.

        Take care

        Phil

        Commenter
        ecoarena
        Date and time
        May 10, 2013, 11:57AM
        • I actually quite liked Clash of the Titans! Watched it as wee lil boy on the 80's and had one of the most spectacular special effects on a movie!

          The man was a legend and its awesome to think he at least lives on in his works and the various influence he has done to modern special effects

          Commenter
          RocK_M
          Location
          I want chinese take-away!
          Date and time
          May 10, 2013, 4:20PM
          • The 'Evil Dead' series of horror films paid loving tribute to Harryhausen. Especially the last one,'Army of Darkness' which featured stop motion skeletons! Well worth a look for fans of this lost art. The director of these low budget classics, Sam Raimi, was another who was heavily influenced by Harryhausen's films as a youngster. And if that name sounds familiar to non-horror fans this is the same director behind the big budget 'Spiderman' movies.

            Commenter
            Docker Al
            Date and time
            May 10, 2013, 7:18PM

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