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R.I.P., Ray Harryhausen

A tribute to the godfather of visual effects in 24 frames

The stop-motion animator and visual-effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen died this week, at 92. He worked in a down-market corner of the trade, creating monsters and mythical beasts for cheesy sci-fi and sword-and-sandal films. He was the closest thing these pictures had to an auteur, and his effects were their primary box office draw, but he died without a single feature-film directing credit on his IMDb page. His disciples knew the truth, though. Many of them became filmmakers themselves, and tried to summon some of the ingenuity and personality of Harryhausen’s creations in their own work. You don’t get the cave troll from The Lord of the Rings, the T. rex–raptor fight in Jurassic Park, the Rancor from Return of the Jedi, or the skeleton horde in Army of Darkness without Harryhausen; to some extent we might not have gotten Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, or Sam Raimi, either.

The technology that enabled Spielberg to populate Isla Nublar with thunder lizards far outstripped anything Harryhausen (who retired when CGI was in its infancy, and never touched the stuff) had at his disposal. Stop-motion is simpler, and harder. You take an object — a puppet, say, maybe a skeleton with a sword in its hand. You click off a single frame of film. You move the skeleton’s arm a fraction of an inch. You click off another frame. Persistence of vision — the same phenomenon that makes us see individual still frames passing through a film projector as a single, fluid moving image — does the rest. It was a profoundly tedious and labor-intensive way of creating cinematic illusions, and cheaper/easier/more “realistic” effects had largely superseded it by the time Harryhausen retired.

But Harryhausen’s monsters existed in the physical world, even if it took camera trickery to put them onscreen with human actors. There was something believable and tactile about them, even if you knew they were actually the size of toys. They caught the light, cast shadows. They looked fake but felt real.

In tribute to the maestro, we’ll tell this story in 24 frames, one at a time.

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“It is fine material, but it rots,” Harryhausen liked to say, referring to two materials — the latex he used to make his models, many of which deteriorated over time, and the stuff our bodies are made of, which does the same.

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It’s 1933. Thirteen-year-old Ray sees King Kong at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. By the time the movie lets out he’s in the ape-grip of what will become a lifelong obsession. (“I haven’t been the same since,” he’ll joke to interviewers, over and over.) He doesn’t know what stop-motion is yet, only that Kong is something other than a man in a gorilla suit, and that this is what he wants to do with his life.

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Stop-motion, as it happens, is almost as old as the movies themselves. Narrative-film pioneer and trained magician Georges Méliès used the “stop trick” to make objects and people appear and disappear in his early films; in 1897′s The Humpty Dumpty Circus, generally considered the first stop-motion film, filmmakers Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton used stop-motion animation to bring to life a collection of toy animals borrowed from Blackton’s daughter. And in 1925, a former cowboy, pro boxer, bartender, fur trapper, railroad brakeman, sculptor, and cartoonist named Willis O’Brien made model dinosaurs lumber and breathe and do battle onscreen in The Lost World, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel about a plateau in Venezuela where extinct prehistoric beasts still walk the earth. A few years later, O’Brien will land at RKO, where he’ll design and build the star of King Kong.

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In the 1930s, you can’t just call up a making-of video on YouTube and teach yourself filmmaking techniques. Ray has to piece together an understanding of how the effects in Kong were achieved. He builds a cave-bear puppet out of wood and wire and one of his mother’s old fur coats, borrows a 16mm camera from a friend, and makes his first stop-motion movies in his parents’ garage. He even uses matte shots to put himself and his German shepherd, Kong, in the frame with the cave bear, already experimenting with photographic tricks not unlike the ones he’ll someday use to feed human actors to giant, ornery crabs.

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Ray catches King Kong again a few years later at a different theater. There are these rare Kong stills on display in the lobby; when Ray asks if he can borrow them to make copies, it turns out they’re from the personal collection of one Forrest J. Ackerman, a sci-fi and horror fiend who’ll go on to basically co-invent fanboy culture with the journal Famous Monsters of Filmland. Through Ackerman, Ray finds his way to the Los Angeles chapter of the Science Fiction League, which meets Thursdays in the Brown Room at the back of Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown. He gets to know an equally monster-obsessed young writer named Ray Bradbury there.

“We made a pact together,” Bradbury once said of Harryhausen. “We said, ‘We’re gonna grow old, but we’ll never grow up. We’re going to stay 18, 19 years old and we’re gonna love dinosaurs forever.’”

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Harryhausen tracks down O’Brien, talks his way into an audience with his hero. He shows up to O’Brien’s house with a suitcase full of dinosaur models. O’Brien sizes up his competition, then advises Ray to study anatomy, telling him his stegosauruses’ legs look like sausages.

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Harryhausen starts making a film called Evolution of the World, a stop-motion retelling of the history of life on Earth, then discards the project after seeing the animated dinosaurs in the Rite of Spring sequence of Disney’s Fantasia. In ’42 he’s drafted and assigned to the Army Signal Corps (under Colonel Frank Capra!), where he makes animated training films with titles like the Why We Fight series. When he’s discharged he spends a few years working for director George Pal on “Puppetoons,” created using a variation on stop-motion that uses swappable puppet parts instead of movable figures.

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Pal’s crew of animators also includes Willis O’Brien; in 1946, O’Brien is hired to create the effects for the post-Kong gorilla picture Mighty Joe Young, and recruits Harryhausen to assist him. Harryhausen ends up doing most of the animation for the film, as well as designing the 16-inch aluminum armature under the title character’s skin, although it’s O’Brien who ends up winning the Oscar.

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Mighty Joe Young was technically superior to Kong, but comparatively lacking in magic, so O’Brien dies in 1962 without ever really topping his masterpiece.

“And Willis O’Brien died a tragic death / There wasn’t much that he had left,” Daniel Johnston sang 20 years later, on “King Kong,” from his classic fifth album Yip/Jump Music. “And Ray Harryhausen said / That when Willis died / That’s when the King was really dead.”

“I loved the King Kong movie so much,” Johnston told an interviewer in the early 2000s. “I only saw it a few times in my life. But the last time that I saw it, I memorized it.”

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Kong is re-released in 1952, kick-starting the giant-monster craze of the ’50s. Harryhausen gets hired to do the effects for 1953′s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, in which a sleeping dinosaur is rudely awakened by an atomic-bomb test and takes it out on Coney Island. (A year later, Japan’s Toho studio makes the first Godzilla.)

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Harryhausen returns to the aquatic-menace well again and again, with 1955′s It Came From Beneath the Sea (San Francisco, giant octopus) and 1957′s 20 Million Miles to Earth (Rome, bipedal fish-man). These films (along with 1956′s Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) mark the beginning of his 30-year collaboration with producer Charles H. Schneer, who coins the term “Dynamation” to describe Harryhausen’s virtually seamless mixing of miniatures, rear projection, live action, and stop-motion.

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Fans know the fish-man from 20 Million Miles to Earth as the Ymir. This scene, in which our ostensible heroes corner it in a barn with pitchforks and shovels, is an early illustration of Harryhausen’s unrivaled ability to imbue a piece of rubber with personality, compelling audiences to root against their own species — and a pretty astonishing (especially for 1957!) example of actor-puppet interaction.

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Moviemaking is a collaborative process, and yet Harryhausen mostly worked alone, after the human actors’ scenes were filmed, bringing rubber puppets to life by meticulous increments. His father, a machinist, made parts for Ray’s models until his death; his mother sewed some of the costumes for his miniatures. And later in his career, Harryhausen would work with a taxidermist on some fur-bearing creatures.

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But for the most part: one man, alone. Moving a tentacle ever so slightly, clicking off a frame of film.

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Then moving it again.

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None of these are, objectively speaking, great films. They were all conceived as showcases for Harryhausen’s effects, and he was supposedly heavily involved in every stage of their production, from script to art direction to principal photography, but they tend to fall down a deep well entertainmentwise whenever the puppets yield the screen to people. “I could kick myself when I think of how I didn’t insist on more from the director or the studio,” Harryhausen once said, admitting that some of his finished pictures made him “heartsick.”

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“Most Harryhausen films,” Gary Giddins wrote in 2005, “have the structural logic of MGM musicals or pornography: long bouts of trite dialogue interrupted by ‘big numbers’ … [Harryhausen] was master of his domain, but the rest of the picture was often in the hands of second-raters … “

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… which, in a sense, means that while Harryhausen’s proudly handmade special-effects movies are traditionally held up as the antithesis of modern-day CGI-driven filmmaking, they prefigure those movies by making the effects unmistakably the star, just as the real star of Avatar is Pandora, not Sam Worthington. At any rate …

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… this doesn’t really change in the ’60s, when Harryhausen, deciding that he’d laid waste to enough of Earth’s great cities, puts aside giant monsters in favor of mythological beasts, beginning with 1963′s Jason and the Argonauts. You can look up who directed it, and who played Jason; it’s not important. What’s important is the way the titan Talos moves his neck.

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The effects got more complicated. Harryhausen’s early monsters mostly just stomped and loomed and whipped their appendages around and occasionally bent down to bite somebody; by 1973, in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, he was staging actual combat scenes that you’d imagine would be fairly labor-intensive in the green-screen era, like this sword fight between Sinbad (cult-cinema mainstay John Phillip Law, from Danger: Diabolik, Death Rides a Horse, and Barbarella) and a six-armed statue of the death-goddess Kali.

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How’d they do that? In Harryhausen’s films, the answer was always Very, very slowly. When he was in production, he worked late into the night, seven days a week. The iconic skeleton-army battle sequence in Jason and the Argonauts took Harryhausen four months to shoot, during which he exposed an average of 13 frames of film per day. 1981′s Clash of the Titans, with Harry Hamlin as the ancient Greek adventurer Perseus (leading what might have been the first really strong cast in a Harryhausen movie, including Laurence Olivier as Zeus and Maggie Smith as Thetis), took three years to make. He retired shortly thereafter, leaving more than a few intriguing projects — adaptations of Dante’s Inferno and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen — unrealized.

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As moviegoers, we live full-time — or all summer, anyway — in the uncanny valley, to the point that people barely seem to mind anymore. But no one seems particularly excited about it, either. CGI keeps improving and refining its imitation of life. Every few years a Lord of the Rings or an Avatar comes along and pummels our visual cortexes until we give in and agree to call it a game-changer. Maybe we’ll feel differently once new technology comes along to make the visual marvels of Iron Man and Avatar seem clunky, endearing, possibly even innocent. But there’s something not-so-special about special effects now. They’re impressive, but not wondrous, sacrificing eeriness and psychological impact in the name of technical perfection.

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“Fantasy is essentially a dream world,” Harryhausen said once, “an imaginative world, and I don’t think you want it quite real. You want an interpretation. Stop-motion, to me, gives that added value of a dream world, that you can’t catch if you try to make it too real.”

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They remade Clash of the Titans in 2010, with Liam Neeson as Zeus, state-of-the-art CGI effects, and pitiful 3-D post-conversion. I’ve said all I’m going to say about it. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one Kraken:

Filed Under: R.I.P.

alex

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.

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