Ray Harryhausen’s name evokes so much emotion and visual memories that it is hard to effectively reflect on his achievements. While we could focus on his contributions to film history, special effects, animation and many other areas. It is perhaps his ability to tap into his imagination bringing it to life in dramatic visual form that animates the world his characters inhabit and that of the spectator. For it is as a spectator that many of us are when seeing Harryhausen’s films, they are magical, a total visual experience that theatrically evokes the heritage of Georges Méliès.
The numerous postings, comments, essays on Ray Harryhausen note his film work and how he inspired generations of filmmakers, special effects, animation and others. But it is perhaps the technological nature of his work that remains fundamental to his life and work. Bringing to life this work there is a complex level of engineering and compulsive studying and research. As Tony Dalton has noted Harryhausen’s personal collection includes fragments of armatures for uncompleted and unrealized projects. We can only imagine what these projects would have been like. What we can be sure is that there would have been a life to them that is perhaps all too often missing from CGI avatars.
There remains a historical aspect within film history of a desire to bring together the real and the unreal. Walt Disney’s Alice films brought together animation and live action, in which Alice interacts with the animated world. Koko the Clown pops up In Out of the Inkwell to interact with his animator, Max Fleischer, Gertie the Dinosaur responds to Winsor McCay. These are classic examples of the merging of two-dimensional animation with our imaged reality. In contrast Willis O’Brien’s King Kong brought a truly monstrous dimension to our spectatorial engagement with the cinematic screen. It is this interplay between dimensions that Harryhausen travelled through and we sat along enjoying the magical ride. Harryhausen’s creations did not interact with their creator, they did not respond to his commands, they had an independent life that makes the viewer connect with them and care. For it is only through the technical and the imaginative skills of Harryhausen that we could become empathically responsive to the skeleton fight scene in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). It is this rich heritage of Harryhausen that many of us draw from today and can be found in the puppets made by MacKinnon and Saunders for Tim Burton’s The Corspe Bride (2005). While there maybe a forty-year gap between Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and The Corspe Bride the influence is clear and this temporal gap only helps to further highlight the innovative imagination of Ray Harryhausen.
Jim Walker is Senior Lecturer in Visual Theory for Illustration at the University for the Creative Arts. He is Associate Editor for the Journal of Illustration published by Intellect and established the Animation Subject Area for the Association of Popular Culture in 2007. He has published on the work Halas & Batchelor and presented talks, screenings on the work of British animator Bob Godfrey.