May 8, 2013
Special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, dead at 92, would no doubt have been pleased by the surprisingly prominent (and mainstream media) obituaries news organizations like the BBC and CNN are filing, as well the massive outpouring of grief and tributes offered by lifelong fans. Unsurprisingly, in many of the posts I’ve read today on Facebook and elsewhere, many of these fans plan on spending part of their evening tonight watching this or that Harryhausen film, the one that got them hooked on Ray’s stop-motion animation artistry. I might just introduce my 5 1/2-year-old to Ray’s artistry tonight, too.
I was probably five or six when I first saw Mighty Joe Young (1949), the first feature film on which Ray did a lot of the animation. Later, when I was nine or ten, I saw Jason and the Argonauts (1963) for the first time and was hooked for life. I remember soon after begging my father to let me stay up to watch Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), airing on a school night from 12:35 a.m. but, naturally, my father refused. With a title like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, think of the visions a 10-year-old boy just aching to see it must have had on that sleepless night. The next morning, over breakfast, my father casually announced that in fact he had stayed up to watch it himself. “Wha-wha what?!” asked I, practically spit-taking. “What was it like?” I inquired breathlessly. “Oh,” he said, “it was just a bunch of rubbish.” Agony.
But, through the years, I caught up with all of Ray’s films, including such personal favorites as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Mysterious Island (1961), One Million Years, B.C. (1966), and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973). Over and over I watched them, at 35mm revival screenings, 16mm college campus showings, and I rented a Super-8 sound print of One Million Years, B.C. from the Henry Ford Centennial Library in Dearborn, Michigan probably 20 times. I watched Ray’s films on VHS, CED disc, laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray.
Nearly 20 years ago, around 1994, I was contracted to write a book about Ray Harryhausen, this hero of mine. I did a lot of research and, back in those days when international calls were quite expensive, set up several telephone interviews with Ray, who’d been living in London for many years even then. We had several long and pleasant chats, and he seemed pleased my questions were not along the lines of “How long did it take you to animate that?” but rather were focused on things like the particulars of his often exquisite lighting, his pre-production and the development of story material, specifics about his role as co-producer on his later films, and his working relationships with the composers who scored his movies.
As charming and as generous with his time as Ray was, it wasn’t long before I realized I had no choice but to abandon the project, to not write that book.
Any book on Ray Harryhausen, at least one written by me, would ultimately have been critical of producer Ray Harryhausen for not serving the best interests of Ray Harryhausen the master animator. Conventional wisdom is that all of the shortcomings of Ray’s movies from 1955 onward rest on the shoulders of producing partner Charles H. Schneer. But my research, including interviews with Schneer himself, suggested Ray had a lot more creative control over their films and much earlier on than is usually assumed. In the later films especially, on which Ray was a very active co-producer, the movies became showcases for Ray’s set pieces at the expense of all else: story, direction, and pacing. Journeymen talent were hired in place of directors, writers, and composers who might have helped rather than hurt these later efforts. Certainly filmmakers like Cy Endfield and Don Chaffey and composers like Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa greatly enhanced those Harryhausen pictures while directors like Sam Wanamaker and Desmond Davis and composers such as Roy Budd and Laurence Rosenthal did not. Not that these people didn’t do fine work elsewhere, but I think Ray wanted others to work around his animation set pieces and he strenuously avoided those inclined to put their own personal stamp on movies he saw as exclusively his, even if their contributions would make the movie better.
In my conversations with Ray, without saying so directly, I also asked him about his resistance to technologies that might have extended the viability of stop-motion animation longer than it did. Once he developed Dynamation, Ray’s cost-efficient stop-motion process, he was loathe to shoot any other way. If it had been up to Ray, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad would have been made in black-and-white and full-frame instead of color and wide screen. When he made Clash of the Titans (1981), by which point Ray probably should have been shooting all his animation in VistaVision or some other big-frame process (to avoid the obvious jump in graininess during process shots), he was still using methods virtually unchanged since The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Even positive reviews of Clash of the Titans damned the movie with faint praise, finding it quaintly entertaining with its “old-fashioned” special effects. When I took some pals to see it they exploded with laughter at the very poorly done process shots of a bird in flight which open that film.
For those reasons I gave up on the book, and I’m glad I never wrote it. (My pal Ted Newsom, who’d already written a multi-issue career retrospective on Ray for Cinefantastique, eventually expanded that work into what I still regard as the best book about Harryhausen’s career, though rather tragically it may never be published.)
No, severely flawed though many of Harryhausen’s films are, we still love them all, watching them again and again partly, I think, to recapture that sense of losing oneself completely in his movies, to be whisked off to a magical land of monster cyclopes, of Medsusas and rascally Archelon, of moon-men and Rhedosauruses.