May 8, 2013
RIP Special Effects Visionary Ray Harryhausen
Ray Harryhausen wasn’t just a visual effects artist; he was a special effects visionary. Today, those who grew up with CGI graphics may find Harryhausen’s stop motion animations a little jarring, even “fake” looking. However, even 50 years later Jason and the Argonauts is still pretty fascinating to watch.
The film actually isn’t very good. The plot meanders, the story isn’t really concluded and the acting is more like cardboard than some of the sets. But the skeleton warriors; the film had those awesome skeleton warriors, which Harryhausen brought to life via stop-motion animation.
Again, these weren’t perfect. The motions weren’t exactly fluid, it was easy to tell that the skeleton’s sword movements didn’t quite fit with the actors, but when did anyone see skeletons walk convincing (or for that matter at all) before the climatic fight scene in Jason and the Argonauts? In a word, never!
He continued to provide his skills for a number of movies, many of which would be just silly B-movies were it not for his effects. Consider his work in the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans to the recent remake. Neither are top-notch movies, but CGI can’t save a bad movie, where at least Harryhausen’s effects made for something special.
Were it not for Harryhausen, we probably wouldn’t have many of the great special effect-laden films today. Ray Harryhausen influenced Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, George Lucas and John Landis.
Harryhausen wasn’t the first to utilize the stop motion technique and in many ways this great was influenced by Willis H. O’Brien, whose ground-breaking work was mostly done “uncredited.” In fact, while he is acknowledged today for his work in the 1933 version of King Kong, he wasn’t credited for it. He did, however, work on the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young, where the then young Ray Harryhausen worked on the animation sequences.
Thus Harryhausen wasn’t the first to “animate” miniatures, but he learned from the pioneer and refined the skill so much that was used even as CGI came into its own.
Spielberg reportedly wanted to go with stop motion animation for 1993’s Jurassic Park, and in truth the film is probably better for its use of CGI. In fairness, CGI has helped make the impossible possible, to some extent at least.
Say what you will about James Cameron’s Titanic, but it still looks like a computer generated ship in some scenes. For the money, Cameron spent he could have built a full-sized replica instead. Miniature ships might look like miniatures, but they don’t typically cost hundreds of millions dollars.
The other part of this to consider is that stop motion animation (while still not looking quite real) actually impressed audiences. People were in awe of King Kong in 1931 and of those wondrous skeleton warriors in 1963. Today, Michael Bay and his ilk unleash Transformers and other CGI-laden films every summer and these movies feature stunning realistic effects with the requisite explosions and little else.
In other words, the effects may look better but they’re hardly as special.
Ray Harryhausen, you’ll be missed by those who love the real effects in movies.
Image Credit: IMDB.com