You see the monster in the picture? Does it look familiar? It should do. Many of you will have seen it countless times on TV reruns; some of you may even have been lucky enough to have seen the Cyclops in the film it features in, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), in the cinema when it came out. It was the creation of the master of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen, an art that he made singularly his own. And yesterday was the maestro’s 90th birthday, a fact that I only discovered late in the day (and yes, I do live in my own bubble most of the time, isolated from and inoculated against the world around me).
Stop-motion animation was the technique film-makers used to make their monstrous creations live before the advent of CGI and all that flashy, shiny, smooth and almost too-realistic nonsense came on the scene. At its simplest, an actual physical model of the monster would be made in latex, built over an articulated wire armature and each movement would be painstakingly animated millimetre-by-millimetre, frame-by-frame against a back-projection of the already-filmed live-action scene. Each sequence would take months to complete. During the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and even up until the 1970s it was the main method of animating and integrating monsters for actors to fight or for bringing fantasy creatures to life in live-action films.
Ray Harryhausen, born in 1920, was inspired to enter the field by the pioneer stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien, after seeing his work in the King Kong films. From that moment Harryhausen experimented with the technique, refining and perfecting it. He gained his first job on George Pal’s Puppetoons shorts, then was employed by the Army Motion Picture Unit during WW2. His first ‘real’ job was when the very man who had inspired him, Willis O’Brien, hired him as an assistant animator on his film Mighty Joe Young (1949), which went on to win an Oscar for Visual Effects.
His career burgeoned from then on, starting with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and going all the way through to The Clash of the Titans (1981), via such memorable films as 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), the Sinbad series, (7th Voyage , The Golden Voyage of Sinbad  and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger ), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), One Million Years BC (1966), and The Valley of Gwangi (1969). Titans was the last film where he was actively involved in the creation of the effects sequences, but his involvement with the industry that he gave so much to has continued in other capacities since then.
The bottom line is, though, that like many others of my generation and earlier, his work in those films opened up a whole new world of wonder and imagination. In that sense, just like his mentor O’Brien, he was a pioneer. Yes, in comparison to today’s whizz-bang computer-generated special-effects and animated films, his monsters and the way they move appear primitive and shaky. But to me, THAT is part of their appeal – the fact that even though we know that they’re only 12″ high models they still have a distinct life of their own, that they appear to move under their own steam. Even more pertinently, they have character, completely identifiable ones at that. I remember, for instance, when watching Jason and the Argonauts for the first time, that I felt genuinely sorry for Talos, the giant living statue, when his ‘life’ drained away in the way it did. (He also scared me rigid when, after the hero enters the plinth he rested on, he slowly turns his head…). And who can forget the Children of the Hydra sequence in the 7th Voyage of Sinbad, when armed skeletons emerge from the ground subsequent to the slain monster’s teeth being scattered on it. Absolutely terrifying!!
But my particular favourite scene is the Kali sequence from the second Sinbad film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. A pre-Dr. Who Tom Baker plays the role of Koura, who, when cornered by Sinbad (John Philip Law – better known as Pygar, the angel, in Barbarella ), sorcerously causes a statue of the six-armed goddess to become a sword-wielding death-machine. An incredibly nail-biting sequence of fantasy cinema, Sinbad’s demise is only averted when Kali is pushed off a platform to shatter on the floor below. (The film also features ‘scream-queen’ Caroline Munro, the darling of Hammer movie buffs, and a pre-The Professionals Martin Shaw as Rachid. Another, more trivial, aside: I have always wanted a Kali tattoo, probably partly inspired by watching that scene. I still want one, just need to find some space in amongst the other tattoos…)
The thing is, the magic of Harryhausen’s creations have always stayed with me (as they have with many others) no matter how long ago I saw the films. I like CGI as much as the present generation of cinema-goers do (as long as they’re not at the expense of the story – unfortunately all-too frequent these days), but, however shaky some may consider the creatures and monsters inhabiting Harryhausen’s worlds are, they will always, ALWAYS, stand head and shoulders above the efforts of today’s effects masters.
So, all it remains for me to do is to end this piece with these words:
HAPPY BELATED BIRTHDAY, RAY!! MAY YOU CONTINUE TO HAVE GOOD HEALTH AND THAT YOU HAVE MANY MORE YEARS AHEAD OF YOU YET!! MOST OF ALL, THOUGH, THANKS FOR ALL YOUR INCREDIBLE CINEMATIC MAGIC AND THE INSPIRATION THAT HAS FLOWED FROM IT!