A modern Prometheus

CR’s art director pays tribute to a master of special effects whose talent for monsters lives on across the generations

If my dreams had end titles and a special effects credit, that credit would go to Ray Harryhausen, who died last month at the age of 92. Over 24 films and a career spanning 63 years, Harryhausen worked at the vanguard of cinematic special effects, a field which, along with his mentor, the great Willis O’Brien, he could lay strong claim to having helped create.

Much has been made of Harryhausen’s ability to instill fear. A lot of his back catalogue could fall under the designation of ‘monsters’; indeed, his most celebrated sequence is probably the intricately choreographed skeleton battle from 1963’s Jason And The Argonauts.

Ray’s monsters are part of my imaginative DNA; some of my earliest memories are the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms laying waste to Manhattan, or the mighty Ymir breaking its bonds and running amok in Rome. But what made Harryhausen’s work immortal wasn’t just the fear factor. My abiding memory of Valley of the Gwangi (1969) – an ambitious genre mash-up pitching cowboys against dinosaurs – isn’t one of terror. It’s sobbing as (spoiler alert!) the Allosaurus burned to death in the Cathedral at the end, fulfilling the old Hollywood dictum that country dwellers can never prosper in the big city.

It was this that made Harryhausen a modern Prometheus; his ability to make us care, to breathe a real spark of life into his puppets of clay, steel and rabbit fur. Time and again when I rewatch his films, it’s the small things I notice. The way characters shift their weight from foot to foot as if they’ve been standing a while; an absent-minded scratch of the thigh; the brief, anticipatory lick of the lips as the Cyclops prepares his dinner of spit-roasted sailor.

Recently I watched some of his earliest work, a series of nursery tales for US TV called Mother Goose Stories. They were produced in 1946, just before he began work on Mighty Joe Young under the tutelage of King Kong maestro O’Brien. These solo efforts already show a rare talent in the making though. In the opening scene of King Midas, the designer captures dissatisfaction expertly, as the eponymous King sits disgruntled on his throne. Likewise, in Rapunzel his young Prince chancing upon the tower is a perfect sketch of idling. It was this talent for catching the incidental moments of life that made Harryhausen’s work so memorable.

As a child, I once spent many hours fashioning a coathanger, a toilet roll tube and some sellotape into an approximation of a Mummy, that I might film it and send the results to Harryhausen. I never did bring that Mummy to life, hamstrung by insurmountable problems such as the lack of a camera, but I have passed my love of his creations on to the next generation. One of the first sentences my son could say was, “Dad, make Cyclops come on your phone again.”

Thank you Ray.

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