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Master of puppets

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It is 1933, and 13-year-old Raymond “Ray” Harryhausen is sitting through another viewing of “King Kong”, wondering how the movie makers managed to animate the big ape and various dinosaurs that appeared in the film. Driven to understand what would become known as stop-motion animation, young Harryhausen tinkered on the technique himself and began a lifelong career in film special effects. He sought out Willis O’Brien, the model animator for “King Kong”, who gave Harryhausen some advice on getting properly trained. Harryhausen kept working at his craft and during WWII, worked under Colonel Frank Capra making films for the U.S. armed forced. (Capra, of course, would go on to become a legendary filmmaker in his own right, particularly for “It’s a Wonderful Life.”)

After the war, Harryhausen worked with O’Brien on “Mighty Joe Young”, a sequel of sorts to “King Kong”, for which O’Brien won the 1949 Academy Award for Best Special Effects. “King Kong” was re-released in 1952, kick-starting a monster movie craze that gave Harryhausen his first big solo project—“The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.” The story was based off a short story called “The Foghorn” by fellow science fiction enthusiast (and lifelong friend) Ray Bradbury. “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” was a commercial success, and a string of other monster-movie classics would follow, including “It Came From Beneath the Sea”, “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers”, and “20 Million Miles to Earth”. His work on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts marked the high point of his career, and to this day, both films enjoy widespread critical and popular appeal.

Harryhausen’s career hit a slow patch in the 1970s, and by the time he did his final film in 1981, “Clash of the Titans”, the stop-action animation techniques that had been the hallmark of his visual style had been adopted by various other special effects producers and incorporated in virtually every movie requiring the animation of a creature that could not be performed by an actor in a prosthetic suit. Harryhausen’s hermetic working methods—toiling alone (rather than as part of a special FX team) for months at a time on any given movie in his own studio in London—made him a kind of Hollywood outsider, one who never got the awards or wider recognition many felt his work deserved. It also prevented him from gaining any directorial credit on the movies on which he worked.

Harryhausen enjoyed a 31-year retirement and that alone should stand as a testament to his professional success. During this time, he oversaw the production and marketing of his film catalog, all while making regular science fiction convention appearances. On May 7, 2013, he died in London at the age of 92.

Harryhausen’s legacy on the world of cinema was groundbreaking. Effects-driven filmmakers from George Lucas to Steven Spielberg to James Cameron all released statements acknowledging the deep influence Harryhausen’s special effects pioneering had on their own work. Lucas in particular said that were it not for Ray Harryhausen, there probably would never have been any “Star Wars” movies. Even today, many of Harryhausen’s films maintain a deep appeal with the young and old alike, which would seem counter-intuitive in an age of slick computer-generated effects where distinguishing between reality and fantasy can be almost impossible. In comparison, the monsters of Harryhausen’s work are obviously hand-crafted maquettes that move in a herky-jerky fashion.

But that is also why Harryhausen remained popular, especially in a world of increasing computerized effects. Long after his work looked advanced for the time in which it debuted, a Harryhausen movie had a hand-crafted, even personal feel to it; viewers could imagine the curious wizard of a man hunched over his models, making them move frame by painstaking frame.

Harryhausen’s legacy is not that different from any profession where the human touch once had an unassailable value. Automation improves productivity, but in so doing, it rewrites the nature of the transaction. We can do business faster and with more people than ever before, but who is really doing the business…the machines or those who program them? In every industry, there comes those times when the old must give way to the new, and something is invariably lost along the way. The trick is making sure what is gained outweighs what is lost, even if what is lost is precious.


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