Harryhausen had a ‘special effect’ on film


Despite industry acclaim, including a lifetime achievement Academy Award in 1991 and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Ray Harryhausen is unknown to most moviegoers.

But not to Alan Davis.

Harryhausen was the “godfather” of stop-motion animation — the herky-jerky movement of models painstakingly made alive frame by frame. More important, his dynamation process revolutionized the technique of merging real actors with stop-motion miniature creatures in fantasy films such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), and his final project, the original Clash of the Titans (1981).

Long before computer-generated special effects, there was Harryhausen, who died May 7 at 93 in his longtime London home.

Davis has been a student of the stop-motion genre most of his life. To him and other Harryhausen fans, “Ray was a hero.”

The 61-year-old lifelong Toleodoan and retired Blade pressman has a large collection of Harryhausen memorabilia — signed original posters, films, and even sculptural work — and had the opportunity to spend time with the visual effects artist over the years whenever he visited the Midwest.

“I was one of the lucky few that became a trusted friend of his for the last 20 some years,” Davis said, a perk that included “perhaps the most enjoyable evening of my life” at Harryhausen’s home while on a family trip to London in 1994.

“He showed me many of his puppets,” Davis said, “but the one that still stands out in my mind was the original Talos from Jason and the Argonauts.”

Jason and the Argonauts also produced Harryhausen’s most famous and revered dynamation sequence: the skeleton fight, featuring seven bony soldiers battling the mythological Greek hero and two of his crew.

“This sequence alone took him almost five months to do,” Davis said. “Film is projected at 24 [frames per second], so that is 24 separate movements for seven separate skeletons for only one second of film. When you do the math on this, the patience and concentration required are nothing short of phenomenal. On top of this, virtually every second of animation footage Ray shot was used as he rarely made a mistake. You have to remember ... this was in the pre digital era, when you couldn’t back up a few frames and check your work. You shot the scene, it was developed, and then you reviewed it the next day. They worked on very small budgets and Ray always got it right the first time.”

Harryhausen’s work not only thrilled audiences, but proved to be influential to many future filmmakers, including George Lucas, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, and J.J. Abrams. In a statement to Time, Steven Spielberg noted that Harryhausen “was the dean of special effects” who “inspired generations.”

Strangely enough, it was Spielberg whom Davis credits for helping usher out stop motion in favor of computer-generated imagery, or CGI, with 1993’s Jurassic Park, “the big game changer in the industry.”

“Spielberg originally intended to use stop-motion dinosaurs, but was presented with a new process, CGI. He decided to drop the stop motion and go with the CGI effects after seeing a test screening,” Davis said. “The industry followed suit and it is now commonplace in every film.”

Not that stop motion is going the way of the model dinosaurs. The process remains “alive and well” in the digital age, he said.

“Many independent filmmakers I know are making stunning new advances in the process with digital assistance, and I can see it in the future becoming once again a viable medium on the big screen, which will stand on equal ground with CGI.

“As Ray said in regard to CGI, it is just another tool in the filmmaker’s chest, as was his stop motion. You will also notice during the closing credits of a film in today’s world, the hundreds of technicians involved in the making of the film. In a Ray Harryhausen film, there was only one name listed.”

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.