Ray Harryhausen died today. He was an intrepid animator devoted to stop action. This is the tedious and painstaking technique of minutely moving parts of objects/models, taking a single frame, and then minutely moving them again, taking another single frame, over and over again, in order to achieve seemingly flawless movement of an object or model on film. He developed a process, Dynamation, which combined live action and animated action which allowed the two techniques to interact with each other increasing the sense of filmic reality. His father, a machinist and inventor, often created the small models that he used with an intricate skeleton that could be moved in small increments. His mother often sewed the clothes (if needed) for the models to wear. Having seen King Kong in 1933, he was hooked on stop-action and worked on films like Jason and the Argonauts (featuring incredible sword fights between Greek warriors and skeletons), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, One Million Years BC (where Raquel Welch, in her second film, is carried off by a raging dinosaur), The Three Worlds of Gulliver, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and Clash of the Titans. George Lucas said, “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars.”
And part of his appeal to my sensibilities is that I grew up with his monsters and beasts all around me, especially on weekends. My mother worked for a while at the Colony Theater in Toledo as a ticketseller in the little booth in front of the theater (remember those booths?). She obviously didn’t make a lot of money in this job but had the amazing perk of free tickets for her kids and family. So my brother and sister and cousins would spend whole weekends in the movie theater watching all kinds of monster films, many of which were Harryhausen’s. We would bring salami sandwiches for lunch which would “garlic” up the theater and sometimes we would have some change to buy a sugary treat from the concession stand. (It was in the Colony Theater that I remember testing M & M’s claim that they melt in your mouth not in your hand. I proved their claim false.)
Sometimes we would watch the same films more than once as we waited for my mom to get off of work. Sometimes we would collect empty popcorn boxes strewn by patrons on the floor for prizes offered by the theater. Sometimes there were hula hoop contests and other entertainment in between the features.
This is all to say that monsters on youtube or even on large digital monitors can be effective, but there is something profoundly nerve-wracking and intensely frightening and literally larger-than-life about an animated monster on a cinemascopic screen (the kind they have since divied up into three or more theaters). And in the midst of that scariness there was something really eerie about stop-action that was enthralling and utterly engaging. As a viewer you knew how the animation was done, yet it still compelled and wowed you. Stop action as opposed to its digital counterpart has a touch of rawness and stiltedness about it that somehow makes it paradoxically incredibly believable and fantastical. “There’s a strange quality in stop-motion photography, like in King Kong, that adds to the fantasy,” Harryhausen said in 2006. “If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.”
Ray Harryhausen has passed on, but his monsters and dinosaurs, skeletons and beasts still animate my memories.