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.

4 comments:

mark slade said...

Hi Michael,i just wanted to leave you a note saying how much i enjoyed the episode of MONSTERS TV show you wrote, perchance to dream. I run a story podcast and i'd love to have one of your stories featured. If you are interested, let me know. i'll leave a link to the website http://darkdreamspodcast.blogspot.com/ my email is animalmother16@msn.com.
thanks for writing some wonderful things.
---mark slade

Sarah said...

Hi Michael,

I hope you're well. I have been asked to determine if the film and television rights to VOODOO CHILD are currently available. Could you please advise, or direct me to the party currently handling these rights on your behalf?

Many thanks in advance.

Best,
Sarah

mweinerasst@caa.com

fantasytracker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
fantasytracker said...

I loved Dungeons and Dragons and in learning more about it...I discovered that an un-produced story exists and realized an audio file does exist.
Have not listened to it yet...but I will.
I think the time good to bring a reinvented Cartoon to television based on your work and those great characters.
I would love any insight or help you could give me since I want to find a way to bring back the show, in a reimagined retelling, after a fashion.
I found this blog as I try and learn more about how I might best recreate the now latent magic of such a great show.
Any thing I say about the disease you have could come off as trivial or even catering...so I will say this: It takes more bravery than people often realize to endure a hardship that only becomes heavier with time.
My grandmother had Alzheimers for 15 years before she died and for the first seven she horribly understood she was losing her mind.