Stone to the Bone: On Ray Harryhausen
June 10, 2013 | by Dave Tompkins
Skeletons seem to be preternaturally deft swordsmen. This one is giving Sinbad all he can handle, at one point throwing its shield like a Frisbee. It’s a roadhouse move, executed with zing and grimace. Sinbad ducks and the shield crashes into the evil sorcerer’s lab, causing a model dinosaur to take a header off the top shelf.
This scene from 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was created by Ray Harryhausen, a special-effects pioneer who recently died, at the age of ninety-two. Only in this lost world could a model Sauropoda look faker than a skeleton wielding a scimitar. The realness was in the time and dedication that went into letting that shield fly, its rotation not unlike the UFO that Harryhausen drunkenly crashed into the Capitol two years earlier in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. While destroying national landmarks makes for a good time, stop-motion animation also demands archeological patience. A mere shoofly of a skeleton’s wrist can equal a full day’s work. For Harryhausen, a little boy’s “dinosaur phase” evolved into a lifetime of endless adjustments and clicks, a shot for every move and turn. One of his biggest challenges and triumphs was activating Medusa’s snake perm in Clash of the Titans (1981), not to mention the instant ossification induced by her stink-eye. Harryhausen would also embellish the legend: Medusa as a graceful archer with snake arrows was as myth-busting to me as a Kraken showing up in a movie without tentacles.
Harryhausen’s passing offers yet another reason to curse CGI remakes and lament how fans like Guillermo del Toro didn’t get a proper crack at Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. It is also a time to celebrate giant squirrels and mega-walruses. A time to watch dinosaurs and mythical creatures pummel each other to Tito Puente. A time to receive an e-mail from your owl-collector friend yelling, I WANT A BUBO.
The day Harryhausen died, Denver Post sports columnist Woody Paige appeared on ESPN’s Around the Horn. The chalkboard over his right shoulder—normally reserved for nudge and homily—read “I can always tell when they are using fake dinosaurs in movies.” He had a point. The substitution of a real iguana in One Million Years B.C. (1966) was a cheap, disingenuous move in a film that featured a giant Harryhausen turtle snapping at Raquel Welch.
Not to beat a dead eohippus, but some of my most arresting memories of stop-motion are when these creatures actually stopped, died, and had their pictures taken. The fatal stills from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (in a heap at the bottom of the Coney Island Cyclone; 1953) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (the Ymir sprawled in the rubble of the Colosseum; 1957) are tragic. Seeing these images in books before watching the films offered a chance to admire their reptilian detailing, a shot of mortality caught in a moment of realness, as if freed from the fantasy of movement, a life that could only exist in motion pictures. (Offing skeletons was less glamorous and appeared to be a matter of tossing a pile of med-school bones on the floor.) Harryhausen was skilled at evoking sympathy for his monsters; you felt for these lonely, scared things being shot at by wooden actors with bazookas. We always walked away from these films with an important lesson: we were in it for the monsters. As if to demonstrate his loyalty to the creatures, Harryhausen once created a mini-Hausen just so a bat demon could snatch him off the side of a mountain and flap off into the sunset. The man was inspired.
Jason and the Argonauts would prompt me to go to a shop called Science Hobbies and ask for some dragon teeth to seed my own backyard skeleton army. During The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the first movie I saw in a theater, my childhood buddy stood up and yelled, “Hey David! There’s the fire-breathing dragon!” There was no fire, but enough dragon to fill the Charlottetown Cinema IV. Stop-motion can also really mess with one’s sense of scale. Arthur Pollock’s 1984 photograph of a life-size brontosaurus being transported by helicopter to the Boston Museum of Science could be a special delivery from Kong Island. The dinosaur, dangling midair from a cable, looks miniature but somehow alive when passing the Hancock Building. At a quick glance, the tail appears to wag.
Many of Harryhausen’s ideas were left unrealized, like his plans to take Sinbad to Mars. A film called Skin and Bone didn’t make it past “a drawing of a skeleton sitting up in bed.” A stint with the Signal Corps during the war would take Harryhausen away from his garage dinosaurs while allowing him to practice his craft though a series of “three-dimensional information films” called Why We Fight. One demo reel depicted the taking of a strategic airfield in Guadalcanal in 1942. Bridges and supply huts magically build themselves, and ghost-driven vehicles—including a cute jeep with a frond top—scurry about in preparation for combat. There are planes, battleships, and howitzers. All this stop-motion firepower but no armatured monsters to blow away. I fully expected to see a giant Ymir stomp through the set en route to Rome.
The day of Harryhausen’s death, I spent a prehistoric afternoon in the Everglades, island-hopping near the Gulf of Mexico with a team of archeologists. As the boat weaved through a maze of fossilized shell mounds, I was told that the remains of a saber-toothed tiger and a woolly mammoth had been excavated from underwater caves in northern Florida.
According to the Harryhausen archives, the saber-toothed tiger from the third Sinbad film is well-preserved, but the woolly mammoth he made from his mom’s fur coat may have gone to the cave bear. In reality, many of these creatures are slowly dematerializing from the frame. The cephalopod from Mysterious Island (1961) has lost its shell, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, its body. The dragon still has its horns, but little else. The golden owl clunker still flies like Woodstock. One of the tentacles from It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) has been recycled into a dinosaur tail. But all skeletons are present and accounted for, awaiting their next move.
Dave Tompkins’s first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, is now out in paperback.