The master died Tuesday in London of natural causes at age 92. In 1981, the year he designed Medusa and Pegasus and other delectables for “Clash of the Titans,” he visited the School of the Art Institute's Film Center (now the Gene Siskel Film Center) and said: “I'm worried about all this concentration on special effects. It breeds the seeds of its own destruction.” This, from a film artist who made his living concentrating on special effects. He knew the value of selectivity. And of story.
Harryhausen's imagination scared the hell's bells out of me when I was 8. Friday night, sometime in 1969.
“Mysterious Island,” the 1961 picture featuring Harryhausen's giant crab, to say nothing of the giant bee and the flightless oversize chickenlike bird monster, was on WGN-TV. I was watching with my father. I wasn't temperamentally a monster-movie kid — more of a comedy nerd — but this one had me.
The sequence in which the monstrous marauding crab squares off against Jules Verne's adventurers was enough to make me very, very quiet for a minute (a miracle; I talked near-constantly). Then my dad said, “Huh. Wonder how they did that. Something with little models. I think they move a leg, or a claw, maybe a millionth of an inch, and then film some more. And then put it all together.”
And there it was: Harryhausen's genius with model animation on screen, explained.
When he was 13, the Los Angeles-born Harryhausen had his mind blown by “King Kong” at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Sixteen years later, for “Mighty Joe Young” (1949), a sequel of sorts to that fantasy classic, Willis O'Brien won an Academy Award for visual effects. He was credited as supervisor of the film's stop-motion animation effects.
Harryhausen was O'Brien's assistant, and by most accounts, he did most of the animation. The atomic age ignited the age of atomic beasts in Hollywood. Harryhausen's monster in “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” floored moviegoers in 1953. The monster, for the record, was a prehistoric rhedosaurus unleashed by the A-bomb. The amusement park finale? Fantastic. I still look for that creature every time I get on a roller-coaster.
Digital effects today strive for fluidity. Harryhausen's stop-motion model animation strived for something rougher, more transparently artificial — “partly mechanical, partly lifelike,” says Barbara Scharres, director of programming at the Film Center. She was there, in 1981, working as the Film Center's technical director and an unofficial programmer, when Harryhausen came to Chicago for a tribute. She remembers him opening up his little suitcase during the question-and-answer period with the audience.
“He was like a traveling salesman,” she recalls, “except his suitcase was full of little skeletons and creatures.”
In 1999, for a program included in the Chicago International Film Festival, Harryhausen introduced a double bill at the Music Box Theatre. In a Tribune interview he said: “The modern digital effects are very effective, but I don't think they're the be-all and by-all. You shouldn't eliminate everything just because CGI (computer-generated imagery) came. It's a wonderful tool, and I think you should treat it as a tool. It can enlarge everything we do with puppet animation — with hand puppets, with string puppets — and stop-motion. But it's not right to kill off everything just because CGI came into the picture.”
By then, Harryhausen realized his preferred approach to breathing life into wondrous beings was considered passe. “Clash of the Titans,” made in the pre-digital age, had the air of quaint Old Hollywood about it, comfortably in sync with Laurence Olivier's thundering Zeus. Today, seen from a 21st-century perspective, the effects accomplish what they always did: Harryhausen's stop-motion animation animated the tale. It worked, plain and simple. It served the story.
Today, we're in danger of becoming numb to the simple quality of amazement. Digital effects, unless they're designed and deployed by artists who happen to be crafts people, too often settle for realism and skip the magic. Harryhausen gave us magic. He scared us. He made us believe in his rough magic. And in our mind's eye, his creatures from beneath the sea, from Greek mythology, from Jules Verne and from his own painstaking, one-frame-at-a-time genius will live long, long lives.