Friday, June 29, 2007

Happy Birthday Ray

To the granddaddy of monsters, the godfather of visual effects, and all-around badass Ray Harryhausen, this blogger wishes a very happy birthday and many happy returns. Harryhausen studied under Willis O'Brien (who created King Kong), and later greatly surpassed his teacher's techniques and artistry. Virtually every major VFX person in Hollywood today cites Harryhausen as his/her greatest hero, and it's no wonder. Harryhausen's stop-motion work is the reason people remember Jason and the Argonauts, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Clash of the Titans, and my favorite, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. These are seminal films in geekdom, and their influence is all over Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Independence Day, etc.

What I find most notable is that Harryhausen was basically an auteur. His films were often his own brainchildren, greenlit based on the strength of his name and plotted by him. The directors of Harryhausen films (none of them as famous as he), tend to work around the FX sequences, which were all Harryhausen's design. His films are unmistakably Harryhausen films, not just because of his iconic creatures, but because of their pace, structure, and character. I can not think of any other technician in film history of whom this can be said. Sure, many cinematographers, editors, and designers have definitive and important styles, but no one ever said, "That was a great John Alton movie," or "Walter Murch movie," or "Edith Head movie" (you get the idea). But all of Harryhausen's films are known as "Harryhausen films." He's got two box sets and an "Early Years" collection in his name, plus several coffee table books. Tell me if I'm wrong, but I think this is unique.

No, his work is not photo-realistic by today's standards. The animated puppets are dated. But dramatically, they still work extraordinarily well. There's an indispensible sense of wonder in all his work. In his own words (I'm paraphrasing from memory here), effects that are too "real" are not interesting. There needs to be an other-wordly, slightly unbelievable quality in order to create drama. It shouldn't be too fake either, but his work always balances that fine line between the fantastic and the real (isn't that what movies are, at their core?). And so, to the ultimate filmmaker, Ray Harryhausen, I tip my hat. He's 87 today. Here's to 87 more.

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