Sad news today, we’ve lost not only one of the most imaginative creators to work in the fantastic film genres, we’ve lost a man who fired the imagination of so many of us when we were kids and left an indelible impression on our collective sense of wonder – Ray Harryhausen, friend to Sinbad, father of dragons, master of monsters, orchestrator of battling skeletons, has passed away at the age of 92. Inspired as a boy in the 20s and early 30s by films like the original King Kong he started learning the painstaking arts of model making and the tireless precision that is stop-motion animation, even getting to meet one of his great inspirations, the legendary Willis O’Brien who brought the mighty Kong to life. Ray would go on to surpass even O’Brien’s wonderful, pioneering special effects from the early days of cinema, crafting some of the most memorable creatures and effects in cinematic history. In the days before digital animation and effects the detailed, labour intensive arcane art of the stop-motion artist was the only real way to bring fantastical creatures to life, from dinosaurs to minotaurs and mighty sea beasts, and, most memorably for me, the astonishing fighting skeletons of Jason and the Argonauts, still, as far as I am concerned, one of the finest examples of animation of any type in film history. Modern CG animation could recreate that scene more smoothly and realistically, perhaps, but it would never match the sheer magic and wonder of Harryhausen’s original scene.
It blew my little mind as a small boy sitting in a dark cinema between my mum and dad, eyes wide with wonder; it still hugely impresses me as an adult and lifelong admirer of animation. In 2008 Ray came to the Edinburgh International Film Festival for a retrospective of his work and a talk, and naturally I had to add that to my usual film fest diet. A number of those present were around my age, obviously people who had seen the film as a child in the cinema, now there with their own small kids. I wondered what a child of today, grown up on slick, 3D CG animation would think of this old fantasy classic; the answer wasn’t long in coming, they loved it, they adored it as much as we had as kids. They were sitting there open-mouthed, utterly entranced, especially with the skeletons. Ray himself talked to the audience of his life, his work, his inspirations and achievements, and we all sat spellbound listening to him; we were not listening to an old film maker, or a special effects man, we were in the presence of a genuine wizard, an alchemist, a man capable of taking inert clay and fashioning it to give it life through an infusion of magic, that still enchants young and old. Ray has left us, the magic remains forever. Goodbye, Ray, and thank you for the wonders you brought to us.