Ray Harryhausen, 1920 - 2013
I heard this week that stop-motion effects legend Ray Harryhausen passed away at the age of 92. Geek sites of all stripes have been doing obit and retrospective pieces about Harryhausen and his astonishing legacy, so it's only fitting that I share a few thoughts of my own about this amazing monster maker.
I was first exposed to Harryhausen's work the same way I was first exposed to most classic fantasy, horror and sci-fi cinema: through syndicated TV, during weekend afternoon sessions of channel surfing. I initially didn't know who Harryhausen actually was, but I knew his work when I saw it. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Mysterious Island ... whenever these movies would air, I would tune in and gawk in amazement at Harryhausen's stop motion creations as they terrorized us feeble, fragile human beings. I couldn't have told you a thing back then about how he brought his creations to life, but I knew that there was something magical about them. Harryhausen was a master puppeteer and animator, and his attention to the details of emotion, form and movement was so meticulous that even after I had a firmer understanding of how stop motion animation actually operates, it still felt like these creatures had a kind of life of their own. Some may complain that stop motion animation isn't "realistic" enough, but such a complaint completely misses the wonder and excitement that comes from artistic inspiration and ingenuity.
If we can learn anything from Harryhausen's work, it is that the creation of illusions is an art form unto itself. Making things move that do not otherwise move, making things big that are actually small, and making things appear close together when they are actually far apart were techniques that Harryhausen skillfully applied to make his creations seamlessly share scenes with flesh-and-blood actors. It's easy to take these techniques for granted, especially since movies in general specialize in creating a wide variety of fantasies, but Harryhausen was an artist in a truest sense who in turn influenced subsequent generations of special effects artists.
I don't mind CGI effects in general, but something gets lost when physical effects like stop-motion are replaced by digital images, when computers do most or all of the sculpting, animating, assembling and calculating; the craftsmanship and creativity of artistic vision gives way to the novelty and convenience of technology. The mass production of CGI effects has led to the mass production of flashy yet forgettable blockbusters with no uniqueness of their own. In contrast, Harryhausen was a pioneer of imaginative cinema and his distinct and distinguished work will live on long, long after the CGI-overloaded movie franchises are forgotten.