Ray Harryhausen 1920-2013

Ray HarryhausenI was sad to hear that legendary filmmaker Ray Harryhausen died yesterday at the age of 92. I say filmmaker because, although most people think of him as a master of animation (which he undoubtedly was), Harryhausen’s hands-on approach to almost every aspect of his craft puts him firmly in the ranks of cinema’s auteurs.

When I was a kid, nothing was more likely to keep me glued to the television than a Ray Harryhausen movie. I waited with bated breath for those characteristic wide shots where the grain of the film jumped up just enough to tell you the monsters were about to make their entrance. And what monsters! Dinosaurs, a gigantic bronze statue, a squad of sword-fighting skeletons! What treats for an impressionable young mind. And what great memories.

But here’s the thing: they weren’t just monsters. They were characters. A huge part of Harryhausen’s skill lay in his ability to imbue even the most fantastic creatures with real personality. The word animate derives from the Latin word animus, meaning spirit. Animation is about more than just blessing something with movement. It’s about filling it with life.

What’s more, in breathing life into his puppets, Ray Harryhausen also energised an entire generation of filmmakers. Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Peter Jackson – among many, many others – have all expressed their debts of gratitude to Harryhausen and his work. George Lucas has said that ‘without Ray Harryhausen there would likely be no Star Wars.’  The online community is awash with tributes, but the one that’s stuck in my mind comes from actor Patton Oswalt:

If I believed in God, I’d want him to be like Ray Harryhausen – nudging us one frame at a time toward the sublime & fantastic.

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