Farewell to Ray Harryhausen, the Stop Motion Master – By Philip Smolen

Ray Harryhausen is gone. My hero is gone. The man I admired for 50 years has quietly slipped away from us. His visions and his unbelievable genius are now part of the cosmos. He captured our imaginations by creating some of the most iconic movie creatures ever seen on film. He put up on the silver screen incredible scenes of pure fantasy in 16 movies by the sheer force of his will, an astonishing achievement. He fired the thoughts of countless millions and inspired dozens of new film-makers. But for one shy, lonely boy in suburban New Jersey, Ray was a hero – a shining light of creativity and possibility during a time when conformity was demanded and imagination was suppressed.

During the 1960s it was important to conform. And as a young Catholic boy, conformity was all around me. My parents didn’t approve of my monster-loving ways and tried their best to push my square head into a round hole. They wanted me to become an altar boy and play Little League baseball, but I fought against the regimentation. I loved my monsters and they were my life. My parents didn’t understand. They just looked at me and shook their heads. But I was hooked on sci-fi, horror and monsters. And the coolest monster maker around was Ray Harryhausen.


A Brief Moment of Clarity

I can remember the singular Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) moment in my life. It was 1963 and I was in third grade. On the last Friday of each month, the nuns decided that they had done enough teaching and would give themselves (and us) a break by showing the students of Saint Adalbert’s Grammar School a film. Students from Kindergarten to 4th grade would watch a movie in the morning before being released for lunch and kids from 5th to 8th grade would watch the same movie in the afternoon before being dismissed.

Movies were shown in the auditorium of the “old building” (it was built in 1912!). It was a dusty and creaky room that took up the entire fourth floor of the school and had a large stage at the front. It was freezing cold in the winter and boiling hot in the spring and summer. But I loved going there, because I knew that at least for a few hours, I would be spared the torment of the Felician nuns.

Most of the movies they showed us were lame. A lot of them were Catholic miracle films that were intended to reinforce the Baltimore Catechism that we were indoctrinated with. But there were exceptions. I can remember watching an old William Bendix baseball movie called “Kill the Umpire” (1947) that had me laughing very hard. And sometimes the nuns would show us a Disney film. Once they even showed us George Pal’s “When Worlds Collide” (1951). But there was an ulterior motive; they showed us that so that we could have a discussion about the rapture afterwards!

So the nuns herded us into the auditorium like cattle going to the slaughter. I could hear evil Sister Evalda (the 10 ton nun!) yelling at her class that unless they were quiet, she’d make them “stay in the auditorium all night” (a very scary proposal). I sat next to my buddy Mark and we both pondered what movie we’d be watching. Marky looked at me and groused: “I just hope it’s not another one of those movies about the Virgin Mary again.” Then the lights went off and the screen flickered and those magnificent pounding chords of Bernard Herrmann’s overture for “Mysterious Island” (1961) filled the room. I felt an amazing exhilaration. My God, they’re actually going to show us something good! I elbowed Mark and said, “Marky, Marky, this is a really cool movie. I saw it back in first grade. It’s got some great monsters.”

And during the credits I saw that name again – “Ray Harryhausen”. Suddenly, it all clicked for me. This was the man. This was the guy who created all those amazing creatures that I loved so much. Up to that point, I had always wondered why some monsters in some films were so cool looking and others looked ridiculous. And I would see that long name in the beginning of the credits of certain films, but I couldn’t pronounce it. But now, it was as if the gates of heaven opened up and shined a brilliant light on me. I was thunderstruck. I felt like an alchemist who had come upon the secret for turning lead into gold. Now I understood. I had acquired a unique knowledge that still escaped most mere mortals. Ray Harryhausen – this guy was the monster maker!


Feeding into an Obsession

There was such life and energy in Ray’s creatures. The way they moved, their actions and their reactions; they were so kinetic. They set my imagination on fire. They actually seared themselves into my very soul. I knew that I had to find out how these monsters came to life.

From that moment in third grade, Ray (and his wonderful creatures) became the singular obsession of my life. I started writing down the titles of the movies that I thought Ray had worked on and when these films were shown on TV, I watched the credits carefully searching for his name. I was thrilled when I caught his name in the credits for 1949’s “Mighty Joe Young” (although I didn’t know just who Willis O’Brien was at the time). I also incorporated Ray’s creatures into my play-time. I used to try and build them out of modeling clay and reenact the scenes from his films. To say some of my attempts were ludicrous would be kind, but in my mind they looked just like the real thing.

When I was 10 I created my “movie review book.” I took an old English composition notebook wrote down the credits and the storylines for every sci-fi and horror film I watched. For Ray’s movies I would write down every creature that was animated during the film and give them a “star” rating (from one to four). Needless to say there were a lot of four star ratings on those pages.

But except for articles in the monster magazines of the day (Famous Monsters, Castle of Frankenstein) there was very little out there on Ray. However, I was able to piece together that he created his monsters through a process called stop motion animation. There even were times that the genre magazines published pictures of Ray actually animating his monstrous delights. I began to understand that he built and bought these creatures to life all by himself. I could not imagine that. What kind of powers did this man possess? Was he a magician and a sorcerer, like Sokura from the “7th Voyage of Sinbad” – carefully putting lifeless bits of clay, moss and twigs together and bringing them to life with the might of his mind? I was awestruck. How could one man do this?

Senior Project

My admiration for Ray carried through my youth and into high school. Occasionally at school, one of my friends would mention one of Ray’s movies that were going to play on TV and I would inundate them with facts about him. I imagine they all thought I was a little mad – to be so obsessed about a process as arcane as stop motion. I even tried my hand at stop motion, animating a marching parade of salted peanuts (trust me – Ray didn’t have anything to worry about). Then in 1973 (my senior year in high school), an opportunity presented itself to me. For the last six months of senior year our class load was reduced to three a day. The majority of our time was to be taken up with a research project. It could be on any subject and would require thorough investigation and preparation. You would have to present it to a panel of your teachers and classmates in June and turn in a 20 page research paper. I was bored with traditional topics like math or history and was at a loss as to what to write about. Suddenly it hit me – a 20 page research paper on the process of stop motion animation for feature films – featuring the movies of Ray Harryhausen. Yes! This would be fun and entertaining. So for six months I researched. I went to famous New York libraries and tried to investigate stop motion. As you can imagine, there wasn’t a lot out there, but I did find a couple of articles on Ray (remember microfiching?). Thankfully Ray published his “Film Fantasy Scrapbook” early that spring. That book became my primary reference. I also used this opportunity to watch any and all of Ray’s movies that played on TV. Hey, I was doing research!

For my presentation, I assembled a 25 page scrapbook of Ray’s famous creations from my collection of film magazines (as well as my written research paper), and I rented two 16mm prints of his classics – 1958’s “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” and 1969’s “The Valley of Gwangi.” During my presentation I first discussed the process of stop motion in general. Then, I ran scenes from each movie (the skeleton fight from “Sinbad” and the roping sequence from “Gwangi”). I would stop the film (our school’s film projectors could actually pause the film without burning it) and point out different aspects of the process (the background rear projection, the model in the foreground). I could see from the look on some of my fellow students’ faces that they just didn’t understand (or care) what I was talking about. But some of them were very interested and by the end of the presentation I felt I had added to a greater understanding of Ray’s contribution to the world of fantasy cinema. My passion for Ray’s art spoke for itself, so it was no surprise that I got an A+ on the project which assured my graduation. Thanks Ray!

Meeting the Master

As I grew older I continued to see Ray’s movies, follow his exploits in the genre magazines of the 1970s and1980s and collect memorabilia. In the 1980s I read about his retirement, and while saddened, I was hopeful that Ray would write about his career and maybe tour with some of his fantastic creations. My wish came to fruition in 1994 when I saw that he would be appearing at a convention here in New Jersey. I was excited as a kid that day, and sat in awe as the man gave a lecture about some of his exploits. His rich, powerful voice belied the delicate dexterity that he possessed in his hands. I shook one of those hands that day (it engulfed my own) and spoke briefly to him. He was warm and generous and took a picture with me. To say I floated that day would be an understatement.

Ten years later fate smiled on me again. Ray was appearing at a local New Jersey theater, and in celebration of his appearance they were showing 1963’s “Jason and the Argonauts.” I arrived early with my wife, son, and some friends and as we were heading towards the theater I saw Ray carrying a large heavy box filled with his autobiography “An Animated Life.” Like some eager school boy I offered to carry the box for Ray. He graciously accepted and we walked together for a few feet talking about the New Jersey weather. When we got to the theater door Ray’s good friend Tony Dalton took the box from me. Ray turned to me, thanked me and simply said “See you inside.” That evening was one of the most spectacular of my life. Ray autographed one of his books for me and as I sat and watched “Jason and the Argonauts” on the big screen again, I was magically transported back into my childhood. Afterwards Ray graciously answered questions from the audience. For this one amazing evening I forgot about my trials and tribulations and drank deeply from the fountain of youth and possibility. I was on a natural high that lasted for days.

And the Crab Gets Neb – Passing the Passion On

Like most Ray Harryhausen fans, there is an innate desire to pass the passion on to friends and family. When my son was three, I decided to show him “Mysterious Island”. I didn’t want to show him any of the skeleton fights for fear of frightening him. But my son sat in my arms for the entire movie and was simply captivated. The combination of Ray’s visuals and Bernard Hermann’s music was intoxicating for him. He was so taken with the film that the next day he sat down at the kitchen table and put together a storybook for the film. He dictated the story to my wife who wrote it down in longhand and he added in some colorful sketches of the film’s highlights. His favorite scene was when Captain Harding and his men are attacked by the giant crab and Neb is trapped in the claws of the beast. That scene haunted him, in much the same way as I was haunted decades ago by some of the images Ray created. My boy was hooked.

Farewell

I woke up on the morning of May 6th and knew Ray was very ill. You see, I had a dream about Ray the night before and I never ever dream of Ray. It sounds silly I know. I only met the man twice. But somehow I knew. Call it a premonition or whatever, but I was positive that Ray was ill. So when I read the news of his passing, it wasn’t a surprise to me. And I’ll bet that a lot of Ray Harryhausen fans had similar premonitions.

I actually feel sorry for today’s youth. They have gotten so jaded by CGI fakery, that they take films of the fantastic so matter of factly. But in my opinion, today’s films don’t stir the passion that Ray’s films did. When you show them one of Ray’s movies they laugh and complain that stop motion is too “jerky” and that the films are too silly. I know. I’ve tried to teach fantasy and sci-fi movie history to several groups of teenagers. They just don’t understand and fail to grasp Ray’s significance. There was something special about a Ray Harryhausen movie. They (and their creator) are timeless.

Ray’s movies comfort me. They make me believe again in all the possibilities of life. Ray Harryhausen was a magician and a supreme storyteller. Farewell Ray. Thanks for the fantasy and thanks for the majesty of your creatures. Your magic will always be a part of me. And I’m a better man for having been a witness to your magic.

To hear a wonderful interview Ray did with NPR Radio back in 2003, please click here: http://www.npr.org/2013/05/09/181947528/remembering-monster-maker-ray-harryhausen

To read a magnificent and moving tribute to Ray, please visit Tim Lucas’s Video Watchdog site and scroll down to his May 7th entry: http://www.videowatchdog.blogspot.com