By Bob Clark
1933’s King Kong may very well ought to be noted as one of the most important and influential films of all time, and not just for the myriad of obvious ways in which it’s shaped the course of movie history by its most direct methods. As a pioneering feat of action-adventure storytelling and marrying live-action to all manner of special-effects, from matte paintings to stop-motion, it more or less invented a kind of American blockbuster that has come to dominate world box-office, for better or worse. Countless directors have counted the film and its innovations as crucial to their inspiration to become movie-makers, and have even called back directly to the movie when formulating the vocabulary of their own FX-enhanced set-pieces– it’s easy to see traces of Merian C. Cooper’s work in everything from Lucas & Spielberg to Cameron & Jackson, but likewise it’s impossible to look at a movie like The Prestige, with all those grand acts of magic performed on the curtained stage with full proscenium arch, and not think of the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Plenty of big-screen monsters have competed for Kong’s first-place spot on the stage of world attention, and a few have even matched it (Isihiro Honda’s Godzilla and other kaiju creations, even meriting a showdown with the great one himself), but for the most part any attempt to out-do or even place with the work that animator Willis O’Brien did here in bringing the Empire State’s aplha ape have been at best forgettable (if only the same could be said of Dino de Laurientiis’ or Peter Jackson’s dismal remakes). But if in all the years since there have been any movie-monsters that have had any real chance of outshining the great Khan of Kongs and O’Brien’s efforts to tame the savage beast one stop-motion frame at a time, then they can only be due to the efforts of a man who gladly claimed Kong and O’Brien as crucial inspirations to his own start as an animator, and who very well stands as the greatest gift that 1933 film has indirectly bestowed upon the culture of popcorn cinema. Without Kong, there wouldn’t have been a Ray Harryhausen, and without him, nothing would’ve been the same.
It’s sad of course to note the master animator’s passing this week at the age of 92, but in a very real way the real tragedy began 30 years ago after the release of Clash of the Titans, when Harryhausen announced his retirement, in the face of competition from a new generation of special-effects wizards from Industrial Light & Magic and other likeminded houses. This was three decades hence, mind you, a good while before CGI and digital filmmaking in general came to even bear a threat to the tried-and-true traditions of old fashioned effects– that Harryhausen quit well before Terminator 2 or Jurassic Park merely after seeing the kinds of effects that Dennis Muren, John Dykstra and Douglas Trumbull could pull off with motion-control cameras, new generations of optical printers and crews of stop-motion animators working at a scale that could sometimes daunt even what he was capable of, that very well may show a certain kind of foresight in keeping with his level of talent. After decades spent coming up with astounding visions to be paired with live-action footage, he might’ve very well realized that the likes of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Superman were only the opening volleys of a new brand of filmmaking that would eventually lead to Weta Workshops, Pixar and a new kind of animation that would eventually render the marriage between stop-motion and live action (and to a certain extend stop-motion, period) commercially obsolete, and all but creatively extinct.
So he got out while the getting was good. And that’s a real loss, because no matter how unmatched the newer generations of effects and animation may be when it comes to scope and scale, and the exponential rise in spectacle that they provide, it’s the personal factor and intimacy with a particular craft that Harryhausen so ably employed with stop-motion that becomes the most essential ingredient when it comes to really bringing any kind of effects work to life. It’s something that the best examples of modern CGI and digitally enhanced fantasy all have in various places– the weariness of Rob Coleman’s digital Yoda, the frenzied pathos of Andy Serkis’ Gollum or his arguably greater, non-verbal performance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes– and it’s something that all of Harryhausen’s work is filled with. It can very often be taken for granted as mere hyperbole from those who admire his work, but when you take into consideration the way in which the animator literally did have to manipulate the armatures and plasticine bodies of his characters one milimeter at a time, frame by frame, it’s not far off to say that he breathed life into his creations.
There’s a visceral element to the way stop-motion works, something that gets lost with each iteration of special-effects practices– the fact that Harryhausen and his crew had to make each puppet by hand, and then animate each moment of its onscreen appearance by hand, rather than letting a computer fill in the blanks by automation, demonstrates what we lose in the modern era, and how hard even the biggest effects houses have to work in order to preserve it. ILM has for the past several years been an all-digital workhouse, but it says a lot that even today their work is more about hands-on animation than the automated rendering you can sometimes get with Weta’s mo-cap approach– when Guillermo Del Toro began work on the upcoming Pacific Rim, he made a point in seeking out ILM’s services, pointing out how they “key-frame” all their effects, treating their digital creations with just the same kind of moment-to-moment precision that Harryhausen did with clay, a kind of digital stop-motion. It’s ironic that the older key-framing approach can work better when attempting to deliver really convincing performances through artificial means– as impressive as mo-cap work can be in the hands of the right performer, it almost goes without saying that there has to be additional tending-to from digital animators who can help craft the micro-expressions that even an actor can’t necessarily get through sensors and ping-pong balls.
But then traditional animators, be they of hand-drawn two-dimensional or stop-motion puppets, have always understood that their job has more often than not been one of performance, rather than necessarily taking the place of a director who crafts entire sequences themselves. When we say that a film is a Harryhausen film, we’re saying it in the same way that Casablanca belongs to Bogey & Bergman rather than Curtiz, or any other classic Hollywood picture might be more identified with its lead performers rather than their directors, because through his clay and armatures Ray Harryhausen effectively was one of the greatest actors of the silver screen, masking his acting through dense but nimble layers of chimera-like special-effects, turning him into the greatest movie shape-shifter since Lon Chaney. And though he thrived in a career that was full of spectacle and sensations of all shapes, sizes and dimensions, with peak action sequences that sent tentacled beasts rampaging through city streets, flying saucers demolishing Washington D.C. or classic mythological heroes against whole armies of skeletons and quadrilimbed duelists, it’s perhaps fitting that he closed his career with a movie that allowed him to portray a monster whose menace and pathos was all about human expression.
It’s no small thing to say that the Medusa of Clash of the Titans may be Harryhausen’s very finest moment, a sequence that marries all manner of stylistic flourish in the dark, fire-lit chambers as Perseus stalks his prey, and thrives with a degree of minute attention to detail in the Gorgon’s physicality– the posture of her body and the expressions on her face. Through her, Harryhausen steals the show with a blend between a movie monster that you elicits more sympathy and emotion than her human counterparts (no small feat up against Olivier, Maggie Smith and Burgess Meredith) and the classic silver-screen divas– turning you to stone with the briefest stare, and always ready for her close up. Around the same time that Clash of the Titans was made, Lucas was pushing to get Frank Oz nominated for an Oscar in his performance-by-muppet as Yoda, and decades since we still see people advocating recognition for digitally enhanced mo-cap performances from Andy Serkis and the like. Add Ray Harryhausen to the list, and maybe we’ll get somewhere on that.