CONCENTRATED RAGE UNDER A MAGNIFYING GLASS: Underground Cartoonist Rick Trembles remembers Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013)
It doesn’t matter that I never managed to become a stop-motion animation special effects monster movie maker myself. You see, because of Ray Harryhausen, that’s what I desperately wanted to be when I grew up. It doesn’t matter that his medium’s been obsolete for decades. Despite his passing, I will continue to obsessively hunt down any information I can find on the techniques he mastered till the day I die, as if I were about to embark on my own dream-Dynamation extravaganza any second now. I still want to be Ray Harryhausen one day.
His films had me riveted. I was obsessed. I’m old enough that they were still state-of-the-art special effects when I went to their original theatrical releases. Whenever a new film of his got advertised on TV, I’d explode. Ray Harryhausen’s legacy will live on forever, but I can’t help wondering in what manner the newbies will appreciate it. To those who grew up inundated with pristine CGI as their state-of-the-art, will the comparative clunkiness of jittering matte-lines & strobing puppets dampen their first impressions? Without disputing its brilliance, will they still relegate it to camp charm by default? It wasn’t clunky when I saw it. I’m honored to have experienced it as jaw-droppingly real, just as intended.
As a youth, I pored over every issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, The Monster Times, or Castle of Frankenstein I could find, looking specifically for behind-the-scenes photos of Ray Harryhausen’s miniature sets in the hopes of discovering trade secrets lurking around his foam-latex creatures. Finding out the basics of how these monster movies were done made me feel like I had information nobody else was privy to, and I couldn’t understand why others weren’t as fascinated.
Bored out of my skull and hanging out in my high school library one day, I came across a small photo of MIGHTY JOE YOUNG in a very general textbook about the history of film. I quickly tore it out & pocketed it. I knew that was a bad thing to do, Ray Harryhausen himself would’ve surely frowned on it. But I was angry that I had nobody to share my enthusiasm for stop-motion animation with, and figured if no one else in that stupid school was going to admire the picture, it might as well belong to the one person who really appreciated it; me.
I would walk the streets vividly imagining scenarios of rampaging stop-motion animated dinosaurs demolishing urban environments, crashing through building walls, each meticulously animated miniature brick strewn to and fro. I’d picture tumbling monsters’ torsos inadvertently squishing oblivious passersby, as Ray Harryhausen’s movie creatures were wont to do. If only those mere mortals had known what made them tick, like I did, maybe they would have had a fighting chance.
Since these rampaging beasts were shot frame-by-frame, each pose was crystal clear, unlike live-action footage where fast-moving objects realistically blur. This adorned them with a sort of hyper-realism nothing else could compare to. The results were otherworldly, like putting concentrated rage under a magnifying glass. Something a disaffected kid could relate to.
Another kid-friendly aspect to Ray Harryhausen and co. was the plain fact that these were grownups playing with toys. Extremely expensive, complex toys, but toys nonetheless. Miniature worlds of their own making, populated by malleable dolls. Everything I grew up doing can arguably be regarded as kid stuff too, and despite the many naysayers I’ve crossed paths with throughout my life, I never felt like a casualty of arrested development. Thanks again, Ray.
It was hard enough for me to track down how these magic tricks were done in the 1970’s; can you imagine Ray Harryhausen in the 1940’s? The encouragement he got from his parents is legendary, but still, what kind of focus, drive, and determination must it have taken to make this his life’s calling? And what kind of reaction must he have gotten from his peers? You could probably have counted on one hand the amount of people possessed enough by the technique to maintain similar aspirations back then. Compounding things further was the fact that they were well-guarded trade secrets. Trial and error was Ray Harryhausen’s baptism of fire, and he never balked. Another healthy life-lesson worth emulating.
I don’t think masochism, per se, compelled him to painstakingly animate those seven simultaneous skeletons in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. It was a desire to do something that had never been done before, and perhaps to create something he, himself, had always wanted to see. This is where Ray Harryhausen’s inspiration will live forever, because it doesn’t matter what creative medium you’ve chosen to be consumed by, head-to-toe, or how stacked the odds are against you, if you stick with it & do as phenomenal a job as you can, the work will eventually speak for itself.
It doesn’t matter that by most people’s standards, I’m an armchair animator, a failed artist, a financial flop, and the majority of my creative endeavors remain seldom seen, if at all. What matters, to me anyhow, is that when I was a kid, I was prodded by Ray Harryhausen’s modus operandi to try to create alternate worlds of my own, whatever the medium. That the process, for me, ended up as a form of masochism isn’t his fault.