Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ray Harryhausen remembered

Let’s take a few moments to mark the passing of Ray Harryhausen, the master of stop-motion animation, who died on May 7th at the age of 92.  Ray was best known for creating movie monsters.  Not the kind that could be played by a guy in a rubber suit with a face buried under twelve layers of spirit gum, but mythical, sometimes grotesque, sometimes majestic, largely nonhuman ones.  

To do this he created highly detailed miniature models, which he would pose and then photograph one frame at a time, twenty-four different times in order to produce one second of film.  If my math is correct (always a dicey proposition), a five-minute scene would require somewhere on the order of 7,200 separate ‘shots,’ with each shot usually requiring multiple minute adjustments to the model (or models). 

And somehow, the man lived to be 92.  He must have possessed the patience of Job, along with the gumption of a sea barnacle.

The resulting animation was then typically incorporated as seamlessly as possible into the live action of the film, so that it appeared that some gargantuan reptile or sea monster was sharing the screen with Jason and the Argonauts, or battling Sinbad and his crew, or conquering San Francisco, or stomping on Rome, or whatever the case may be. 

If you go back and look at his work, what becomes obvious is his attention to detail and stubborn commitment to producing the best results possible.  This wasn’t the kind of guy who was content to glue bits of latex to a lizard and call it a Dimetrodon. 
Emphatically not an example of Ray Harryhausen's skill

Yet, although I’ve always had great respect for Harryhausen’s work, I can’t say I’ve always been a huge fan of it.  I think that’s due to timing more than anything.  My first movie experience was Star Wars, and the problem with that is the film’s special effects were so spectacularly effective that it rendered the inherently unbelievable perfectly believable (at least to my nine-year-old mind).  Star Wars created an artificial reality so unhindered by the obvious presence of a magician’s hand that my imagination was completely immersed into it, and the resulting experience was absolutely thrilling.  Once that happened, once I had the realization that such a thing was even possible, well, there was no going back, no settling for less. 

And, unfortunately, Ray’s stop-motion animation, while it was performed at the highest possible level, could never quite clear that final barrier to believability.  His creations, as careful and nuanced and detailed as they were, always struck me as what might happen if Dr. Frankenstein, after his first giddy taste of success, went on a resurrection spree and brought an entire menagerie of prehistoric monsters and mythical beasts back to life.  Plodding, stone-footed cadences; each creature a staircase series of frozen motions, the perpetually nagging sense of knowing that you were watching an inanimate object imitating a living thing; those are the unfortunate constraints placed on Ray’s work. 

None of which was really his fault, though; he was simply bumping up against the ceiling of the technology that existed at the time.  To his tremendous credit, he pushed the process of stop-motion to its absolute limits, and extracted from it a certain kind of effectiveness which no one else could quite match as successfully. 

Besides, anyone with an understanding of the tedious, precise, unforgiving nature of the work involved in model animation (setting aside the vast array of additional problems introduced by blending animation with live action) has to admire what he was able to accomplish.  I acquired my keen sense of appreciation by making several stop-motion films as a kid.  With Rob, my friend and partner in crime, we learned two great lessons from these experiences.  One was that making stop-motion movies was easy; the second was that making stop-motion movies that weren’t hopelessly cheesy was next to impossible. 

At age fifteen, before learning that second lesson, I had grand ambitions of making a stop-motion film called “A Chipka Adventure” using my trusty Bell & Howell Super 8 camera.  The Chipkas, I feel obligated to mention, were a race of short, rotund creatures with squat legs and arms; they were made out of modeling clay and looked like hairless Ewoks.  They lived together in a small town set amongst some gently rolling hills where the buildings owed their primitive, rounded architectural style entirely to The Flintstones.  In the first scene, we were to meet the Chipkas as they go about their everyday lives: farming in the hills, sitting down at the kitchen table for breakfast, meeting on the streets of town.  They are suddenly confronted by the appearance of a ferocious, Chipka-eating, T-rex-like monster (that part, at least, was very much a Harryhausen inspiration).  Of course, the creature begins wreaking havoc on the town, and the small, brave Chipkas must band together and fight back to save the clay, as it were. 

I’m not saying the film would’ve won any awards for originality or anything, but there were some nice action sequences, a few daring set pieces, several choice sight gags, and one truly poignant moment between the sheriff of the Chipka town and the deputy who dies saving his life…

Anyway, what started as a passionate attempt to tell a story using stop-motion animation quickly degenerated into complete disaster.  The problems were too many and too idiotic to describe here, but after several tests, we concluded that our aspirations were set too high, and returned to filming mostly explosions of Matchbox cars loaded with firecrackers. 

And that’s what separated Ray from people like me.  He was that guy who refused to get discouraged by the constant setbacks and challenges of incredibly laborious and time-consuming work.  I think it’s safe to say that Mr. Harryhausen didn’t yield to his frustrations the first time he discovered that modeling clay is far from an ideal medium for stop-motion animation, thanks to its maddening tendency, after moving it ever-so-slightly, to move right back.  

For that alone, Mr. Harryhausen has earned my eternal respect.

Ray’s last big film was the original Clash of the Titans, which came out in 1981.  I remember being enthralled by the movie the first time I saw it, probably because I was thirteen, and already a hardcore Greek mythology geek from way back in second or third grade.   It certainly captured my imagination enough to inspire many swimming pool battles with the Kraken, the film’s titanic sea monster, in our family’s above-ground pool, using a weed spear from the garage as a weapon.  I must have put a hundred razor-thin slits in the blue vinyl liner as I launched it through the water, admiring as it cut like a self-propelled torpedo towards the far side of the pool, or repeatedly plunging the wicked, v-shaped blade like a harpoon down through the bottom and into the satisfyingly dense, hard-packed sand beneath. 

Of course, I was sensible enough to remain silent whenever my dad would bring up the subject of how the pool always seemed to be leaking.  And I tried not to lollygag when I would see my dad out there, paddling around in frustration with a mask on and holding a patch kit in one hand, looking for holes. 

Sorry, dad.

The point is, even as smitten as I was with Clash of the Titans, I had to acknowledge many of the effects in the film weren’t as realistic as I wanted them to be.  I remember cringing a little at some of the clunkier moments, and I’m not even referring to Harry Hamlin’s performance.  Some things worked (the transformation of Calibos, for instance, or the severed head of Hera’s colossal statue snapping her eyes open, and the Kraken itself come to mind).  Some things, though, just weren’t very convincing.  Even with all of Harryhausen’s enormous prowess applied to the task, the hideous Medusa never felt real (especially the snakes), Muppets moved more naturally than the animated monsters, and flying Pegasus mostly looked like a white horse with cartoon wings.  I was just so eager to see a movie – not a cartoon, a real movie – about Greek mythology that I simply refused to allow those buzzkill moments to derail my enjoyment of the film. 

It’s amazing sometimes the obstacles a fevered imagination can overcome.

Harryhausen's work often looks its best in still photos.
Makes sense, since he was making it one frame at a time.  
Looking back at it now, I think Clash of the Titans serves as a fitting culmination to Ray’s long career in stop-motion animation.  Coming as it does in the twilight of the era of camera-based special effects, it stands as an oddly appropriate requiem to the use of miniatures, and mattes, and optical illusion as a way of bringing the pure product of imaginative fantasy into some palatable form of visual existence.  In a way, it was a last gasp attempt of the hands-on, workshop approach to creating movie magic on such a large scale, doomed to limited effectiveness by its adherence to a played-out technology.  Perhaps Clash of the Titans reflects Harryhausen’s refusal to abandon the old ways, or perhaps it was just bad timing that he had the opportunity to make this film before the emerging computer-based technology was mature enough to handle the tremendous challenges it posed.  Still, it makes for an interesting, “this is just how far we were able to get with this stuff” kind of tribute to Harryhausen, and his unique brand of visual effects orchestration, one which allows audiences to see for themselves the achievements, along with some of the painful boundaries, of the master and the medium.    

Ray did it as well as it could be done.  And that, under the circumstances, is high praise.  Further, it would be wrong to imply that his effects weren’t effective within their own time and place.  Ray’s work didn’t thwart the audience’s capacity for wonder; it fueled it.  Our imaginations were not repelled or retarded when watching his movies, they were augmented and excited.  Even if the results weren’t always believable, they were better than anything else we had seen to that point, and more than enough to unleash great driving inspirations of their own.  His work spawned subsequent generations of artists and filmmakers who would seek out new ways of realistically portraying creatures onscreen.  The movie industry would spend many years, and many millions (more likely billions) of dollars, to invent, develop and refine entirely new technologies, all in a concentrated effort to overcome “the Harryhausen effect.”

In short, his work kept a whole lot of other people dreaming, me included.

Thanks especially for that, Mr. Harryhausen. 

P.S.  If you want to read a very different take on Harryhausen from someone I would describe as a true fan, check out this post by M.V. Moorhead.  He's a Phoenix writer who's got a well-written and frequently insightful blog that I really enjoy.  

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