Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Ray Harryhausen, 1920 - 2013

The first year I spoke at the Animex International Festival of Animation in Middlesbrough, I found myself on a panel with fellow industry bods including visFX guru Tom Martinek from Industrial Light and Magic. The panel was hastily arranged as there was a technical fault, so the four of us fielded questions from the audience. Then came the beauty:
'What was it that first made you want to work in the movies?'
I think Tom fielded the question, unsurprisingly name-checking the opening shots of STAR WARS as the Star Destroyer looms into view whilst chasing the Rebel Cruiser. It's undeniably breathtaking and had a profound effect on both myself and Tom as kids, as well as the other members of the panel - they all agreed that this shot was possibly the 'lightbulb' moment where they fell in love with cinema. Not so for me. I bucked the trend. Much as I loved Star Wars and profound as its influence was on my young mind, it was another film that had fired my imagination, from the comfort of my living room.
Jason And The Argonauts.

Seeing the statue of Talos groan into life, watching the skeletons rise from the ground, sprouting from the Hydra's teeth - these were what captured my heart as a kid. Yes it's jerky compared to modern day CGI special effects, but as stop motion animation goes this remains sophisticated, stylish and utterly breathtaking. Indeed, this film no doubt inspired every single film maker on the Star Wars franchise, not least George Lucas and Phil Tippett, stop motion animator of many memorable sequences in the series. The name of the fancy shmancy restaurant in Monsters Inc is no coincidence. A namecheck to whom? Uncle Ray, of course.
That's how I've always referred to him, anyway, though I only met him the once. Mention 'Uncle Ray' to any animator, and they'll know who you're speaking about instinctively, just like 'Uncle Walt'. Harryhausen's influence cannot be underestimated as it isn't just animators who have been inspired by him: illustrators and storytellers alike take their beats from his work. The many Sinbad movies, at times flawed by dodgy acting from the human cast, were never let down by the true stars - the monsters of Harryhausen remained utterly believable, the master breathing life into the unreal. One of my real favourites was The Valley Of Gwangi - cowboys vs dinosaurs? What's not to love? He was doing mash-ups before anyone KNEW what a mash-up was...
And now he's gone, though his influence remains. If I hadn't fallen in love with his films and characters, I'd probably never have spent my childhood playing with Action Men and Star Wars toys at the bottom of the garden, 'dolly-waggling' as my imagination ran riot. This was where I started growing as a storyteller, lost in my own little world, re-enacting the shenanigans Sinbad and Jason got up to. I would never have fallen in love with the Greek Myths if it weren't for Uncle Ray. I'd never have devoured every puppet animation I saw as a kid if it hadn't been for Uncle Ray. I'd never wanted to be an illustrator if it wasn't for Uncle Ray. I probably wouldn't have fallen in love with roleplaying games if it weren't for Uncle Ray, as this was truly where I learned to spin a yarn. I wouldn't have worked on Bob the Builder, or Wallace and Gromit, or Raa Raa if it weren't for Uncle Ray. And I'm pretty sure my first paid gig, Mars Attacks, wouldn't have happened if Uncle Ray hadn't first animated those skeletons.

I met him that one time twenty years ago at the short lived Banbury Animation Festival. He'd have been in his early seventies at the time and, frail though he was, commanded the audience's attention. Having a plethora of monsters on stage with him also helped as the assembled geek army watched on with slack-jawed wonder. I recall Dr Graeme Garden, of the Goodies fame, sat behind me in the crowd, there with his son. A fan, just like anyone else, who wanted to queue up and shake the great man's hand at the end of the talk. Hands that brought monsters to life...

You'll be missed, Mr Harryhausen, but never forgotten.

1 comment:

Niel Bushnell said...

A giant amongst animators.