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Ray Harryhausen 1920-2013
"Willis H. O'Brien started the snowball, then I picked it up, then ILM picked it up and now the computer generation is picking it up. Where it will end, I don't know. Maybe in holography, although I'm not sure I'd like a grotesque monster appearing in 3-D in my living room." - Ray Harryhausen

It’s a sad day indeed for the movie industry and its fans as we salute genre icon and pioneer Ray Harryhausen who passed away today, May 7 2013 at the age of 92.

Incredibly, Harryhausen had been around as long as the sci-fi industry. He and his friends and cohorts the late Forrest J.Ackerman and the late Ray Bradbury were right there at the beginning, organising a science fiction club in Los Angeles in the thirties. Famously, it was Ackerman, literary agent and founder of Famous Monsters of Filmland, who coined the phrase "sci-fi" and that became the personalised plate on his car.

So, as Ackerman became a legendary magazine writer and collector, Bradbury became a legendary author - Harryhausen developed his skill in effects animation, developing the Dynamation process that brought to life the creatures of myth and fable to an audience of imtressionable young fans - myself among them.

My first memory of seeing anything of Harryhausen’s unique style of stop motion animation was Jason and the Argonauts. I must have only been about seven or eight. It was a Thursday night, and I remember we switched channels on the old black and white set we had at that time. As the picture cleared (it took a little while) I remember seeing the bronze giant Talos terrorise the intrepid Argonauts until he was felled by having a plug open in his heel, allowing him to bleed out his life giving lava. Jason and the Argonauts has remained one of my favourite films. I loved that movie before I even saw the skeleton fighting sequence.

Over the years, my interest grew, and I was always fond of seeing seasons of his films shown over Christmas. (Although it has nothing whatsoever to do with the festive season, Jason and the Argonauts remains one of my Yuletide traditions). I have fond memories of seeing The the Selenites in The First Men in the Moon, the cowboys trying to rope a T.Rex in Valley of Gwangi, and the Cyclops from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. They were event movies before the term had even been invented. For me, One Million Years BC was the pinnacle of seeing dinosaurs on the screen right up to the moment I stepped into a preview screening of Jurassic Park. I still have a soft spot for it. When I saw Irwin Allen’s The Lost World, I knew I was seeing lizards with stuck on fins, and was a bit nonplussed. But damn, Harryhausen showed us a pterodactyl - and it even snatched away Raquel Welch as a tasty morsel.

Harryhausen had learned his craft by studying Willis H.O’Brien the effects genius who in 1933 brought Kong to roaring life. Harryhausen worked with him on the sequel Son of Kong and teamed up again with O’Brien to animate the friendly and misunderstood gorilla star of Mighty Joe Young.

After a glittering career, Harryhausen simply retired after Clash of the Titans in 1981 having had enough. His unique process was a one man show in that he would animate his models by moving them a fraction of an inch before shooting a frame of film, laboriously toiling alone to bring those amazing characters to life, giving them personalities and quirks that left a huge and indelible impression on his audience. Watching his films was certainly one of the factors that inspired me to start writing about movies over thirty years ago. Watching a classic ray Harryhausen film (it doesn’t matter who the director was, it’s a Harryhausen film regardless) is still one of my favourite ways of whiling away a rainy winter Sunday afternoon - especially if it has the added bonus of a Bernard Herrmann score.

Rest in Peace, Mr Harryhausen. And a heartfelt thank you for an enduring sense of wonder.

Copyright © 2010 - 2013 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.

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