Wednesday 8 May 2013

Ray Harryhausen: 1920 to 2013

Yesterday Ray Harryhausen died. He was nearly 93 so in a way it was no great surprise, it was becoming a matter of sooner rather than later, but it was still profoundly depressing. That said, I consoled myself with the thought that because he lived so long, he was around to enjoy the renascence of interest in his work. After his retirement from animation, prompted, I believe, by the rather negative reviews of Clash of the Titans, it looked as though his style of effects had passed into history, and a slightly neglected history at that. A decade later the emergence of photo-realistic CGI dinosaurs in Jurassic Park appeared to well and truly hammer the final nail into the coffin of stop-motion animation. Dinosaurs of all things! What a bloody insult! The best movie dinosaurs had always been the preserve of stop-motion animation ever since Ray's mentor Willis O'Brien breathed life into the romping creatures sculpted by Marcel Delgado for The Lost World in 1925. And now a bunch of computer geeks had usurped them with pixels!

And yet the seemingly inexorable march of CGI served only to boost interest in older, more hands-on techniques, and as the living master of stop-motion animation, Ray came to be appreciated more and more until by the end of his life it is no exaggeration to say that he was venerated. Since the late 1990s stop-motion animation has made a roaring comeback, though not, it must be said, in the area in which Ray excelled, that of visual effects. Stop-motion now has its own niche in pure animation films such as those of Nick Park and Henry Selick which have their own line of descent separate from Ray and Willis O'Brien.

But while it is true to say that CGI dominates the type of visual effects Ray practiced so beautifully, as the critic and author Kim Newman put it so pithily on Twitter yesterday:
It now takes 500 pixel-wranglers to do what Ray Harryhausen did better single-handed.
Which partly explains the interest in Ray's work. That one man could breathe life into so many iconic creatures, working with his hands with metal skeletons, foam flesh, rubber skins and cameras using film! Film! What the hell's that when it's at home? Ray's brain, with its infinitely subtle imagination, was his computer, far better than anything the pixel wranglers possess.

Even given all that, I don't think his passing would have touched so many if he hadn't also been a true gentleman, a charming man with a quiet but puckish sense of humour. Everything I have read of his character reinforces what an utter gentleman he was. In a very small way I got to see this first-hand in November 2008 at a book-signing where, even though we exchanged only a few sentences, he exuded warmth and kindliness.

A truly inspirational figure (you can blame him for this piece of nonsense), Ray Harryhausen was one of those uncommon people for whom the phrase 'They don't make them like that any more' could have been coined. To which I would add, 'And they never will.'

RIP Ray.


Popbitch, which usually carries scurrilous stories about the rich and famous, ran this wonderful anecdote about Ray and Tom Baker!

RIP Ray Harryhausen. Back
in the early 80s Tom Baker made
contact with Ray via a friend.
Tom would stop over at Ray's place
in Kensington, and both would get
shitfaced on good brandy until
Ray's wife, Diana, banned Tom
after he weed in their fireplace.