Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Transforming Reality: Ray Harryhausen

“Fantasy is essentially a dream world. An imaginative world. And I don’t think you want it quite real. You want an interpretation. And stop-motion to me gives that added value of a dream world that you can’t catch if you try to make it too real. And that’s the essence of fantasy, isn’t it, transforming reality into the imagination.”

Ray Harryhausen
quoted in “The Harryhausen Chronicles”
available on almost all his DVDs
in the special features menu

On May 7, stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen passed away. He was 92.

There have been many tributes to him on the internet. Two are:

At R.I.P. Ray Harryhausen

At CartoonBrew: Master Animator and Director Ray Harryhausen Dies at 92

I never met Harryhausen and I never worked on any serious stop-motion projects. But low-res amateur stop-motion has become such a fun activity for me and I’ve done it so often here at the blog that I wanted to do a post pointing out a couple of things that almost never get said about Ray Harryhausen.


Although Ray Harryhausen was a great stop-motion artist, I think the most amazing thing Harryhausen came up with was dedicating his stop-motion work to one particular approach—using rear projection to create whole environments, the front and back views of a location around some action, and “sandwiching” his stop-motion footage in between the two areas of rear projection.

There are many ways of integrating stop-motion with live footage. When Harryhausen was young he was a close friend of stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien, who had created the effects of “King Kong.” O’Brien typically liked to work with a whole team of technicians. Some people to build models, others to build miniature sets, others to make glass paintings, others to perform the animation on the models, and so on.

Harryhausen saw that when Willis O’Brien tried to pitch ideas for new films to studios very often the studio would be discouraged by the projected budget of the special effects and pass on the project. Almost none of O’Brien’s ideas were produced.

Harryhausen realized that working individually or with just one or two assistants he could work on a tight budget that would not frighten studio executives.

And at the same time Harryhausen had a commitment to quality. His work always lived up to a certain standard. He did not make ridiculous productions like, say, Ed Wood. And he did not make trivial, almost-laughable productions like Roger Corman.

Ray Harryhausen had remarkable common sense and uncommon business savvy. These characteristics almost always get lost, nowadays, when people look only at his work animating models. But he very possibly never would have gotten the chance to do model-animation if he hadn’t framed his project ideas within budgets and production designs the industry would support.


Almost all directors, nowadays, acknowledge how influential Ray Harryhausen’s movies were and even continue to be.

But none-not one!—of the “famous” directors who have been successful enough to allow themselves to shape their own projects has even made an effort to emulate Ray Harryhausen in any way, or even to work to similar ideals as the ideals championed by Harryhausen.

In fact every well-known director, today, has embraced the exact opposite kind of ideals from Harryhausen.

Everyone acknowledges that Ray Harryhausen’s attitudes and approaches created remarkable films that have lasted for generations and will continue to inspire for generations to come.

But nobody wants to work that way today.

I’m going to give two examples to explain what I mean. These are phrased anecdotally. I will speak of budgets but I am not going to “correct” dollars to different decade values. And I will speak of production practices without naming specific companies involved in specific scenes. I think the general points are enough.

Everyone acknowledges that Ray Harryhausen created amazing films working with a low budget and a very small team of filmmakers. And, of course, “small” is almost a euphemism here since in all of Harryhausen’s classic films “small” meant him working by himself.

Nowadays a single special effects sequence in a movie may involve hundreds of people working for half a dozen different companies.

For instance, and this is phrased anecdotally but I believe accurately or even understated, in a typical Harry Potter special effects scene there may have been one company to create Lord Voldemort’s nose and another company to create the digital backdrop or location and another company to create the light effects of a magic wand and another company to create the atmosphere effects swirling around the light effects and another company to create an animal moving behind the action.

And there may be even more companies involved with just a single shot.

This is not uncommon.

This is why movie credit sequences might take fifteen minutes to scroll.

And this is why many modern movies (most? all?) don’t look so much like one movie but look more like stitched-together sequences of half-a-dozen movies all edited together in an attempt to shove along, to force along, various plot devices into a single coherent story.

I don’t like to talk about the “Star Wars” saga but I’m going to make one specific comment comparing Ray Harryhausen to George Lucas because Lucas gets quoted now and then praising Harryhausen. It is almost difficult to imagine a filmmaker who has so consistently embraced the exact opposite of almost all the practices and ideals that Ray Harryhausen built his career around than George Lucas.

I’m just going to point out some Wikipedia raw numbers.

It’s interesting in a sad sort of way to look at three of Ray Harryhausen’s most famous films and compare them to one of George Lucas’s films.

After George Lucas had a phenomenal success with “American Graffiti” he had an opportunity to make just about anything he wanted in just about any way he wanted. And he elected to do “Star Wars” and the generally accepted budget for “Star Wars”—what Wikipedia uses—is $11 million.

Ray Harryhausen made three ‘Sinbad’ films: “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad,” “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” and “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.” Working with technology from the late Fifties [!] through the Seventies, Harryhausen crafted three movies that are still fun and exciting to watch and are still landmark special effects films that film buffs go back and watch again and again.

The respective budgets for those three films were $650k, $983k, and $3.5 million.

I don’t like to talk about “Star Wars” so I’m not going to talk about the general coherency of the films, comparing the narratives and the visuals of Harryhausen to Lucas. It is interesting to do so, though.

But look at those budget numbers. Even if you imagine them normalized to some set decade they are still amazing.

For all practical purposes Ray Harryhausen (and Charles Schneer!) created three amazing films for something like half of what George Lucas spent on one.


Ray Harryhausen passed away and it is wonderful that everyone acknowledges what a great artist he was.

But it would be cool, also, if more people acknowledged what a buttoned-down business approach Harryhausen had to filmmaking, too.

And it would be cool, too, if someone, anyone, made an effort to emulate him, to live up to the standards he set.

I don’t see that happening, though.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I’ve done a lot of posts about Ray Harryhausen,
but I want to single out four that aren’t even
directly about him. But these are four posts
that are about me saying goodbye.

A young woman named Jamie worked
at our local library. She looked
a lot like Faith Domergue. And I’m a big fan,
of course, of “It Came From Beneath The Sea.”
So when Jamie moved on to another job, I wrote
a little goodbye song for her. I didn’t get
to post the video of the song at the time,
but I did later.

And now we’re all saying goodbye
to Ray Harryhausen

So here are three posts about Faith Domergue
in Harryhausen’s great monster movie
“It Came From Beneath The Sea,”
and then a fourth post with me singing
my goodbye song:

Scenes From “It Came From Beneath The Sea” – A

Scenes From “It Came From Beneath The Sea” – B

Scenes From “It Came From Beneath The Sea” – C

Quasi Una Atomic Octopus Fantasia

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