In the course of reviewing movies in the early 2000s, just as computer-generated special effects were becoming radically sophisticated and were also, increasingly, becoming the chief selling point of big-ticket movies, I more and more often found myself invoking the name "Ray Harryhausen." He died on Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at age 92.
And then I simply had to stop.
As effects got bigger and splashier, it seemed hopeless to try to remind moviegoers of the hand-made realism of the special-effects pioneer's mini-skeletons wielding swords and shields, of giant stone monsters creaking slowly to life. Now, more than ten years into the new century, special effects have gone beyond being awe-inspiring; they're just business as usual. And what they lack, more often than not, is the human touch.
But everything Harryhausen created was touched by human hands. That's the nature of stop-motion animation, Harryhausen's specialty, and its slight jerkiness is actually what makes it more believable rather than less. Somehow, the human eye delights in filling in those little gaps of movement -- our retinas seem to enjoy having a job to do. Harryhausen knew that instinctively, and after finding inspiration in the work of Willis O'Brien -- the man behind King Kong -- he built a long and dazzling career out of breathing life into inanimate figures.
The first of Harryhausen's creatures was, in fact, a gorilla, the fearsome, winsome title character of 1949's Mighty Joe Young; O'Brien is credited as the technical creator of the movie's special effects, but Harryhausen contributed most of the animation, essentially building a performance out of an armature and some fur. In the movie's finale, Mighty Joe rescues a group of orphans from a burning building, fighting his own fear – so visible on his simian face – with every lurching step.
Harryhausen's creatures weren't just marvels of movement; they had personality to spare. Even though the giant radioactive octopus of It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) is certainly up to no good, there's something majestic -- evengo-for-broke passionate -- in the way it rises from the water to wrap the Golden Gate Bridge in its suction-cup embrace.
Even when Harryhausen's creatures do naughty or nasty things, they're never really the enemy. The Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) looks dumbfounded when his chest is pierced with an arrow -- it's all too easy to read the expression in his one good eye. When the giant stone figure of Talos is first awakened by treasure hunters in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), he surveys the tiny trespassers with unblinking annoyance: How dare they rouse him from his beauty sleep?
But there is no more thrilling or evocative symbol of Saturday afternoon TV -- even if you never actually saw it on Saturday afternoon TV -- than the skeleton fight sequence from Argonauts, an elaborate battle dance so beautifully orchestrated that I can't imagine anyone who has ever seen it has forgotten it. A group of bony fellows push their way up through dry, crumbling earth one by one, an army of calcified, pissed-off daisies. With their eyeless sockets and leering mouths, they advance upon Jason and Co. on spindly, sinister legs, slashing at the air -- and at all-too-human flesh -- with their swords.
When the movie was released in Great Britain, the sequence was deemed too scary for little tykes and was cut by the censors. And even though we grown-ups of today have a clear understanding of the technology and the artistry behind it, the scene still rings with an almost mystical terror and beauty. This, Harryhausen showed us, time and again, is what you can do with some models, a camera, and a great deal of patience. It's not real life, but something better: A fantasy that comes alive between the clicks of the shutter, and in the blink of an eye.