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A death in the family

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It’s late July, almost August. And I am still, like many others I know, trying to come to grips with the fact that on the 7th of May, in London, a man named Ray Harryhausen died.

It’s not that his death was particularly tragic –his family reports that he peacefully lapsed into unconsciousness. Nor does his passing from the scene at age 92 seem all that tragically premature, though there were those of us who were hoping he’d go on for One Thousand and One years.

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But there was no one like him, though countless numbers received inspiration from him.

Who was Harryhausen? Essentially, he made monster movies. He was a creator of pre-digital stop-motion effects for films.

Though often considered a “Hollywood Special Effects man,” and though he did start as an employee of the “old” Hollywood, fairly early in his film making career he managed to get away to Europe, where he made and co-produced movies on his own, away from studio interference.

His work stands uniquely apart from the rest of cinema and yet has shaped it.

Though he worked with low budgets, he was able to get grandiose visions up on the screen. Somehow there seemed to be more to what he did than visibly existed of it, an undefinable but recognizable gestalt of presence.

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Now the pixel storm of the digital revolution has swept away film, and with it the world of analog effects, sometimes called practical effects. Every element of a cinema image can be tweaked by committee.

But previously, all results used to be achieved by photography of what was really before the camera.

Hand-done, analog film effects were often the result of great skill and subtlety, employing painting and the plastic arts. Not everyone could do them well, since talent was needed as much as technical skill.

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Harryhausen had both. A skilled photographer and graphic artist, a sculptor, an innovator of technical processes, a co-producer and director of actors– all those things, and also the most famous stop-motion animator of his generation, he had the singular ability to combine his varied skills into a unified result, his art, that transcended all of them.

He invented a special process of combining the puppetry of dimensional animation with pre-shot live-action film, a process later widely imitated. Not only was he an exceptional technician who had a rare understanding of the total possibilities of film, he was also in his way a poet of Nature. He had a good knowledge of animal and human anatomy, as well as an academic knowledge of prehistoric animals. He was a student of the movement of living creatures, from apes to insects, and even an actor who expressed rage and passion through the performance of his hand-made puppets, animation figures he constructed.

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And I write from within what might be called the cult of Harryhausen; I’ve been in it for most of my life. We are those who have always been delighted to see his name appear on the screen.

In high school in the Sixties I carefully collected the (rare) articles about him. At the same time, I and my friends made films with eight millimeter, Super 8 and 16mm movie cameras, imitating his techniques.

We were inspired by him. He showed that it was possible to put a particular, individual vision into movies, despite all the obstacles the money men and studio bureaucrats of Hollywood set up.

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A fantasist, he was always respectful of his sources, though he recombined them in his own way.

His movie career stretched from the late 1940’s (Mighty Joe Young) to the early Eighties (Clash of the Titans).

John Ford, who produced Joe along with Merian C. Cooper, singled him out for special praise. Stanley Kubrick met with him during pre-production on The Shining when he toyed with the idea of putting a Harryhausen stop-motion sequence in that film. Earlier, Kubrick had included a Harryhausen shot (from 1,000,000 Years B.C., of rocks falling on cave men) in his A Clockwork Orange as part of the protagonist’s hallucination-induced visions.

Personally, Ray was always gracious, polite and accessible to his fans and admirers. He praised elements of the modern cinema and its techniques, many of which derive from his pioneering discoveries.

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But he was critical of what he called the tendency to “fetishise cruelty” in modern movies.

In retirement from film making, he made sculptures which he cast in bronze. He wrote five books. He traveled and met with his fans and admirers.

Most people may have never heard of him. But he won a Gordon E. Sawyer Award, a special effects “Oscar” which his close friend science fiction writer Ray Bradbury presented to him, in 1991. The Award honors an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry. There is a Ray Harryhausen Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

He was a magician. He was a warrior on behalf of human imagination. He was one of the Paladins. He was unique, one of the people who make life interesting.

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And so ends an era.

Hal Robins is a renowned underground comic artist and his work has appeared in Last Gasp’s Weirdo, Salon Magazine’s Dark Hotel and many other publications. For decades he has been the co-host of KPFA-Pacifica Radio’s “Puzzling Evidence” program. Reverend Hal is the Master of Church Secrets for The Church of the SubGenius. As Dr. Howland Owll, he has served as MC for many unique San Francisco events, and is the principle of The Ask Dr. Hal Show, still currently running both as a live staged event and in-studio on Radio Valencia (radiovalencia.fm) Friday evenings. Hal contributed his unique vocal talents to the award-winning interactive game Half-Life.


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