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
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.