07 May 2013

Remembering Ray: 10 Great Harryhausen Effects Sequences

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Yes, that is a photo of me with special effects wizard and creator of dreams, Ray Harryhausen. I met him at a signing in 2004 at the (now gone) Lazer Blazer DVD store in Los Angeles. He signed my copy of An Animated Life, which was a gift from none other than John C. Hocking.

For the last few years, the idea squirmed around unpleasantly in my mind that I might soon hear the news of Ray Harryhausen’s death. Like his long-time friend Ray Bradbury, a fellow L.A.-area geek who also ended up becoming a legend in the worlds he loved, Harryhausen was a man of great longevity. But he was in his nineties and it was impossible not to imagine the day I would wake up to the headline: “VFX Pioneer Ray Harryhausen (1920–201?).” Still, I wasn’t prepared for it when it finally happened—today. The news struck like a bolt from Olympus, and then the ground split open and the Styx beckoned.

I have no need to explain Ray Harryhausen’s life to most of my readers. You know him. You love him as much as I do. Seeing Clash of the Titans in second grade changed my life: not only did it take a kid who loved dinosaurs and made him into someone who loved all monsters, but it opened that kid’s mind to Greek Mythology and consequently all history, so one day a History Degree would hang from his wall. Through Ray Harryhausen, I first began to love the techniques of filmmaking. Through Ray Harryhausen, I discovered film composer Bernard Herrmann and became an obsessive movie music lover. Through Ray Harryhausen I found heroic fantasy. The whole damn thing is his fault. I told him this when I met him, and he laughed because I’m certain I was only the nine-millionth person to use that same line on him.

Instead of giving the Great Wizard a standard obituary, I want to remember him through ten sequences from his films that do the best job of showcasing what made him an artist of visual effects, a Rembrandt of film magic. These are simply my ten favorite moments, yours may differ, although there’s a few on this list that I guarantee (Medusa) that (Medusa) we’ll (Medusa) all (Medusa) agree (skeletons) on (Medusa).

#10. Balloon Escape and Crash from Mysterious Island (1961)
Let’s begin with a sequence that has no stop-motion animation anywhere in it. Because Harryhausen is so closely associated with stop-motion effects, people often forget that he was an all-arounder when it came to visuals. The First Men in the Moon and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver depend more on model work and optical trickery than stop-motion, and all of it is wonderful. But the best work in this arena that the master did is the opening of Mysterious Island, where Union prisoners of war commandeer a Confederate hot-air balloon and get swept off into a storm that eventually smashes them onto the shores of the title location. It’s a great melding of tension, mood, and model work that grabs viewers by the throat right from the opening.

#9. Flying Saucers Crash a Beltway Insider Party from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)
I’ve found room for only one sequence from Harryhausen’s black-and-white SF movies on this list, and ironically it comes from a film that he didn’t care for much. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers may not feel like a “Harryhausen” film, but it’s one of the great ‘50s Cold War science-fiction flicks. Audiences really get to see alien vehicles in action, and in the finale the movie goes for broke when the military’s ultrasonic guns knock down the saucers over the nation’s capital. The saucers don’t just crash — they crash into the Lincoln Memorial, the dome of the Capitol, and the Washington Monument. In a word: brilliant. Best of all is the collapse of the Washington Monument, which crushes some poor tourist saps looking for a photo op on the lawn.

#8. The Creation of the Homunculus from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)
This is a great “actor” moment for a VFX creator. Harryhausen preferred to call his on-screen marvels “creatures” instead of “monsters,” and although I embrace the word “monster” with unconditional love, I understand where he made the distinction. Some of his stop-motion creations had personality to them beyond simply providing a threat: the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth, the star of Mighty Joe Young, the troglodyte from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. The finest example is the creation of the second homunculus in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, which shows Harryhausen giving his best “performance” as one of his creatures. The winged beast inches toward life, and the wizard Koura (Tom Baker) has to win its trust. It’s a marvel of acting through effects, and cheers to Tom Baker for working so well with something he couldn’t even see.

#7. Allosaurus Camp Attack from One Million Years B.C. (1966)
Ray Harryhausen didn’t have much creative input into One Million Years B.C. away from the effects sequences (he was loaned out to Hammer Film Productions as work for hire), but he had plenty of explosive scenes to execute in this romp with dinosaurs and Raquel Welch in prehistoric swimwear. The attack of a juvenile Allosaurus on the camp of the Shell People stands out for the variety of tricks employed. The dinosaur lugs up a man from the water, gets spears stuck in it, and tears away the top of a hut and knocks it over. It’s an excellent mix of live action footage interacting with the stop-motion animation that makes it seem as if the Allosaurus was right there on set. (It was a hog about craft services. Ate two caterers.)

#6. Dragon vs. Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
Monster-on-monster fun! Harryhausen pulled out a couple of big beast battles in his career, such as the bizarre meeting of a saber tooth cat and a troglodyte in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and an Allosaurus against a circus elephant in The Valley of Gwangi. The clash between the sinister dragon with Robert Morley’s eyebrows and the cyclops with the satyr legs that concludes The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is the most memorable of these fights. Harryhausen already built up the danger of both creatures, but there was no hint they might actually meet at the end. And then when it happens it’s like all the best moments of the great movie serials compressed into two minutes. And yes, I do feel sorry for the Cyclops at the close. That dragon is a jerk and he’d key your car door if he had working thumbs.

#5. Dino Ropin’ Yeeeha! From The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
The sine qua non of this movie. The whole pitch of The Valley of Gwangi (which started as a proposal for a Willis O’Brien project) is “Cowboys rope a dinosaur!” Harryhausen sure didn’t disappoint when it came time to show bronco busters trying to hogtie a full-grown Allosaurus — and failing. The choreography here is mind-boggling, just begging you to find out how in the world Harryhausen and the on-set crew pulled the damn thing off. Unfortunately, nobody went to see the film when it first came out (Warner Bros. changed hands and the new owners dumped the movie with zero push), and this fun mix of Western and monster movie remains criminally underrated with the general public. It is on MOD DVD at least.

#4. Skeleton Army from Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
You thought I’d place this higher, right? I have my reasons, all purely subjective, so please don’t kill me. But I acknowledge that most visual effects lovers and historians will rank this as Ray Harryhausen’s Sistine Chapel. The sequence is so well known that it almost requires no description. Three guys with swords against seven skeletons with swords. What more do you need? It’s insanity and I wonder why Harryhausen didn’t lose his mind from working on it. He lived for fifty more years after doing this.

#3. Duel with the Skeleton from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
Yes, I prefer the earlier skeleton fight, where it’s a one-on-one duel, over the larger version done five years later. More than any other sequence in Harryhausen’s career, this is the one that identified him as a stylist, a visionary with a particular way of communicating with audiences. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is packed with wonders, but Kerwin Mathews facing a relentless animated skeleton armed with sword and shield in a wizard’s cavern is something that still leaps off the screen with its ingenuity and its feeling of a single, brilliant mind conducting it. It also has one of the greatest music cues ever composed, courtesy of Bernard Herrmann, backing it up.

#2. Kali from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)
Ray Harryhausen found a way to take the multi-skeletal madness of Jason and the Argonauts and mold it into a single figure: a living six-armed statue involved in a maddest-of-the-mad sword duel. The animation feel effortless, the pacing delirious—it’s a sequence to savor again and again for the mastery on display. The best scene in the best film of Harryhausen’s career, and therefore the only thing that could top it is…

#1. Medusa from Clash of the Titans (1981)
Clash of the Titans was Harryhausen’s final movie, and when it came out the small world of special effects was rapidly changing into an industry. Harryhausen’s effects seemed a bit… “quaint” in 1981. But time has erased that, and now Clash of the Titans stands as a superlative celebration of the art of stop-motion animation since the days of The Lost World. Viewed this way, the Medusa scene is Harryhausen’s grand farewell and his masterpiece. It isn’t just the brilliance of the movements of the Medusa figure that make this such a stunning sequence; it’s how suspenseful and moody everything is as Perseus prepares inside the Gorgon’s hellish temple to slice off her head. This is Ray Harryhausen at his “directorial” top-notch, choreographing a complete moment of cinema that drenches viewers in fantasy. Few scenes of the fantastic in the history of movies are anywhere as awe-inspiring.

Anything I write about Ray Harryhausen to close this post would feel inadequate, so I’ll let the man speak for himself:
I love the films I was fortunate enough to have been involved with, and although the years spent on them were sometimes tiring, they were also fun. They were certainly not wasted years. How could they be? It is gratifying to know that my work bridged the years between Obie’s pioneering work and the new science of computer special effects and that the films have given so many people so much enjoyment and inspiration. While I don’t miss the stress and strain of moviemaking, I regret that I shall not now be able to put on celluloid some of the other creatures, lost lands and adventures still lurking in my imagination. It won’t be me, but maybe one day someone will again have the courage to make a picture that is pure imagination and adventure with real heroes and villains, two of the greatest assets in the history of moving pictures, or for that matter, any visual storytelling.