Geek Speak

The animated genius of Ray Harryhausen, a true cinematic titan

The first Ray Harryhausen movie I saw was the last one he made. In 1981, the Greek fantasy epic Clash of the Titans hit theaters, featuring some of the master animator's finest work. I was eight years old, just about the perfect age to wholeheartedly embrace a cheesy mash-up of Greek myths full of flying horses, robot owls and a Kraken. Perhaps more important, I was just old enough to catch the final film of one of the true masters of geek cinema, setting me on a path of lifelong appreciation.

See also:Dungeons and Dragons changed my life -- thanks, Gygax!

Harryhausen was never credited as a director, but his contributions to the films he helped make was frequently at least equal to that of the credited director. He generally was credited with some variation of visual effects, animation or the catch-all title of producer. In truth, he worked on nearly every element of the films that bear his name anywhere, contributing to everything from storyboards and art direction to technical aspects of the shoot. It is perhaps telling that the vast majority of films he worked on are remembered as "Ray Harryhausen films," while the credited directors were forgotten. (Seriously, tell me who directed Clash of the Titans ... without using IMDB.)

I don't remember for certain if I saw Clash of the Titans in theaters or not. I probably did, since my dad took me to basically any science fiction or fantasy film that came out back then, but I don't actually recall seeing it in the theater the way I do other movies of the same era. In any case, once it was available on cable I watched it, oh, maybe a dozen times. Possibly more. A few years later, I saw Jason and the Argonauts, considered by many to be Harryhausen's best work, in my little hometown theater on a random Saturday matinee. Since then, I've seen most of his work, much of it on late-night TV in those years before Netflix and torrents made any movie ever made available at the click of the button. Many of them were cheesy, cheaply made sci-fi or fantasy potboilers, slow of plot and generally overacted. That rarely mattered to me, because I wasn't watching them for a nuances of plot and subtle characterization. I was watching them to see dinosaurs fight and giant octopi tear down bridges -- and goddamn if Harryhausen didn't deliver.

The things he brought to life shaped my imagination forever. The skeleton swordfight in Jason and the Argonauts inspired me to include similar scenarios in a staggering number of my Dungeons & Dragons adventures, and I can assure you that what I described to my adventurers as we played the scene was nothing more or less than my memory of the film. His dinosaurs, dragons, scorpions and cyclops populated my mind's eye for years after I saw his films, so that every time I'd read a story that featured one of those creatures, it was Harryhausen's creations that I imagined as I read. And I will not be satisfied with technology, no matter how advanced, until it allows me to own a sweet clockwork-owl robot like Bubo from Clash of the Titans.

Harryhausen's work, which utilized handmade models and meticulous stop-motion animation along with techniques like rear-projection, was unparalleled for most of his career. Not until studios like Industrial Light and Magic began operating near the end of his career was his mastery of visual effects rivaled. And even to this day his effects sequences are memorable and aesthetically pleasing, even if they do look a little dated.

Luckily, I'm not the only one who thinks so -- as part of its Capitol Hill Classics program, the Esquire is showing a program of four of Harryhausen's films throughout September, one every Tuesday starting with the giant octopus caper It Came from Beneath the Sea this Tuesday, September 3. Later we get The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts before closing out the month with -- what else? -- Clash of the Titans.

These four films span the career of one of the most influential and inspiring filmmakers in all of geekdom. That's not just my opinion -- he's in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and collected a handful of other significant awards during his lifetime. Then there are the numerous homages and dedications to him in various films, including this year's Pacific Rim, a movie deeply indebted to his pioneering work. Harryhausen is easily one of the ten most important filmmakers in all of geekdom, and the chance to see his work on the big screen is a rare opportunity to appreciate his contributions to the field in their natural habitat. Not only is it a chance to see the very best creatures that the first fifty years of cinema could offer, it's also a chance to hear master thespian Laurence Olivier intone "Release the Kraken" -- and who can put a price on that? Find out more about the Capitol Hill Classics series at the Esquire here.