Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Man Who Moved Monsters

And another intregal part of my childhood is gone.

Ray Harryhausen, the man who moved monsters for a living, and in so doing, created an entire pantheon of creatures that moved me and my generation, is dead.

Of all the creative credits that graced the silver screens of the 1940s, '50s, '60s and '70s it can truly be said that Harryhausen's was unique. Those of us who formed the half-pint cognoscenti that were aware of his name at all would silently cheer (or not so silently) when his name appeared on the screen, because we knew that, even though the stories, acting, and other production values might be be mediocre at best, the movie would be great -- and not just because there would be monsters in it.

Because they'd be Ray's monsters.

I guess the onscreen credit that was most often associated with his name was something like "Creator Of Special Effects". This would include all kinds of on location trickery (most FX were "practicals" back then, done in the camera or somehow managing to fool the lens, as opposed to "opticals," which were done post-shoot; sometimes months afterward). But the ones to which I quickly learned to react in Pavlovian response were the "Animation Effects". And even though they definitely fell into the category of "opticals," they were where the magic happened.

Let's be clear here: Ray didn't invent the concept of what came to be called "tabletop animation." That honor belongs (I think; someone correct me if I'm wrong,) to his mentor, Willis O'Brien, who was responsible for bringing to life one of the first, and without a doubt one of the best-loved and most-feared (two sides of the same coin in this case) monsters ever -- King Kong. But Ray learned at the feet of the master, and that was mighty clear water. From O'Brien he learned the styles and techniques that allowed him to shoot, with meticulous attention to detail, a great many of the most famous and instantly-recognizeable animated creature sequences in all of movie history: the Ymir in 20 Million Miles To Earth; the Rhedosaurus inThe Beast From 20,000 Fathoms; and the eponymous Mighty Joe Young, the biggest gorilla aside from Kong himself.

The great thing about Harryhausen's creations was that they weren't just big mean ugly critters that could bite your head off down to your belly button (although that was certainly part of their appeal). Many showed emotion, had that extra spark of humanity (or monstrosity) that you appreciated all the more when you realized how much extra work went into giving them some bit of business to do. It might be only a few seconds' worth, but at an animation rate of 24 frames per second, that could consume some time. And even though you were taking your chances with some of the movies (It Came From Beneath the Sea, anyone?) No matter how bad they got, we always had Jason and the Argonauts.

Ah, Jason. One of the first Harryhausens I ever saw, and still one of the best. A retelling of the story of the Golden Fleece, it had one jaw-dropping sequence after another, until after awhile you just gave up and left your lower mandible lying there in the sticky morass of Milk Duds and Good'n'Plentys. The battle with Talos, the attack of the Hydra, and best of all, the climactic battle with the Children of the Hydra's Teeth ...

Ray Harryhausen not only made animation his career; he helped animate mine as well. Thanks, Ray.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Atheism 101

Although I'm a full-time writer of fantastic fiction, I'm still a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, pragmatist and atheist. These might seem contradictory positions, but they're really not. (Think of it as cognitive dissidence.) I make a decent living writing about little green men, vampires, ghosts, etc. But it's all made up. I don't believe any of it. I'm just grateful for whatever genetic quirk gave me the ability to think up stories and get paid to do it.

The wonderful thing about science is that, unlike dogmatism, it thrives on being proven wrong. We learn from doing, screwing up, doing a face-palm and trying again -- until we get it right. (Isaac Asimov once said that the most famous phrase uttered in pursuit of knowledge isn't "Eureka!"; instead it's "That's odd ...")

I have no vested interest in believing in God, but on the other hand, I have nothing against being proven wrong. If Jesus Christ staged his big comeback tonight, I'd probably think -- well, probably at first I'd think he was, as John Lennon once said, someone dressed up like Jesus, but after he'd, say, produced a few thousand loaves and fishes out of a doggie bag of Long John Silver's, I might be inclined to admit that he was working some decent mojo.

I'm not planning on losing any sanity points over it, however. In terms of sheer cosmic horror Jesus can't hold a votive candle to Cthulhu, and in terms of sheer cosmic silliness it's hard to imagine any religion that rivals Scientology in risibility, though evangelical Christianity comes about as close as any belief can. Where else but in churches deep within the Mason-Dixon singularity can one find nominal adults willing to fight for their belief that The Flintstones is a documentary? (Yes, yes, I know; but the Flying Spaghetti Monster is supposed to be silly.)