On a recent evening at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, a crowd was huddled around the box office hoping for rush tickets to the night's sold-out show. Inside, the elegant art deco main theater was buzzing with anticipation, and this being Marin County it was a highly articulate buzz coming from casually dressed people with above-average incomes.
Finally stepping on stage was the man of the evening, 83 year old honorary Oscar winner Ray Harryhausen, who started with a standing ovation and amiably rolled from there in an evening of film clips, anecdotes, questions, answers and approbations. If the name Ray Harryhausen does not immediately put images in your head, he was one of the pioneers of stop-action animation. Before the gigabyte days of computers, Harryhausen created creatures by hand - giant apes and crabs, dinosaurs, hydras, cyclops, aliens and Beasts from 20,000 Fathoms - and brought them to life one teeny, tiny movement at a time. In one of Harryhausen's most cited sequences, from "Jason and the Argonauts," an army of skeletons sword fights with a somewhat less-animated real life actor and Harryhausen recalls an entire day of metliculous work that rendered only 13 frames - one half second - of film.
Ray Harryhausen did all this in the service of B-Movies. You may never have gone to the drive-in or 50 cent matinee yourself but you have seen Mr. Harryhausen's work many times because pop culture has embraced his oversized monsters as post-atomic kitsch. When you see a giant lizard on the streets of New York, scattering panicky bystanders and perhaps picking a policeman up by the head? That's Ray. He never had much of a budget to work with, nor any human movie stars to help carry the load. And given the timing and budget he usually had only one take to get it right. Or not. Harryhausen remembers leaving a pair of pliers in one shot.
But the affection displayed for Ray Harryhausen on this particular night was not glib or postmodern. It was genuine. Women and children were represented in the crowd, but it was ostensibly grown men sporting touches of gray that filled the auditorium and lined up later for the Master's autograph. And these weren't necessarily average fans. The Bay Area being a worldwide mecca for special effects, many were animators themselves, well-paid professionals working for huge studio blockbusters whose technical sophistication has left the lumbering lizards of Ray Harryhausen in the tar pits. But I'm guessing that when they were kids they saw a Harryhausen film that changed their life. Just as a young Harryhausen saw "King Kong" in 1933 and found his calling.
Dinosaurs and Greek Gods could walk the Earth again as if by magic, even if it was in fact by a few painstaking frames of film a day. That youthful sense of wonder doesn't really dim in the light of modern day, and it's nice to be reminded of that. Thanks, Ray.
© 2004 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 5/5/04
A Night of Ray Harryhausen