Ray Harryhausen and the Special Effects of Human Expression

Gazing into the Mirror of Art: Ray Harryhausen Photograph rayharryhausen.com

“I had to learn to do everything because I couldn’t find another kindred soul. Now you see eighty people listed doing the same things I was doing by myself.”

-Ray Harryhausen

Though you might need to be something of a trivia buff to recognize the name, Ray Harryhausen is one of the all-time most influential figures in film. He was been cited as an inspiration to directors Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Tim Burton, and Sam Raimi, among many others. Yet Harryhausen himself never appeared on the screen.

What we saw were the small sculptures Harryhausen brought to life by painstakingly changing their positions and filming them one frame at a time. Run through a film projector, this made what was really a series of still photographs seem to move. This process is called stop motion animation.

Harryhausen’s career spanned 50 years, and included such genre classics as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and the original Clash of the Titans. At least at first, Harryhausen movies were also a cottage industry family business. His mother would sew outfits for his little models, and his father machined the metal armatures used to give the figures both stability and motion.

A New Yorker article written after Harryhausen passed away in 2013 contains some hits and misses regarding the special effects artist.  “Harryhausen and the Expressively Imperfect World” by Adam Gopnik captures something of the mystery of the filmmaker, but is too pat in its Postmodern self-regard.

Gopnik wrote,  “Though who—at least among those who saw her at an impressionable age—can forget the snake woman who emerges, Play-Doh body writhing serpentinely, before the Sultan’s court—and is met by carefully directed gazes of awe and wonder and cries of ‘Allah, be praised!’ on the part of extras who are, rather obviously, looking at nothing.”

Gopnik undermines the nostalgic awe by pointing out that of course HE knows that it’s just a campy movie and that a sense of wonder is just kid stuff. It wouldn’t be so off-putting if various mass media types didn’t live their entire lives that way, and insist on telling the rest of us about it constantly.

Some people think picking apart the presentation is the fun part; not to better appreciate the artistry, but to try to out-analyze someone who is actually accomplishing something. That sort of thing is only fun for deconstructivists who are most skillful in prideful nagging.

But in the heart of the article, Gopnik gets it right in the following quote:

“For, deeper still, in some primal part of us, there is always a vital role for the not-too-perfect in our pleasures. Imperfection is essential to art. In music, the vibrato we love involves not quite landing directly on the note; the rubato singers cultivate involves not quite keeping to the beat. What really moves us in art may be what really moves us in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad: the vital sign of a human hand, in all its broken and just-unsteady grace, manipulating its keys, or puppets, and our minds. Expressiveness is imperfection, and Harryhausen’s monsters and ghouls are expressively imperfect. ‘I don’t think you want to make it quite real. Stop-motion, to me, gives that added value of a dream world,’ he [Harryhausen] once said, wisely, himself.”

Wisdom is in short supply in our intellectual class, so that is a welcome admission.

Since I wanted to make movies at a young age, and was enthralled by fantasy, naturally Harryhausen has been a huge influence on my art. Not so much purely in subject matter, but in atmosphere.

I never approached his movies with the clinical awareness of how-did-he-do-that while watching them; I just embraced the poetry of the moment. In any great art, there is level of fascination that defies verbal explanation and rational analysis.

Later, when I pondered armatures, miniature sets, and incredible patient craftsmanship, it wasn’t doubt that was intriguing, it was the power of the achievement.

Gopnik does acknowledge this as well, though he seems leery of being so lowbrow to actually admit he enjoyed something: “…we appreciate them poetically, not for what they did given what they didn’t have, but for what they did with what they did have. We genuinely like them more than things we know are better at doing what they seemed to set out to do.”

A description of painting advanced by the artistic dissidents the Stuckists can also apply to what Harryhausen accomplished in his animated films: “Painting is mysterious. It creates worlds within worlds, giving access to the unseen psychological realities that we inhabit. The results are radically different from the materials employed…”

Harryhausen came of age during the Modern period of art. He was sharing the same awareness that led visual artists like Pablo Picasso and early period Mark Rothko to depict ancient myths using the current idioms of the day. I would draw a direct connection between the minotaurs and harpies of those artists to the magical monsters Harryhausen put onto the screen. While such creatures come from a tradition which does not acknowledge the one true God, they still make fascinating symbols for the enigmas of human consciousness.

The Modern Age was a time of incredible advances made by optimistic individuals freed to explore and create. How different than the propaganda for collectivism and dread Postmodernism inflicts on society.

We also can’t be content just to repeat accomplishments from the past; that is a strategy of exhaustion, part of the jaded Postmodern conceit history has ended. The cure for the deconstructive Postmodern blues can be called Remodernism: a reboot of the culture. Remodernism understands the same joyful pursuit of discovery utilized by previous generations and applies it now. Doing this, we will find our own new expressions, hitherto unexpected. The excitement will bring us all together, as we find the way to demonstrate timelessness in our own times.

As Ray Harryhausen was an innovator, visionary and solitary creative genius who made art for the people, I nominate him as an honorary Remodernist, a man still ahead of his time.

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