Ray Harryhausen Death: Special Effects Community Loses Gem

Move. Stop. Click.

In the film industry, very few geniuses get top billing. These are the crew, the set decorators, the gaffers, the 2nd unit directors, the matte painters, the special effects wizards. There’s always one or two working on nearly every mid-level or higher project.  In this day and age of digital effects, these wizards can get lost in the shuffle even more so than in the recent past. (Have you seen the credits at the end of Iron Man 3?) Very few of these technical savants ever truly get praised for their craft. Even fewer have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Today, we mourn the loss of not just a genius in this field, but a true legend. 

In the field of special effects, we all look to one man as the godfather of it all.  His name was Ray Harryhausen. I say “we” because in my youth I longed to be one of these geniuses. Ray sadly passed on May 7 but I just learned of it this morning. This man made an indelible impression on me in a major way. My personal affair with movies started when I was a young boy and my father introduced me to the adventure films of Sinbad (specifically The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and the Golden Voyage of Sinbad). I was mesmerized. Thanks to that introduction, I learned the names of Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Tom Savini, Dennis Murren, and of course, Ray Harryhausen. 

Ray became the gateway to my childhood obsession with monsters and monster movies.  I went backwards in time to capture it all: the Universal classics to all the Godzilla movies and everything in between. Science Fiction Theater was my afternoon snack when I came home from school! While I was busy absorbing all of this, along came Star Wars and that just increased my deep appreciation for special effects. I never could get over Ray’s stop-motion animation though. I even tried duplicating Ray’s techniques in my film-making class back in high school with a 16 mm handheld and a wobbly tripod. 

The truth is, Ray Harryhausen was a legend among filmmakers and not just because he was a talent at special effects. He also introduced many us to mythology, science fiction, and fantasy. Who can forget the tentacled monster in It Came from Beneath the Sea?  How about iron Titan Talos from Jason and the Argonauts? What about the Minoton from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger?  Still to this day, few special effects are as gripping as these were. Perhaps it is nostalgia talking here, but then again … no. It really isn’t just nostalgia. 

Special effects in movies today would not exist if not for the efforts of this man. Ray Harryhausen made the impossible a reality and what was only once dreamed of, he gave life to in film. Kids today will say its “cheesy.” The special effects are sub-standard, they will say. Tell your children that they should remember that if not for these efforts, nobody would have ever thought of it. Compare him to Steve Jobs if they still don’t get it. Tell them that the iPhone is cheesy by that same rationale. It may be cheesy by some standards, but a pure genius by others. Consider that even the masters at Industrial Light & Magic weep at his passing today.

And what better example can we provide than the utterly lackluster re-do of Clash of the Titans? The 1981 film is by far superior — ESPECIALLY when you see Medusa. In 1981, she was terrifying to behold! Honestly, I think she holds up even today. Ray spent more than two years to get the animations right, but I believe it was worth every effort he gave.

It is worth noting that Ray did eventually win an Oscar, of which he said “I was delighted to be recognized, and pleased now that animation is recognized as a legitimate profession.” He was a gifted man with an uncompromising vision. He stood for what he believed in and he was a rarity in the industry for that reason. 

All I can say to Ray is “thank you.” From the bottom of heart, I thank you for giving this young boy a glimpse of what dreams look like when they come to life on the big screen.