“If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane,” Ray Harryhausen once told a group of interviewers. The celebrated master of stop-motion cinematography was speaking about “the strange quality” that films like the 1933 epic King Kong and his own Mighty Joe Young (1949) brought to the screen. Harryhausen passed away this week at age 92.
The idea of a special effect being “too real” is almost anathema to modern movie-going tastes. In an era where space aliens make the White House explode and 3D televisions can be purchased at the local big box store, Harryhausen’s innovations seem almost quaint.
As such, it might be easy to lose sight of his vast influence on modern film-making. In reporting his death, the New York Times notes that modern masters, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Peter Jackson, all cite Harryhausen’s influence. The Times even mentions the common homages that are slipped into many of today’s animated features. Among the more notable are the Harryhausen piano in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and Harryhausen’s restaurant in the Pixar feature Monsters, Inc.
Not only did Harryhausen breathe life into models of dinosaurs, giant apes and sea monsters, he pioneered a technique to meld footage of actors with his animated creatures. He called his process “Dynamation.” He would film a miniature (the aforementioned dinosaurs, apes, etc.) against a rear-projection screen through a masked pane of glass. The masked portion would then be re-exposed to insert foreground elements (i.e. actors) from the live footage. The resultant effect made the creatures appear to move and interact with the live action.
Innovations such as these garnered Harryhausen a career Academy Award for technical achievement in 1992. At the Oscar ceremony, Tom Hanks told the audience that he thought the greatest movie of all time was not Citizen Kane or Casablanca but Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts.
Harryhausen’s success owes in many ways to an inspiring mentor. In his autobiography, Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, he notes the importance of early film animator Willis O’Brien. O’Brien’s King Kong, along with his earlier film, The Lost World (1925), inspired the young Harryhausen to make his own animated short films.
“My work, and therefore to a large extent my life, have been tied to a specific film and the man responsible for it,” he says of O’Brien.
Working in his parent’s garage, Harryhausen built models and taught himself the basics of stop-motion photography. While still in high school, he arranged to meet O’Brien and showed him his early projects. O’Brien advised him to study anatomy and sculpture. Harryhausen did so, along with taking night classes in film production.
Harryhausen stayed in contact with O’Brien as he gained experience working as a technician making stop-motion “Puppetoon” shorts for Paramount. These were humorous animated training films for the Army during World War II. After the war, he continued with his own animated short films of Mother Goose stories.
The connection to O’Brien really paid off in the late 1940s. Merian C. Cooper, the director and producer of King Kong, began work on another film about a giant ape with O’Brien. O’Brien remembered Harryhausen and hired him to animate most of the film, Mighty Joe Young. Released in 1949, it won an Academy Award for special effects.
As above, Harryhausen attributed much of his success to a great mentor and supportive parents. While we may not have a lot of future filmmakers running around our backyards and playgrounds, we do have a generations of young people that need those mentors and parents just as badly.
They need us to fill the void left by boredom and disengagement. They need us to inspire them, to teach them and to help them find the thing that will give their lives meaning.