Happy Birthday, Ray Harryhausen!

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Stop-motion animation maestro Ray Harryhausen turns 90 years old today. One of the most important exponents of stop-motion animation and its integration with live-action footage, Harryhausen has more than earned the retirement from the industry he has enjoyed since 1981’s Clash of the Titans. His menagerie of mythical beasts, living statues, warrior skeletons and alien invaders set the gold standard for special effects animation: inspired by, but undoubtedly building upon, the work of Willis O’Brien (who mentored him on Mighty Joe Young), Harryhausen’s creatures were endowed with a distinctive inner life that manifest itself in nuanced mannerisms or full thespian emoting. These miniature models were made to give fully rounded performances that invariably overshadowed the lunky performances of their human costars. A relentless populist with a boyish imagination, you could tell that he was driven by a desire to bring his mind-load of beasts into full-colour motion as directly as possible.

I once had the pleasure of meeting Harryhausen at a book signing. Arriving a little late, I was shocked to find him alone next to a pile of books and DVDs. Where were the legions of geeks? Could it be that his appeal had not filtered down to younger generations who hadn’t grown up marvelling at Saturday afternoon Sinbads and Bank Holiday Argonauts? My own affection for Harryhausen’s work had taken me by surprise when I welled up at the sight of one of the Jason and the Argonauts skeletons at a public talk he gave during the Animated Exeter festival a few years back. So, that should tell you something about the level of critical distance I’m able to take here. Anyway, I had a little chat with Ray and asked him to sign my copy of his book, and my old VHS of Jason. “Is this your favourite of my films?” he asked me. A bit sheepishly, I replied: “I have a bit of a soft spot for Earth vs the Flying Saucers.” Perhaps because he was hard of hearing, and I soft of speaking, he asked me to repeat myself, and in the middle of a quiet city-centre Waterstones I found myself loudly declaiming my appreciation of the 1956 alien invasion epic for which he supplied peerless animation and compositing in scenes of gleeful mass destruction. Since I plan to spend my autumn years shouting at people in bookshops, it was good to get some practice in, and to shake the hand of a man whose films still provide a little corrective every time my cinematic diet gets a bit too dark and heavy.

Happy Birthday, Ray Harryhausen. My humblest of gifts is a slideshow and gallery of some images and posters that should remind you of some of his achievements. View the slides above or click on any image below for a larger view:

See more Spectacular Attractions galleries here.

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How to Fly in 3D

How to Train Your Dragon is made marvelous by that rarest of creatures – a nuanced and relatable CGI animal. Part dragon, part puppy, Toothless can convey a range of emotions with a curled lip or a twitch of the eyes, resorting only occasionally to the safety net of anthropomorphism. It’s the corniest of stories – a wimpy kid shows that brains trump brawn, and that gruff warrior types do not hold a monopoly on courage and persistence. The strongest message is that enemies are not always what they seem, and might be prey to the same fears and pressures as you are. It’s exactly what you want your kids to believe, but not necessarily what you want to see cynically mobilised to flog a Happy Meal. Dragon also benefits from the most effective use to date of 3D technology. Foreground and background are really unhooked from one another, dragons seem suspended in the air before you, and the Viking village depicted becomes a bustling perspectival pile-up of objects, high cliffs and big faces. I was also reminded of the close friendship between 3D movies and flying sequences. A film about dragons, and learning how to ride them, naturally lends itself to scenes of hurtling through the sky at breakneck speed, a white-knuckled passenger on a flight of vertiginy. See, for example, how Robert Zemeckis souped-up Dickens’s A Christmas Carol by having Jim Carrey’s Scrooge thrown through the air at regular intervals:

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