This past Tuesday, one of the most important and influential filmmakers of all time passed away at the age of 92. You won’t find his name on many statues, and his films don’t rate on many lists of high regard, but you’ll find them in the collections of discerning fans of all ages, while their spiritual descendants occupy every facet of the popular culture – often in a position of utter dominance.
His name was Ray Harryhausen, and without him the worlds of film, television, comics and even gaming would look entirely different (and immesurably poorer) than they do today.
So too would the world of fandom. Often forgotten is the fact that “geek culture” as we know it today barely existed until the mid-20th century with the exception of mutual admiration societies formed among pulp authors at the turn of the century or single series devotees like the Sherlockians. By making lifelong friends of fanzine pioneer Forrest J. Ackerman (credited with the invention of everything from the term “sci-fi” itself to convention-cosplay) and legendary author Ray Bradbury (whose credentials, I should hope, go without saying), Harryhausen formed the Hollywood arm of a fandom/literature/film trifecta that sustained and fueled the scifi/fantasy genre during its outlaw years between World War: Episode II and Star Wars: Episode IV. Whenever you read a fansite, post in a forum or visit a convention, you are living in a world those three men largely built.
But for Harryhausen it all began much earlier than that. As a child in 1933, he like millions of others, was fascinated by the blockbuster King Kong. But while most were content to be amazed by movie magic, Harryhausen wanted to know how it worked. Through careful study of the miniscule publicly available information about FX mastermind Willis O’Brien’s techniques for Kong, Harryhausen taught himself the art of animating monsters in stop motion and, for good measure, learned to make movies so he’d have somewhere to put them.
Following a stint working on George Pal’s PuppeToons (a stop-motion cousin to the Looney Tunes or Merry Melodies, forgotten today largely due to the unfortunate presence of blackface caricatures), Harryhausen served in Frank Capra’s famous Special Services Division during WWII alongside Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel in creating instructional films for the U.S. Army and “inspirational” films (read: propaganda) for the homefront. After the war, he finally became apprenticed to his idol Willis O’Brien, who trusted him with the lion’s share of animation duties for the family-friendly Kong redux Mighty Joe Young.
Via his close friendship with producer/partner Charles Schneer, Harryhausen created a filmmaking niche for himself unique in Hollywood: he would develop and oversee films with unprecedented authority for a “mere” FX technician, with ostensible directors mainly carrying out his instructions on set while he focused on designing, building and animating monster sequences – a task which he accomplished almost entirely on his own, working from a home studio.
In the 1950s, he set the template for the Giant Monster genre: Siccing a rampaging dinosaur on New York in Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (based on a Bradbury story and the direct inspiration for Japan’s Godzilla), a colossal octopus on San Francisco in It Came From Beneath The Sea, a fleet of aliens on Washington D.C. in 20 Million Miles To Earth. Then, having effectively handed Hollywood the Rosetta Stone for at least 90% of genre blockbusters (Otherworldly Disaster + Famous Landmark = Awesome), he turned his attentions to the realm of fantasy adventure.
Between 1958 and 1964, Harryhausen would create the Technicolor action/adventure films he is today best remembered for: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Mysterious Island, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, First Men In The Moon, and Jason & The Argonauts. These films are among the genre’s most iconic, with Voyage’s Cyclops often referred to as Harryhausen’s greatest single character and Jason’s skeleton-battle held up as one of the most astonishing effects sequences ever conceived. Sadly, while they would go on to become classics in the eyes of TV-watching Baby Boomers, most of the films were boxoffice disappointments (Sinbad being the lone legitimate hit) and the Harryhausen/Schneer team largely lost their comfortable deal with Columbia Pictures.
Undaunted, he soldiered on through the 60s even as it became clear that he was in the uneasy position of being both behind and ahead of his time in a changing film industry: an old fashioned optimist in an increasingly cynical medium and a tech-wizard decades before such work would be properly respected. His visually striking dinosaurs created for Hammer’s smash hit One Million Years B.C. were overshadowed by the entirely different special effect of Raquel Welch’s deerskin bikini. The Valley of Gwangi, a passion project originally planned by the late Willis O’Brien about cowboys encountering dinosaurs in the Mexican badlands, was a box office failure.
All the while, Harryhausen was inventing and perfecting new techniques for his chosen medium. He developed layered projection techniques for compositing his creatures into pre-shot live action footage, experimented with new armature mechanics (often fabricated by his own father) for animation and even pioneered the use of controlled inflation air bladders in order to make his monsters appear to breath. In doing so he essentially composed a bible of effects animation so comprehensive that its techniques and their new tech descendants are still widely in use today.
In the mid-70s, Harryhausen and Schneer experienced an overdue second wind with the unexpected revival of the Sinbad franchise. Amusingly, the old fashioned sensibilities that had for a time branded their earlier fantasy films as “hokey” found new affection amid the 70’s camp trend and from now teenaged Boomers who’d grown up with them as TV Creature Feature mainstays; and both The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad & The Eye of The Tiger were box office hits.
In 1981 Harryhausen would undertake his highest profile project ever: Clash of The Titans, a retelling of the Greek myth of Perseus that its backers were hoping would do for the swords & sandals genre what Star Wars did for space opera… but it was not to be. While Clash features some iconic imagery, with Medusa possibly being Harryhausen’s most technically-impressive work of all, it was a boxoffice disappointment for its studio and a creative frustration for the aging FX artist.
Disillusioned with what he once more saw as a darkening of the scifi/fantasy world, Harryhausen largely retired from active studio work. He instead became a mentor to up-and-coming technicians, an advocate for the field and a fixture of the fandom convention circuit he, Ackerman and Bradbury had fostered so long ago. The man who had spent most of his career as overlooked and underappreciated as any other FX engineer would spend his remaining years feted as a living icon, cheered as a sought-after convention speaker and referenced by cameo (and by name!) in major blockbusters.
Today, there are few facets of popular culture where his influence isn’t felt. Openly referential analogues to his monsters have been battled in comics by the Justice League and The Avengers. Film fantasies as varied as Terminator, Independence Day, The Avengers, Lord of The Rings and Army of Darkness build their most memorable scenes in his shadow. Video games especially, from Rygar to Castlevania to Mortal Kombat‘s Goro have culled monsters wholesale from the Harryhausen menagerie; and while I don’t doubt that he would be horrified by God of War‘s take on Greek mythology, the influence is unmistakable.
Ray Harryhausen built the dreams of multiple generations, one frame at a time. His passing leaves a space in film culture that simply can’t be filled – but at least we still have the movies.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.