Sunday, 12 May 2013

Ray Harryhausen

Cyclops vs.Dragon - The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad
Ray Harryhausen’s calling came to him young, when his parents took him to see King Kong at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre in LA. He was only 13 at the time, but he knew what it was he wanted to do, and set about achieving it with the spirited energy of the dedicated hobbyist. As he self-deprecatingly observed on many an occasion, he was lucky enough to be able to extend his hobby into a lifetime career. Lucky and, of course, with a natural and abundant talent which soon made itself apparent. Willis O’Brien, the stop motion animator who brought Kong and his dinosaur combatants to such vivid and characterful life, was Harryhausen’s idol, his work the pinnacle to which he aspired to ascend. He plucked up the courage to phone him some years after seeing Kong, by which time he had started to produce his own amateur films featuring dinosaurs. Finally, in 1939, he got to meet him on the MGM lot, where O’Brien was working on one of several never to be realised projects. ‘Obie’, as he soon came to know him, proved friendly and solicitous and gave him much valuable advice. He encouraged him to study anatomy, the better to understand how to make his models look convincing and move in a realistic manner. Harryhausen would always study the movements of the animals most closely resembling his fantastic creatures, whether at the local zoo, the aquarium or simply in the human zoo of the city streets. Appropriate then that he should make a cameo appearance in 20 Million Miles to Earth as a man looking at an elephant in a zoo – a real creature which he will later transmute into rampaging stop-motion form. He even went so far as to take a few fencing lessons to prepare for Sinbad’s sword fight with the skeleton in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.

Best pals - Ray and Mighty Joe
Such assiduous care and attention to fine detail make his stop-motion animation endlessly enthralling, and the sheer quality of his work have ensured that he has been widely and enduringly revered and imitated by animators over the years. He did get to work with his hero, Obie, on Mighty Joe Young (1949), which effectively became his apprentice work, introducing him to the world of Hollywood studio film-making. He did the bulk of the animation for this rather less than mighty son of Kong, and there was a definite sense of the artistic crown being passed down to the next generation. Harryhausen’s death can thus also be seen as the end of a lineage dating back to what many still regard as the finest fantasy film ever made (an opinion with which I wouldn’t feel inclined to argue). With CGI having effectively consigned the labour intensive art of stop-motion to the film museum, this is a lineage which is sadly now effectively at an end. Harryhausen would always honour Obie’s memory and pay tribute to the formative influence he exerted upon him. He would later make the allosaurus vs. cowboys picture Valley of the Gwangi which O’Brien had been planning when Harryhausen visited him at the RKO studios in the 40s. He used some of his storyboards as a basis for key scenes, such as the lassoing of the dinosaur in the drystone gulch.

O’Brien also taught the young Ray the value of fine draughtsmanship and the ability to produce swift and accurate sketches when detailing setpieces and storyboarding action. He introduced him to the etchings and lithographs of Gustav Doré. With their striking use of light and shade, they had a naturally cinematic appearance. They were to be a strong influence on Harryhausen’s own fine charcoal, pencil and ink pictures. Dynamic compositions such as the skeleton tumbling from the top of the exposed ruin of a winding stair as Sinbad prepares to give its skull a final cleaving blow with his scimitar; or an allosaurus rampaging through the shadowed vaults of a cathedral; or a group of men running through the rubble of a bombed out city as three legged Martian war machines stalk towards them are all executed with great skill and dramatic flair. The scenes they envisaged often created the immediate visual impact needed to sell the picture they were summoning up for studio bigwigs in one enticing image.

Arabic aliens - Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger
The latter image, with the Martian war machines, came from the version of War of the Worlds which Harryhausen tried for many years to make. Unfortunately, it was never to come to fruition. Ray would certainly never have let the strings show on those spaceships, as he later demonstrated in Earth Vs the Flying Saucers. His aliens were a bit more freaky, too – basically beaked amphibious heads on scuttling tentacles. He even got as far as designing two latex rubber demonstration heads. The beaked fish-man appearance was later incorporated into the design of the Kraken sea monster in Clash of the Titans. Harryhausen was never shy of re-using work cast aside in previous years. The homunculi who attack Sinbad and his sleeping compatriots in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger bear more than a passing resemblance to the Selenites from First Men in the Moon, aliens adrift in an Arabian fantasy (or perhaps it was the Arabian fantasy adrift in a post-Star Wars cinematic landscape). HG Wells was an abiding favourite of his. Another unrealised project was an adaptation of Wells’ Food of the Gods, whose giganticised animals would have been a natural for him to bring to looming and lowering life. He did get to make a light-hearted version of Wells’ rather darkly dystopic First Men In The Moon, however. His insectoid Selenites and grub-like mooncalves captured the feel of Wells’ lunar ant colony, and he also got to make a solidly brass-fitted Edwardian geodesic spaceship. He plotted one of Jules Verne’s fantastic voyages in Mysterious Island, whose oversized fauna (a crab, a bee and a chicken!) gave him the chance to realise some of the big beasties he might have enjoyed creating for Food of the Gods.

Attacking the one-eyed monster - The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
As his love of Wells indicates, Harryhausen was something of a classicist when it came to SF and fantasy (and he was much more at home with the latter). He shared the essentially conservative tastes of his lifelong friend Ray Bradbury. The two Rays met when they were both young men, artistic success and the acclaim of their peers still ahead of them. It would be Bradbury who, many years later in 1992, would present Harryhausen with his Academy award for a lifetime’s contribution to the technological development of cinema (the Gordon E Sawyer award). They both loved Kong, and vowed that they would sustain their love of dinosaurs into old age, treasuring their youthful relish of the exotic and fantastic. It was a vow that both managed to keep without too much difficulty. Their work tended to remain rooted in the era of the 20s and 30s in which they grew up – the age of colourful pulps, imperial adventures and monster fandom (Forrest Ackerman, founding editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland was another friend). Indeed, as Harryhausen turned to the worlds of Greek myth and Oriental fantasy in the late 50s and 60s, his films became increasingly nostalgic in their very escapism, their isolation from any contemporary currents in popular culture or in society.

Lost Worlds - The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
This disconnection from the usual signifiers of a particular decade gives them a curiously ageless quality, free from any attempts at zeitgeist riding. Even the sets, harking back to Doré and John Martin, the Victorian painter of immense depictions of Biblical apocalypse and Babylonian city states, steered clear of the contemporary designs which manifested themselves in many historical fantasies (and indeed in the 50s lounge furnishings found on the planet Altair IV in Forbidden Planet). Perhaps it’s significant that Clash of the Titans, his farewell to stop-motion animation movies, was released in 1981, at the dawn of the studio blockbuster period, and of the market-driven cinema it represented, with all its attendant crudities and loud sensationalism. Harryhausen’s finely crafted and lovingly made fantasies looked out of place in such a world, their emphasis on individual creative effort out of step with the corporate imperative. Even in the 1970s he was still producing classical and oriental fantasies rooted which tended to involve the discovery of lost worlds in the She or Lost Horizon manner. In Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, the adventurers finally reach an arctic Shangri-La of a distinctly Egyptianate nature with a transforming beam of coloured light at its heart. And in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, he drew designs for a fountain of youth, bubbling up in a vast subterraenean cavern and surrounded by an intact stone henge. The entrance to this sacred chamber is reached via a cave in a cliff face carved with heads derived from Indonesian Buddhist sculpture. Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger meanwhile uses the perfect lost world set – Petra, the city carved into the cliffs in the Jordanian desert.

Kali attacks - The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
Harryhausen always felt free to mix his mythologies. As early as his SF picture 20 Million Miles to Earth, he named his ever-growing Venusian monster the Ymir, after the father of the giants in Norse mythology. He would quite happily import mythical beasts from other tales or even other traditions when making the Greek classical or Sinbad films. Cyclops, centaurs, sirens, Buddhist carvings, Egyptian statuary and the Hindu goddess Kali (looking more like a dancing Shiva, actually) turn up in Sinbad films (he was well travelled, I suppose) and the Kraken sea monster of Norse mythology is co-opted to menace Andromeda in Clash of the Titans. The Hydra, meanwhile, migrates from the legend of Hercules’ labours and becomes the guardian of the golden fleece which Jason and his Argonauts have to do battle with. Harryhausen would point out to picky critics that he was making fantasy films, not academic adaptations of the classical tales. These stories existed in many variant versions, anyway, having always existed within malleable oral traditions before being written down and rendered ‘definitive’. The same goes for the dinosaurs vs. humans films (One Million Years BC in particular). This was a colourful fantasy, not an essay in paleontological reconstruction. However, Harryhausen, ever the perfectionist, would try to make his dinosaurs in accordance with current scientific knowledge as far as practical demands allowed. Given the considerable expertise which many young children have when it comes to dinosaur taxonomy, this was probably wise.

Talos descends - Jason and the Argonauts
Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation technique involved moving his models in each of the 24 frames which went up to make a second of 35mm sound film. This was hugely labourious and time consuming, and required intense concentration, a minute sense of continuity and a fine attention to every nuance of gesture and movement. Duchamp’s 1912 painting Nude Descending A Staircase No.2, with its blurred yet analytical depiction of movement over time, provides a good visual analogy to the kind of stretched out and slowed down perception of time Harryhausen had to cultivate. His moving monsters were always evidently models – they never achieved a convincing semblance of real life. But those who carped that they lacked realism fundamentally failed to appreciate their true appeal. It was the very fact that they did look like models stirred into miraculous motion, golems raised from inert, moulded clay by some cabbalistic enchantment, which lent them their magic aura. Harryhausen seemed to be well aware of this, which is why there are so many statues, lifeless figureheads or limply hanging skeletons which are brought to life in his films – the witches or sorcerers (invariably wicked) who achieve this acting as surrogate animators. There is the six-armed Kali in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, which also has a wooden figurehead which comes to life; the bronze colossus Talos in Jason and the Argonauts; and the golden bull christened the Minaton (a kind of robotic minotaur) in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which acts as a labour saving mechanised galley crew. He had also planned to adapt Karl Capek’s play R.U.R (standing for Rossum’s Universal Robots – the first use of the term), bringing the Czech writer’s mechanical men to life.

Talos Awakes - Jason and the Argonauts
The Talos sequence in Jason and the Argonauts is probably my favourite Harryhausen scene. The moment when the monumental statue, kneeling on its plinth with sword at the ready, turns its cumbersome head with rusty creak of ages to look at the two fools making away with its titanic treasures, is electrifying. And when it effortfully pulls itself up and climbs down from the plinth, to the accompaniment of the low rumbling brass of Bernard Herrmann’s score (his standard lumbering monster music), I still find myself catching my breath. Harryhausen animates the stiff-limbed gait of the verdigrised giant perfectly, creating an awkward, naturally pixillated movement suggestive of joints which haven’t seen exercise in aeons. It was entirely appropriate that Harryhausen turned to casting his own bronze statues in later life. He created casts of both his Talos and Shiva models, giving them a more permanent form than the fragile and perishable latex rubber of the originals.

With Trog on your side - Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger
The care which Harryhausen took over his creations, and the evident love he put into giving life naturally led to them often taking on a sympathetic air. His monsters were frequently imbued with a certain noble savagery. This was another legacy of Kong, the imperious master of its kingdom, whose wild environment is invaded, and whose untamed nature brought low by contact with human civilisation. There’s always a part of me that’s rooting for the giant roaring beasts as they’re poked, prodded and pierced by spears, swords and arrows, and a feeling of sadness when they slam lifelessly to the ground with a final bellow or drawn out screech. The prehistoric saurian in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms disturbed from its ocean bed slumber by the noisome rumblings of the atomic age; the alien Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth, which is brought to our planet from Venus and is treated as a freakish beast by all who come into contact with it; and the great ape of Mighty Joe Young, subjected to all manner of circus indignities – all invite audience sympathy. In Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Harryhausen goes the whole way and finally makes one of his stop-motion figures, the prehistoric giant Trog, a dumbly loyal friend to our intrepid adventurers. He lends his brute strength like a humanoid Kong, a beast once more tamed by Beauty. Perhaps significantly, the Harryhausen family dog when Ray was a boy was named Kong.

T Rex vs.Triceratops - One Million Years BC
Harryhausen created a wide variety of creatures over the course of five decades, to each of which he imparted a living movement drawn from his careful study of analogous species. He modelled real animals such as baboons, elephants and walruses. He also recreated extinct ones, bringing dinosaurs, carnivorous and herbivore, back to life for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, One Million Years BC and the Valley of Gwangi. There were molluscs, crustaceans, marine reptiles and cephalopods – the giant octopus from It Came From Beneath the Sea, the giant crab and nautiloid from Mysterious Island and a giant turtle for One Million Years BC; and insects (all giant, of course) – scorpions in Clash of the Titans, bees in Mysterious Island and a wasp in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

Pterodactyl with mini Raquel - One Million Years BC
Creating the illusion of flight in its different forms was one of many challenges he relished setting for himself in each film. The flickering wings of an insect in flight was a very different proposition from animating the flapping, spike-beaked scrap of a pterodactyl, the top-heavy bulk and wide wingspan of a roc or the mid-air gallop of the winged horse Pegasus. Making a skeleton stalk and stab entailed building a particularly fine armature, the jointed metallic frame at the core of all his cast latex rubber models, to provide the bones within the bones. He often had his monsters an magical creatures fight on different planes, climbing up stairs and jumping off and onto plinths and platforms, all of which allowed for an increased range of postures and gestural movements.

Death's head grin - Jason and the Argonauts
His Dynamation photographic process involved the matching of actors with model action (the integration of mannequins human and manufactured), and that combined action against model, studio and location sets. This entailed managing the delicate task of matching colour, tone and scale, blending the real and the imaginary in as realistic a marriage as possible. Such a blend had demonstrably not been the case in some of his earlier studio pictures such as 20 Million Miles to Earth, where the back projections of Rome were obtrusively ill-matched with the animation. The celebrated summit of his achievement with Dynamation was the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, which he choreographed to the last detail in his charcoal storyboards. The skeletons he fashioned for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts (the singular creation from the former piecing itself together to rise from the earth with its bony brethren in the latter) area a marvellous design. The beetling, drawn in brow ridge and leering death grin lends them a jack-o-lantern appearance of gleefully psychotic ferocity. They look like they relish the prospect of reducing their opponents to the lifeless and fleshless state from which they’ve temporarily been resurrected.

Ymir and model farmer - 20 Million Miles to Earth
For all the technical mastery of the Dynamation scenes, it was also always fun seeing a jerkily writhing of a human being picked up in the jaws of a dinosaur, screaming horribly before being chomped (the bloodcurdling cries another element taken from Kong), or lifted bodily in the claws of a Roc to be deposited in a mountain nest as food for the chicks. There’s a brief but rather impressive scene in 20 Million Miles to Earth in which the reptilian Ymir wrestles with a farmer in a barn, understandably enraged by the fact that its just had a pitchfork stuck into its back. Harryhausen animates the man quite convincingly as he tries to fight off his attacker, his blows growing more desperate as the creature sinks its teeth into his shoulder. Most famously, a tiny model of Raquel Welch was carted off in the clutches of a pterodactyl in One Million Years BC, feebly gesticulating as it disappeared into the distance, spears thrown in the flapping and cawing beast’s wake all falling pitifully short.

Monumental lumber - Earth vs.the Flying Saucers
The Jason skeleton fight demonstrated the complex action Dynamation could co-ordinate between actors and models. But Harryhausen also enjoyed having his creatures interact with miniature sets, which usually involved their utter destruction. There are many wonderful scenes of oversized monsters chewing on masonry and twisting iron girders as if they were plasticene, reducing all to decorous rubble. He drew upon his friend Ray Bradbury’s short story The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms for the poetic scene in which the subaquatic saurian rears up to confront an isolated lighthouse. It hears its foghorn as an aggressively challenging bellow, its reflecting beacon a blinking eye, and tears wounds in the brickwork with its claws. Later, it goes stomping through Manhattan in the classic style, snacking on foolhardy NYPD officers who stand their ground in the face of the overwhelming evidence that their guns are having no effect whatsoever. The giant octopus which Came From Beneath the Sea wrestles the span of the Golden Gate Bridge into new plastic forms, like a post-war sculptor. The Venusian Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth climbs to the top of the Colosseum in Rome in an attempt to evade the US army. They blast away in their usual dunderheaded manner with bazookas and howitzers. Between enraged monster and aimless artillery, they manage to destroy a fair amount of antique Roman architecture before the inevitable end. The spectre of Kong looms large again as the rather pitiable beast plummets to the roads ringing the old Roman circus. It even gets to wave a defiant Kong-style fist at its tormentors below before taking its dying fall. Most enjoyably (and in a stylistic departure for Harryhausen) the sharp-edged discuses of the alien ships in the self-explanatorily titled Earth vs. the Flying Saucers fell the Washington Monument like so much dead lumber (crushing fleeing citizens in its timbering shadow), strim the classical columns guarding the Lincoln Memorial, and crack the dome of the Capitol like a hollow eggshell. It was a scene memorably parodied by Tim Burton in Mars Attacks, with the Martians rather more adeptly manoeuvring their saucers to toy with the toppling monument, tipping one way and t’other and making the panicked tourists run thither and thither before crushing them with much gleeful cackling.

Enter Medusa - Clash of the Titans
Harryhausen also delighted in sinuous, elastic motion, whether it be in the winding tentacles of the giant octopus in It Came From Beneath the Sea, the seven heads of the Hydra in Jason and the Argonauts, or more simply in the trumpeting trunk of the elephant in 20 Million Miles to Earth. More balletically, he also animated a serpentine bellydance in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, an enchanted snake growing four limbs which undulated with hypnotically swaying gesticulations before the tail reverted to boa instincts and tried to throttle its new-grown head. This delight reached its apogee in the snaking hair of the Medusa in Clash of the Titans, in which the multiple coils of the gorgon’s tangled barnet writhe in hissing and chaotically contrary motion. The Medusa’s slithering approach is all lit by a light mimicking flickering torchlight in a subterranean lair, an effect which had to be sustained in all the 1/24th of a second frames. Ray Bradbury called it ‘the finest piece of work he ever did’.

Centaur vs.Griffin - Golden Voyage of Sinbad
Again, for all the technical achievements of the Dynamation action, the climactic setpieces of Harryhausen’s films, the Jason and Sinbad ones in particular, tended to feature monster on monster gladiatorial combat. This put the real stars of the movie centre stage, with the humans pushed to the periphery. They occasionally prodded the antagonist of their favoured creature with puny pinprick spears, which produced an irritant sting at best, but generally they took the opportunity to slink away to safety. As far back as 20 Million Miles to Earth, he set his amphibious Venusian giant against an escaped circus elephant (the same one whose real incarnation he himself had been seen feeding a few moments earlier in his small screen cameo). In the later films of his mature period he pitted curved claw against razor-toothed claw, clacking scimitar beak against boulder-like fist. There was the classic fight between T.Rex and triceratops in One Million Years BC, with the mighty carnivore leaping onto the bony plated herbivore’s back, trying to avoid the jabbing thrusts of its goring head lances. Surprisingly, the triceratops comes out the victor in that one. An ogrish Cyclops lashed out at an unleashed dragon in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and the friendly troglodyte tried to pummel the defrosted sabre-tooth tiger in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Both anthropoid bruisers were outclassed, however, and the outcome seemed something of a foregone conclusion. Griffin vs. Centaur in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was a rather more even match – club and hoof against beak and claw, brutish grunt met with screeching squawk. Harryhausen creatures never reached a linguistic level, but their panoply of howls, roars, snarls and piteous dying screams were articulate in themselves. Lets finish with the image of this mighty bout, played out in front of the henge fencing the fountain of eternal youth. Place your bets now, and watch The Golden Voyage of Sinbad to find out who wins. My money’s on the griffin. It’s a wickedly clawed southpaw with good beak action, and the centaur’s vulnerable in its undefended flanks.

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