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Ray Harryhausen (Part 1)

The influence this man had on my childhood imagination was immense – Although I didn’t know who he was at the time, his art made an indelible impression that stays with me even today, over 50 years later.

Who is Ray Harryhausen you might ask? Hmmm, that’s not an easy question to answer, but I’ll give it a shot. I’m just going to focus on his contributions to motion pictures (that description seems particularly appropriate here).

In order to understand his significance in film history, you need to know what stop-motion animation is. Essentially, the most simplistic explanation is this: you take some movable object, like clay for example, or a figure with articulated joints, and you expose one frame of film, almost like a photograph. Then you move the object a tiny bit and shoot another frame of film. Traditionally, film was shot at 24 frames per second, so to get one second of film, you would move the object 24 times.

Assuming you calculated the movements of the object correctly, you would end up with something that resembled motion, as if the object was alive. The earliest and most famous example of this technique in film was King Kong, created in 1933 by Willis O’Brian, the originator of this type of stop-motion animation. He would become Ray’s mentor, and Ray his protege.

Now imagine you are using this technique to film multiple figures, say, seven skeletons. And you are coordinating this with multiple humans in an action sequence, perhaps a sword fight between three men and seven skeletons that goes on for five and a half minutes. It’s just insane to think this was done by one man a single frame at a time – at 24 FPS that comes out to over 7,500 frames – and each frame had seven different skeletons to move in each shot! It took him over four months to complete just this single sequence. Oh, and did I forget to mention that Bernard Herrmann scored this and most of his films?

Behold – from “Jason and the Argonauts” circa 1963.

And this was just one scene from one movie – he did 17 feature films, not counting animation work for early television and other projects.

But it wasn’t just his animation, it was also his ability to create fantasy monsters from his imagination: This fucking thing haunted my nightmares as a young boy – some kind of a ripped horned giant cyclops with two fingers, a thumb, and cloven hooves on monstrous goat legs. WTF!?

I’m not even going to try and explain the technique he developed to integrate stop-motion animation with live action that he called “Dynamation.” Just another innovation in a lifetime filled with them.

Just a bit of film history here folks. Life’s full of interesting shit if you just look for it.