By Tim Jackson
Within a year of one another two of my favorite childhood films, 20 Million Miles to Earth and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, made it to the silver screen. They were not the first films animated by the great Ray Harryhausen (that would be the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Came from Beneath the Sea), but the whiskered creature from 20 Million Miles, and the giant Cyclops yanking an arrow from his single eyeball in Seventh Voyage, are forever etched in my imagination.
When Harryhausen died this week at age 92, he left behind an irreplaceable legacy. His ingenious, stop motion creatures are powered by childlike inspiration. A generation of kids sat in awe as his beautifully constructed models crawled from the ocean, flew in from outer space, stalked through ethereal and mythic realms, and battled in an imaginary prehistoric past. Like God himself, Harryhausen formed them out “of the dust of the ground” and “breathed into their nostrils the breath of life.” Well, that and a process in which he animated their movements frame-by-frame. He and the director then cleverly choreographed the artificial creatures into the live action. After seeing the evil skeletons in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts pop out of the earth and do swashbuckling battle with real actors, generations of animators, film directors, special effects artists, directors, and CGI technicians were born.
I can recall pouring over issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland to see how the latest Harryhausen monstrosity was painstakingly rendered. I would play in the woods for hours imagining that it was I who was battling the Cyclops. I would sit and fashion small creatures out of clay, pick up a super-8 camera to film my animation of them, awkwardly stopping and starting the camera.
So what if the scaly creature that came from 20 million miles to earth was clay? My mind was blown when it clawed its way out of a tiny egg (found in a cave by a little Italian boy) and grew progressively large enough to battle an elephant in the middle of the Coliseum in Rome. Harryhausen made it seem as if anything was possible. Was the elephant clay, too?
Such is his legacy. Something amazingly imaginative was left behind when technology reached the point it could easily re-create detailed images of “reality.” Knowing that Harryhausen’s effects were handmade was a great part of the fun: it contributed to the do-it-yourself wonder of it all. Somebody crafted those monsters out of scratch and made them live, frame-by-frame. Today’s artists and draftsman, working in collaboration with banks of technicians, can put anything they dream up on the screen in three dimensions. But that means our child’s-eye view of the world, filled with ramshackle embryonic fantasies, is increasingly being colonized by the latest and slickest technology. With the passing of Ray Harryhausen, we would do well to remember when wonder was more . . . rough and ready.