Ray Harryhausen: 1920-2013

Every little boy has his heroes. It’s a fact of life. And it is equally true that every little boy grows up dreaming of getting the opportunity to actually meet some of those heroes, and to tell them just how much of an impact they have had upon his life. 

Back in 1925, a boy named Ray went to the theatre and saw a silent film entitled The Lost World, an adaptation of the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel about Professor George Edward Challenger and his expedition to a land where dinosaurs still roamed. The great-grandson of the famed African explorer David Livingstone, Ray was already no stranger to tales of exotic adventure; but this one struck a special chord with the youngster, who reveled at the sight of prehistoric beasts brought back to life through the magic of the cinema.

That magic was the work of special effects master Willis O’Brien, who had pioneered the use of stop motion animation in live action films. Ray found a new hero that day; several years later, in 1933, he was awestruck by the power of the film that would prove to be O’Brien’s masterpiece: the immortal King Kong. It was at that moment that young Ray decided to become a stop motion animator himself, and he began bringing all manner of creatures to life in homemade movies filmed in the family garage. Eventually he got the chance to not only meet his hero, but to work with him on John Ford’s Mighty Joe Young (1949). That film earned O’Brien an Oscar, and launched the legend of Ray Harryhausen: the true "Son of Kong," father of Gwangi and the Ymir, and the wizard who brought sword-wielding skeletons, giant bumblebees and the mighty Pegasus to frighten and delight us.

Over the next several decades Harryhausen thrilled moviegoers with all manner of strange and otherworldly creations. The films on which he worked are considered classics of the fantasy genre and were standard TV fare for boys of my generation: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953); 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957);  Mysterious Island (1961); Jason and the Argonauts (1963); One Million Years B.C. (1966); and of course the classic “Sinbad” trilogy: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)  and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).

Along the way he inspired several generations of younger filmmakers, including George Lucas and Peter Jackson. But while Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy utilized some of Harryhausen’s techniques, they also launched a move away from that old-style brand of creativity toward the computer generated effects so popular today. By the time of Harryhausen’s final film, 1981’s Clash of the Titans, his effects were considered by many to be as prehistoric as the dinosaurs he and O’Brien had helped bring to life.

A little over two decades later, another fan got the opportunity to meet one of his childhood heroes. I had the chance to speak - briefly - with Mr. Harryhausen at the 2006 San Diego Comic Con following a presentation featuring him and his old friends, author Ray Bradbury and Famous Monsters of Filmland's Forrest J. Ackerman. I had actually been invited to attend Comic-Con as a speaker myself, thanks to my involvement in an anthology that had been published the previous year; but as cool as that was (and it was definitely cool!), the eternal kid that continues to reside within my heart took a far greater, special kind of pleasure in simply shaking hands with the man whose films had been such an important part of my own childhood, and later the lives of my two sons.

Ray Harryhausen died this past Tuesday at the age of 92. He is survived by his wife Diana, daughter Vanessa, millions of adoring fans and a body of work that remains as incredible and entertaining today as when each and every one of those films were first released. 

The man was a true giant whose work seems all too often overlooked today, and even denigrated by some younger movie fans who are silly enough to believe that the slop that was Avatar represents some sort of pinnacle in fantasy filmmaking. What fools they be! Those slick CGI effects that are all the rage today pale in energy, creativity and even believablity when compared to the one-frame-at-a-time stop motion photography effects pioneered by Harryhausen and O'Brien – a fact that seems all the more impressive when you consider that, compared to the the millions spent on digital effects today, Harryhausen’s magic was created on a shoestring budget, sometimes less.

Bradbury once stated that, as children, he and Harryhausen had made a vow to never grow up. They kept that promise, and inspired so many of us to follow their example. They and their friend Forry are all gone now, and the world is a sadder place because of it. But the spirit of eternal youth they embodied remains to enrich all of us. 

Because of creative geniuses like Ray Harryhausen, that kid who lives in my heart still runs free. 

Thank you for that wonderful gift, Mr. Harryhausen.

(Column copyright © 2013, by John A. Small)