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A lost art and its master

Ray Harryhausen An Animated Life Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton Billboard Books: 304 pp., $50

May 16, 2004|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is a contributing writer to Book Review and reviews movies for Time. He is the producer of a reconstruction of Samuel Fuller's "The Big Red One," which premieres this week at the Cannes film festival.

A songwriter leans too far out of his 10th-floor office in the Brill Building and falls toward Broadway far below. But an open truck loaded with mattresses is passing and he lands harmlessly on a pile of Posturepedics. Two actors strolling along witness the near-disaster. "That's the luckiest guy in show business," says one of them. "No," says the other, "Andrew Lloyd Webber."

OK, it's a pretty stale joke, though I agree with its sentiment: Imagine becoming a billionaire on the basis of warming Puccini-like melodies to the consistency of slush. It's the punch line I dispute: I think the luckiest guy in show business is Ray Harryhausen, the legendary creator of classic movie special effects.

Luck, as the saying would have it, is the residue of design, but in this case the cliche contains the truth. Harryhausen saw his first stop-motion animation -- in "The Lost World" -- when he was 5. When he was 13, his mother and aunt took him to the premiere run of "King Kong" at Grauman's Chinese, and the sight of that great, tragic ape permanently filled him with awe and wonder. It was then that he set about designing his future in what was, at that time, an arcane craft, by no means the center of the movie universe as it is today. His supportive parents helped: His engineer father designed ball and socket joints so Ray could move the limbs on his models, and his mother made costumes for them. Soon he had pretty much taken over the family garage as his workshop. To know what you want to do at an early age and to be patiently encouraged is the best luck of all.

And it held. In his high school years he became friends with Ray Bradbury and Forrest J. Ackerman (later the publisher of sci-fi and fantasy magazines), people with whom he could talk dinosaurs by the hour. At the same time, he met his idol, Willis O'Brien (creator of "The Lost World's" creatures and Kong), who turned out to be the kindly mentor he needed. By the time Harryhausen was 20, he was working professionally as an animator. Before he was 30, he was assisting O'Brien on "Mighty Joe Young." By his early 40s, thanks in large part to the still-astonishing sequence in "Jason and the Argonauts" in which seven sword-wielding skeletons duel Jason and his sailors, he was a legend -- and soon to be the inspiration for a whole generation of fantasy filmmakers (George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron), whose little-boy minds were permanently bent by that sequence.

None of this turned Ray's head -- and here I speak from personal experience, since I made a documentary film about him during which I became his friend. He remains, at 84, the sweet-souled spirit he must have been as a kid. Long and happily married, decently prosperous, he tours the world, appearing at sci-fi conventions where he modestly endures the affections of the passionate cult that has formed around him and his work. The handsomely illustrated "Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life," written with his longtime friend Tony Dalton, is, in a sense, his final word, a living legend's summing up -- part warmly written autobiography, part richly detailed explanation of how he achieved his best effects, part tribute to the many tantalizing visions for which he could not get financial backing.

I suppose you could argue that these unrealized projects represent strokes of bad luck. You might even argue that the fact that much of his best work is buried in primitively plotted and acted movies is also ill-starred, although I'm not so sure. Ray's effects sequences are really the only thing worth watching in many of these films, so the eye opened in relieved wonder naturally beguiles the slightly bored brain. Moreover, kids, who are the prime audience for fantasy pictures, don't much care about the overall subtleties of a film's development. They're not expecting "La Regle du Jeu"; they're hoping to be wowed. They instinctively understood that Ray was the source of that pleasure; in their hearts they made him a star (and auteur), no matter what the billing box said.

Which brings us to the great Harryhausen paradox: He creates these infinitely entertaining, and indeed spectacular, sequences through a process requiring infinite and, to me, mind-numbing patience. You take a little model, generally not more than a foot high, move all its limbs a few millimeters at a time, take a picture of it, then repeat the process one frame at a time. Since film runs through the camera 24 frames per second, you can imagine how long it takes to move a single figure through a few minutes of screen time.

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