Every movie fan is sad today at the loss of Ray Harryhausen at age 92. Born in 1920, his first job in Hollywood was working on Mighty Joe Young for Willis O’Brien, the pioneer of stop-motion animation whose work in King Kong inspired Harryhausen to follow in his footsteps. That successful beginning launched a decades-long career as one of the leading visual effects masters in Hollywood.
Despite never winning, or even being nominated for, a competitive Oscar, Harryhausen left a lasting mark on the visual effects industry. His style and creativity helped inspire a generation of filmmakers, including legends like Spielberg, Lucas, Burton and Cameron. Harryhausen’s ability started to truly blossom with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and its two sequels in the 50s and 60s, but continued all the way until his last movie in 1981, Clash of the Titans. By that point, fantasy films were dying out (until Lord of the Rings revived them in the 2000’s), replaced by science fiction as the popular spectacle movie genre.
Harryhausen’s last film was released before I was born, and I grew up as a member of the Jurassic Park generation of special effects, but his films are still impressive today, especially my favorite, Jason and the Argonauts. I challenge you to go back and watch it, and marvel at the sophistication of the way the effects are realized. No one would argue that the skeleton army is more realistic than the crew of the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean, but the film techniques used are just as sophisticated. In fact, many of the creations and even individual shots in Pirates of the Caribbean are directly inspired by the work of Harryhausen, including the skeleton crew, the Kraken and Calypso.
What Harryhausen did in Argonauts that stands out from other films of the time (and in fact most films in general, until recent years) is that he had a unified vision for the way the effects would fit into the scene. Most films of the day, and even through the early and middle years of CGI effects, have a big disconnect between the effects and the actors on screen. The actors, of course, had nothing concrete to base their performance on, and the effects artists would rarely take the time to seamlessly mesh their effects to the actors’ performance. This would result in the actors and the effects appearing as if they were just smushed together, acting independently instead of reacting to each other.
In contrast to everyone else, Harryhausen would sculpt the “performance” of his stop-motion creatures to mesh perfectly with the action that had already been filmed. Go back and rewatch the ending of Jason and the Argonauts, particularly the shot of Jason atop the ruins fighting off a horde of skeleton warriors (one of my favorite shots of all time). While it probably will seem cheesy to most of you, what he’s done is actually remarkable, and the level of detail in the movements draw you in, until you can believe that Jason and his men really are fighting skeletons. The effects aren’t perfect (and in fact the acting in the film is pretty flat), but in those moments all other criticism floats away. It’s easy to see how much modern effects owe to his artistry.