Remembering the titan

Virginia Heffernan

Motion is not captured; it’s made. That’s the profound first maxim of studio animation—or it used to be, in the days of Ray Harryhausen, the peerless stop-motion man who died today at 92. Today, of course, there’s Pixar.

Harryhausen made his name counterfeiting motion, making inanimate objects—mostly monster models—dance. In “Mighty Joe Young” (1948), Harryhausen somehow inspired a gorilla figure, in a hurtling truck, to spit playfully at his foes. In “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963), Harryhausen’s masterwork, seven skeletons engaged in a swordfight. In “Clash of the Titans” (1981), Harryhausen created creatures so subtly alive that they could act alongside Laurence Olivier.

When that last (British) film appeared, however, Harryhausen’s work was slighted as “old hat,” since R2D2 and C3PO were already on the scene in “Star Wars” (1977). That can’t have felt good—and Harryhausen retired from filmmaking then and there. Industrial Light and Magic did what it did, but it also sidelined some of the best.

At the same time, the animation that has appeared since—from George Lucas and then from Pixar and all of the computer-generated imaging studios—ends up providing a useful contrast to Harryhausen. The non-puppet monsters, creatures and robots of the past three decades derive their humanity, typically, by clowning. Their humanness comes through in humor—often slapstick. Think of Buzz Lightyear or Rapunzel in Disney’s “Tangled.” These fighters-with-a-funny-streak fall and crash and are brought up short. That’s how you know they’re fallible, and can infer they’re human.

But pratfalls-as-shorthand weren’t the Harryhausen way. His gorillas and dinosaurs and skeletons had a tenderness deep in their physicality, and it informed their every move. That way—the way his monster’s bodies expressed profound alienation and longing—he dared viewers to doubt they had beating hearts. It wasn’t that Harryhausen’s monsters were perfect cyborg warriors, or princesses, who had a moment or two of silliness. They were, instead, mortal in everything they did.

They were also by today’s standards laughably imperfect. Unlike Newton-compliant CGI figures, Harryhausen’s hundreds shrunk and swelled, and violated laws of scale, light and shadow. And yet they seemed to breathe. Maybe it was the precision with which they were manipulated, their resulting lumber or jig, their nuanced expressions and gaits. Maybe it was that, in defying physics, in standing somehow outside time and space, they seemed the more monstrous and thus the lonelier.

Or maybe they seemed alive because Harryhausen oversaw every minute adjustment to the the intricate models, and spoke through their forms.

Harryhausen was certainly more than a mere director, who can tell actors how to move but can’t move for them. He was instead a godlike figure who could make quick the dead, and instill a mere thing with anime--the old word for soul.


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