Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ray Harryhausen

Stop motion was a dominant form of animation when I was growing up. It infiltrated so many shows and movies of my childhood in large and small ways - Star Wars, Vision On, Sesame Street, Land of the Lost, and ultimately Clash of the Titans, the final great show reel of the movie making genius of Ray Harryhausen. My first encounter with Harryhausen's work had been a TV clip of Jason and the Argonauts' famous skeleton fight - still an effective and masterfully-choreographed mix of live action and animation. You've seen it - of course you have. Let's all watch it again:

Classic work, with some assured, slight, genius touches 'humanising' the bony killers - I love the occasional cutaway to those oddly expressive and malevolent grinning skulls, the deft wall vault one makes around the 2:45 mark, and of course that initial baleful scream - in my opinion much mimicked (on more than one occasion by Sam Raimi's Evil Dead and Xena franchises) but never equaled.

Of course Ray Harryhausen's work amounts to more than a standard Basic D&D level party melee, although you can be sure that a fair few skeleton encounters in my D&D playing games were based on that encounter and replayed in my head as a variation thereof. Surely that scene is why living skeletons are in the game to begin with? Speaking of which, surely, once again, there is a causal link between Golden Voyage of Sinbad's animated murderous ship figurehead and a similar murderous ship's figurehead in (SPOILERS!) AD&D Adventure Vault of the Drow. Even in my teens and pre-Jurassic Park the dinosaurs we encountered in our games were the stop motion monsters of Valley of Gwanji (still a favourite - somebody remake it. No, on second thoughts don't!), and though my adolescent adventurers never encountered a colossal Iron Golem, you can bet I'd have visualised it as Talos.

There are a lot of posts on the Internet about Harryhausen's effect as a movie pioneer and the filmmakers he inspired. I don't think there are as many championing his ability to penetrate the imagination. His work could amuse, enthrall, emote and horrify - the latter being ably exemplified in this sequence from my only big screen Harryhausen viewing (but it was a good one), 1982's Clash of the Titans' Medusa battle:

Probably a good ten years ago some friends and I revisited and experienced again Ray Harryhausen's entire oeuvre. Great early evenings of a mad scrabble from the office to the cable car and up to a viewing at VUW's AV suite. The movies were old and increasingly cheesy (particularly the Sinbad series), but made all the more enjoyable - the best viewing yet, in the company of friends.

Thanks for the thrills, Ray.

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