It may have been five years before Willis O’Brien’s ground-breaking first use of stop-motion animation in The Lost World, and the most famous use of the medium in 1932′s King Kong, but it was in 1920 that the triumverate worlds of movie special effects, stop motion, and monster movies was fundamentally changed forever. For that was the year that saw the birth of king of stop-motion special effects Ray Harryhausen.
Leave it to special effects make-up maestro Rick Baker to come up with some of the highest praise for Harryhausen at Bafta’s star-studded celebration bash thrown in his honour at the BFI Southbank. He asked what if Harryhausen had never been born. And his response, while edged with comedy, suggested that the film universe would likely be an extremely different place to what it is now:
I’d be asking you if you wanted fries with that … Peter Jackson would be shearing sheep.
Harryhausen is quite rightly cited as one of the major influences on modern cinematic history: everyone from Nick Park to Steven Spielberg openly admit that they owe an artistic debt to his work and techniques, which continue to strongly influence the way CGI compositing software is made up today. And to even consider a world without his work is almost inconcievably bleek, as the Guardian suggests:
We’d have no Star Wars, no Terminator, no Toy Story, no Pan’s Labyrinth, no Edward Scissorhands, no Jaws, no Shawshank Redemption, no Wallace and certainly no Gromit. Those are just the collateral damage, without Harryhausen there would be no Jason And The Argonauts, no 7th Voyage Of Sinbad and no 20 Million Miles To Earth. That’s not a world I’d want to live in. It wouldn’t be much fun.
And to think, all of the success and the accolades have been handed out to a man who at the tender age of 13 saw a film- O’Brien’s King Kong in this case- which changed his life and the way he felt about cinema. That film etched itself permanently on the young Harryhausen brain, compelling him to go and make his own stop-motion creations. I still find it amazingly uplifting to hear that cinema has that enormous power to feed passion.
We all owe Harryhausen a bigger debt than we could possibly repay. He has dazzled fans throughout his career, offering some of the film history’s most seminal works. I suggest continuing to cherish those works might go some way to showing our allegiance, which will be made far easier now that Harryhausen is working with Legend Films to re-release some of his earliest works. Personally, I would love to see his work re-released en-masse to high-definition, and given the kind of remastering treatment that it deserves, rather than being trotted out as a mere money-spinning exercise.
To celebrate the great man’s birthday, I present you my top five Ray Harryhausen movie monsters:
Talos, Guard of Crete from Jason and the Argonauts
Lumbering metal genius, and utterly terrifying the first time I saw it. Still just as effecting now.
Medusa from Clash of the Titans
About a million miles away from the snarling mute serpent bodied version of the recent big screen remake, Harryhausen’s original Medusa was about as scary as they come. Uma Thurman certainly doesnt come anywhere near!
Mighty Joe Young from Mighty Joe Young
Not the monstrosity of the remake, but the original stop-motion creature from the Academy Award winning 1949 version. It was entirely down to Harryhausen’s skill that the big monkey had enough of a personality to ensure that audiences really cared about him.
Cyclops from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad
The monster that sticks in my mind more than any other- presumably because I have seen The Seventh Voyage… more times than any other Harryhausen film (barring perhaps The Killers video).
The Skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts
Still probably the most famous of Harryhausen’s scenes, and still utterly compelling to watch, here it is in all its glory:
Further news from Harryhausen’s birthday comes in the shape of the opening of an exhibition called ’Ray Harryhausen: Myths and Legends’ at the London Film Museum and the linked announcement from the National Media Museum that it will probably be acquiring Harryhausen’s archive of drawings, storyboards and models:
Examples in the collection include the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts  and the Medusa and the Kraken from Clash of the Titans . It also features rare work by the pioneer special effects designer Willis O’Brien (1886-1962), the creator of King Kong, with whom Harryhausen worked early in his career and who was a major influence.
Even in this age of 3D and high-definition, it is oddly comforting that the master’s work is still held in such high esteem. And so, in the words of the excellent Budweiser commercials: here’s to you Mr Harryhausen, real man of genius.