Friday, May 10, 2013

The Wizard

Howdy, All You Fantasy Fans!

In 1933 a wide-eyed thirteen year old kid named Raymond Frederick Harryhausen saw the movie King Kong in theaters for the first of many times.  Above and beyond the film's breakneck pace and wild sense of adventure, Ray was completely be-spelled by the cinematic sorcery used to bring the giant ape to life.  This set the young movie-goer on a life-long quest to glean the secrets of this incredible illusion.  

He soon discovered that special effects maestro Willis O'Brien had used a technique called stop-motion animation to realize the mighty Kong.  This involved the creation of a super-realistic, fully-articulated model which could then be moved and photographed one frame at a time.  The work was beyond painstaking.  If the animator lost track of the character's actions, knocked over a part of the miniature set or experienced a lighting malfunction, he could very well lose hours or even days worth of work.

After decoding this arcane knowledge, Ray set about making his own short films.  Eventually he was introduced to his mentor, Willis O'Brien, who suggested that the young animator take anatomy courses to improve his model designs.  After heeding his advice, Ray eventually went to work for O'Brien as an assistant animator on his new giant ape picture Mighty Joe Young.  He was only twenty-seven years old at the time.

Over the course of the next forty years Ray Harryhausen was the primary creative force behind some of the most imaginative movies in cinema history, including:

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

It Came from Beneath the Sea

 Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

 20 Million Miles To Earth

The 7'th Voyage of Sinbad

Jason and the Argonauts

One Million Years B.C.

The Valley of Gwangi

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

Clash of the Titans

These films cast a creative spell upon generations of imaginative kids.  Upon first glance of Ray's indelible familiars, people like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Tim Burton, James Cameron, Joe Dante, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson, Joe Johnston, John Landis, George Lucas, Dennis Muren, Sam Raimi, Ivan Reitman, Steven Spielberg and Stan Winston were immediately entranced.  When these pop-culture pebbles were dropped into the ocean of collective unconsciousness, those childhood ripples of wonder resulted in a veritable tsunami of adult creative genius.    

I count myself amongst this hallowed company.  When I was only about four years old, I distinctly remember watching this clip from Jason and the Argonauts on T.V.:

I won't lie to you, Gentle Readers: it scared the ever-lovin' crap outta me.  Not because it was Green Slime scary but because I had no idea what I was watching.  I literally thought that this was some sort of  documentary film about some sort of giant living bronze colossus.  Like every other kid who witnesses something like this at an impressionable age, it resulted in a life-long love for all things fantasy.  Instantly I wanted to know how it was done and I needed to see everything related.

Unfortunately I grew up in a day and age when Ray's films had long-since left the marquee.  To make matters worse, VCR's were still in their infancy and the movies sitting on the shelf of my small-town video store were boringly pedestrian.  I had to content myself with pouring over stills of his creatures in Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland or reading about them in movie books.

Which is why the release of Clash of the Titans was such a monumental event to me as a kid.  Finally, this was my chance to see Ray's mythical creations come to life on the big screen.  I certainly wasn't disappointed.  Calibos, the giant Vulture, Pegasus, Dioskilos, Medusa and the Kraken both thrilled and amazed me.  Inspired, I found a book about stop-motion animation in my school library, built some clay models and tried to make my own flick.  Unfortunately Super 8 film back then was w-a-a-a-a-y too expensive so I quickly had to set aside my cinematic aspirations.

As CGI began to develop it eventually usurped stop-motion animation as the primary method of monster creation.  Although digital technology can certainly be well-applied, it often feels about as cold and inconsequential as watching a video game cut-scene.  For example, after catching a few snippets of the recent Clash of the Titans remake I came away feeling distinctly sad.  Unlike Ray's menagerie of memorable monsters, the creatures populating this cynical cash-grab had only a fraction of the tangibility, charm, magic and personality.  

Every time critics accuse tech-obsessed directors like James Cameron and George Lucas of overusing CGI they often get the same response, as if saying it out loud over and over again will somehow make it true.  "Nothing in movies is real!" they always protest, "That building in the background is nothing but a big, flat, cardboard stand-up.  Walk behind it and you'll see a key grip eating a sandwich back there!"

That might make sense in their tech-addled brains, but it sounds downright idiotic to me when you think about it.  Back in 2010, hordes of lucky film fans who attended the "Myths And Legends Exhibition" got a chance to see Ray's stop-motion puppets first-hand.  Sorry, but at the end of the day, the giant scorpions in the Clash of the Titans remake are nothing but a bunch of pretty-looking ones and zeroes.  

Ray wasn't just a special effects wizard, he was the special effects wizard.  Check out the credits for all of these movies; he was literally the only person billed for the special effects.  In fact, he didn't even have an assistant until 1981.  For comparison's sake, stick around for the end credits of Iron Man 3 to see how many people it takes to do this same job now.

I'm sure Ray did what he did because he was entranced by his mentor's movie magic.  But, hopefully, he also knew how impactful his own creations were.  While spending countless hours in a Hollywood basement sweating under hot studio lights and moving rubber monsters around one millimeter at a time, I hope that he just how inspirational he was to countless other like-minded souls.   

Thank you, Ray.  Your creations charmed us, inspired us and kept our inner children alive and well.

Frankly, I can't think of a more apt definition of a master magician.     

 Raymond Frederick Harryhausen  

EPIC TRAILER  If this blog entry comes as a revelation, you may want to take that as a personal detriment and address it right away.  I don't know how many plaudits Ray received when he was alive but I'm pretty sure it wasn't enough.  Hopefully high-profile tributes like this will rectify that deficit...

EPIC MINI-DOC  "If you make fantasy too real, you make it more mundane..."


NOT-SO-SPECIAL EFFECTS FAIL  Derp, derp, derp...