Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Parting Glance At...Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen was one of the major architects of my fantasy life.

Hell, he was one of the reasons why I became what I am today.

When I was a small child, I remember watching many of Harryhausen’s films when they appeared on The ABC 4:30 Movie, including such gems as Mysterious Island (featuring what is arguably my favorite monster of his--namely the giant crab), First Men In The Moon, and the classic Jason and The Argonaut.  When my parents bought a Super 8 movie projector, I somehow managed to convince them to buy a small black and white reel of monster footage from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.  When his second Sinbad film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, moved into the old Crossbay Theater on Woodhaven Boulevard, I pressganged my natural father into taking me; even when he tried to tempt me with the R-Rated forbidden fruit of The Longest Yard that was playing on the other screen, I stayed my course.  One of the first films I saw on my own was the third Harryhausen Sinbad film, Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger.  As I became interested in maybe making movies of my own--an interest that waned when I realized I was a better storyteller than director--I tried to make my own stop-motion epic in emulation of Harryhausen’s style.  In particular, there was a decidedly overambitious version of King Kong that never quite worked out.  Many of my earliest stories I wrote as a child featured monsters inspired just as much by Harryhausen’s Cyclops and Talos as by Godzilla.  Seeing this man’s work come alive helped shape my decision to write about the fantastic and the heroic, and there’s at least two stories in the book I’m finishing up right now that feature creatures that could easily have been brought to life by Dynamation back in the 60‘s.

The thing that strikes me about Harryhausen is how he spent the bulk of his life just doing what he loved.  According to all reports, he would wake up every morning, have breakfast with his wife, then head next door to the house of his partner Charles Schneer.  Then the two men would spend the day planning out movies, talking about movies, making deals to make movies, and otherwise making up new projects for them to do together.  When a project was placed with a studio, Harryhausen then retreated to his studio in his garage and began building and animating his creations.  A day when Harryhausen produced fifteen seconds of usable footage was deemed a success, but it didn’t matter.  He was having fun, and that was all that mattered.

While I always regretted his decision to retire after the release of the original Clash of The Titans, I respected him for doing so.  He claimed in interviews that he recognized his time had passed after that, and it’s hard to argue against that; shorn of the patina of nostalgia, Clash did feature some of his lesser work.  And it wasn’t like retirement meant Harryhausen hid himself in a cave for the rest of his life.  He was famous for devoting his time to speaking at colleges and sharing his knowledge with aspiring animators, and was always gracious with his fans and admirers.

Ray Harryhausen’s mortal clay may have ceased to exist yesterday, but much like his lifelong friend Ray Bradbury, who died before him, I like to think that his spirit will never die.  Every time a father shares a Sinbad movie with his son, every time a burgeoning special effects artist realizes the charms inherent in stop motion, every time a revival house decides to run The Valley of Gwangi or 1,000,000 Years BC, the spark that motivated him to spend all those hours in his garage will burn all the more brightly.  And I think that the fact that he will inspire and enlighten people for decades is something to be celebrated.

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