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The Game-Changer: Ray Harryhausen

by Leonard Maltin
May 7, 2013 9:05 PM
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When Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad came out in 1958, it didn’t dominate the box-office as Iron Man 3 did this past weekend. That’s because fantasy and comic-book movies were considered grade-B material and kiddie fare in those days. The biggest hits of that year were films for grown-ups like The Bridge on the River Kwai (released in late ’57) and Peyton Place. Walt Disney’s Old Yeller was a hit but still ran a distant tenth. What Harryhausen and his producer-partner Charles H. Schneer did with films like Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, and The Three Worlds of Gulliver was to plant the seeds of imagination in the next generation of moviemakers: Spielberg, Lucas, Peter Jackson, and countless others. When George Lucas says that without him there probably wouldn’t have been a Star Wars, he isn’t exaggerating.

I can’t think of another artist in the world of film who has exerted such an enormous influence since the days of Griffith and Chaplin. Harryhausen lit a fire in the minds of boys raised on comic books and television, just as King Kong inspired him in the 1930s. Those “monster kids” went on to dominate the world of popular culture, not to mention the box-office. What’s more, they’ve acknowledged the man who made it all possible in their work: there are specific tributes to The Master in a variety of movies, from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, in which George Lucas replicated a memorable moment in Mysterious Island, to Monsters Inc., in which a fancy sushi restaurant is named Harryhausen’s.

The future special-effects wizards who were turned on by the Cyclops and sword-wielding skeletons that Ray brought to life came into their own at a very different time, and have now lived through the transition to computer-generated imagery, or CGI. Ray had to teach himself every technique of visual effects when he was starting out, not just stop-motion animation: he painted backgrounds and crafted his own mattes and process shots. Even when he became a respected professional, he executed almost every one of his eye-popping animation sequences by himself—and was usually forced to use the first take because there was no money in the budget to go back and start all over again!

If you watch Ray’s earliest efforts from the 1930s, made in his parents’ garage, the spark is already present—as well as the enormous skill that he refined, year by year. I believe the explanation is simple: he was, in his own way, a genius.





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  • Norm | May 9, 2013 4:12 PMReply

    There are no words to express my personal admiration and gratitude for Ray Harryhousens' film works, especially the Seventh Voyage of Sinbad which I ranked as his personal best. Whatever film maker or FX specialist who had ever seen his works could not but be helped by his talents. Gone but never forgotten, Harryhousens' works will continue to inspire the imagination in all of perpetuity...

  • Giuseppe Lippi | May 9, 2013 7:47 AMReply

    Ray Harryhausen also inspired a much more significant artist than Spielberg and Lucas, and the happy result of this were the besutiful stop- and slow motion shots in 2001 A SPACE ODISSEY. Thank tou!

  • Jim Reinecke | May 8, 2013 5:59 PMReply

    Another giant leaves us. There are few who can be said to have equalled, let alone surpassed, their mentors but certainly Mr. Harryhausen would be one of those few. This is certainly not meant as a slap at a pioneer like Willis O'Brien. . .far from it. But this man turned movies that were dominated by special effects into special events and he was far more prolific than Mr. O'Brien. And when they were supported by intelligent scripts (20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH comes to mind immediately) all the better. He was one of those rare ones who regaled by boyhood in the sixties (still remember standing in line on a brisk Saturday afternoon in '67 at my neighborhood cinema, the old Shenandoah Theater in south St. Louis, eagerly anticipating ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.) but still remains a treasured and admired filmmaker today in my mid-fifties. Thanks for sharing your sense of wonder along with your creativity and imagination for so long, Mr. Harryhausen. May you be embarking on a new golden voyage to a better world.

  • Nat Segaloff | May 8, 2013 3:44 PMReply

    Harryhausen's characters had the human touch in both meanings of the phrase. He was a gracious man whose genius would have allowed not to be. His best work was underscored by Bernard Herrmann, who understood how to bring the audience as well as Harryhausen's characters to life.

  • Paul F. Etcheverry | May 8, 2013 10:17 AMReply

    Nobody inspired more to become filmmakers and special-effects artists than Ray Harryhausen. His spark is part of that line of bold stop-motion animation innovators, along with Émile Cohl, Ladislaw Starewicz, George Pal, Charley Bowers and his mentor, Willis O'Brien. Goodbye and thanks for the big screen memories, Ray!

  • terry bigham | May 8, 2013 8:39 AMReply

    Search for a copy of Harryhausen's "An Animated Life" for more info on his life, movies, and animation methods, as well as tons of photos. Goodbye, Ray, your creations will be long remembered when today's computer imagery becomes passe.

  • jenni | May 8, 2013 12:48 AMReply

    He inspired many girls, too. Their names may not be as famous as the boys, but we do exist!

  • Yvette Kaplan | May 8, 2013 8:16 PM

    Yes! Jenni is absolutely right. The unsettling beauty, profound terror, and unforgettable magic and awe Harryhausen inspired have no gender or age restrictions. His creations have moved us all, and will continue to do so, for a long, long time.

  • Ken Blose | May 8, 2013 12:38 AMReply

    Thanks Leonard for the nice tribute to my favorite filmmaker. We will miss him.

  • mike schlesinger | May 7, 2013 10:59 PMReply

    I remember being horrified early in 1964 when JASON did not receive an Oscar nomination for Special Effects. The two nominees that year were THE BIRDS (okay, fine) and CLEOPATRA (huh, what??)...and guess which one won. No better example of how his work was dismissed by his peers. It took later generations to elevate him to his place atop the mountain. I was fortunate enough to know him modestly--which come to think of it, is a perfect description of a man to whom we all owe so much.

  • Bruce Crawford | May 7, 2013 10:24 PMReply

    The 7th. Voyage of Sinbad was one of the most successful films of 1958-59 as it was their major Christmas release and made millions for Columbia Pictures. In fact it made nearly 10 times what it cost make the film.

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