A Great Artist Passes: Ray Harryhausen, R.I.P.

The best special effects scene ever: Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts

“Nobody goes to the movies to see a sinkful of dirty dishes.”

This quote, maybe apocryphal, is attributed to Ray Harryhausen, the special effects wizard who died this week at 92. He was a giant in the field of fantasy, an inspiration to many (including myself). And boy, did you not get a sinkful of dirty dishes when you went to a Harryhausen movie!

Mighty Joe Young was his first feature film, in 1949; his last was Clash of the Titans, 1981. In between, he cranked out masterpieces like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Mysterious Island, and my own favorite, Jason and the Argonauts. I have asked my crack technical support staff–her name is Jill–to post some video samples, if possible.

Harryhausen was a master of the painstaking stop-motion process–you film models one frame at a time, subtly adjusting their positions with every shot, and when you speed it up, the models appear to move: not unlike the old-fashioned way of making an animated cartoon. He made some refinements to the technique and called it “Dynamation.”

Stop-motion has largely given way to computer-generated effects. Most of those look like they were spat out of a computer. But even compared to top-of-the-line computer effects that don’t look crappy, Harryhausen’s work is magic. To this day, in my opinion, no one has ever created a special-effects scene to top the fight with the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts–a movie that is now some 50 years old.

Harryhausen was much more than just a techie. He had an artistic vision. He was determined to create fantasy that really was fantasy. To that end, he consciously avoided what we might call excessive realism.

“If you make things too real,” he said, “sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.”

Zingo! Bull’s eye! In a mere 14 words he describes the whole challenge to the fantasy film-maker; and to the fantasy writer, too. If it’s not real enough, you’ve got nothing. But if it’s too real, you’ve got a sinkful of dirty dishes.

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