My Golden Voyage with Harryhausen

On Film / Features — Jun 5, 2013

Any fan of Ray Harryhausen, who died last month at the age of ninety-two, can pinpoint the precise moment when his stop-motion monsters changed their life. For Star Wars effects guru Dennis Muren, it was the goat-legged Cyclops thundering onto the beach in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Tom Hanks dug the sword-fighting skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts, a film he has famously called the greatest ever made. And Tim Burton was so blown away by Earth vs. The Flying Saucers that he re-created its alien apocalypse for Mars Attacks!. For me, it was the silhouette of snake-woman Medusa, emerging from the flickering, firelit shadows of a ruined temple in Clash of the Titans.

Growing up with my grandmother in tiny Roxton, Texas, in the 1970s and early ’80s, I was drawn to Harryhausen’s dreamscapes from a young age. Before grade school ended, I’d watched Ray’s 7th Voyage, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and One Million Years B.C. on our black-and-white television, and thrilled to photos of his centaurs, Smilodons, and moon men in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, the holy scripture for monster kids, which Roxton Drugstore owner J. T. Landers strategically placed between the Marvel comics and his ice cream freezer.

But it was Clash of the Titans, released in the summer of 1981, that changed my world forever. The last feature Ray worked on, Clash was the first movie I followed throughout its production, thanks to magazines like Famous Monsters and Cinefantastique. As with every Harryhausen film, the main attraction was Ray’s animated monsters (he always referred to them empathetically as “creatures”). Through a photochemical sleight of hand, these jointed rubber puppets appeared to interact with real actors and landscapes. It’s one of cinema’s greatest magic acts, and Harryhausen used every trick he’d mastered over a forty-year career for his final show.

A British critic called Clash of the Titans a “child’s garden of adventure for kids of all ages,” and it hit me head-on at exactly the right time. Moreover, its mythic menagerie of serpentine gorgons, flying horses, two-headed wolves, and catfishlike krakens echoed the fauna of my own rural world. Like the favorite songs of our youth, it seemed made just for me.

I saw the movie twelve times that summer, and converted the back bedroom of my grandmother’s house into a makeshift studio. There, I would design and animate my own stop-motion films, using homemade puppets and a Super 8 camera. Some time later, I found Ray’s address in a London phone book and shot off a letter. To my astonishment, he wrote back, and so began a friendship that lasted until his death.

Years afterward, as I began my own career in film, I took my first trip to Ray’s home in London. I spent two weeks there, engaging him on movies, painting, mythology, and, above all, the art of storytelling (in addition to creating visual effects, Harryhausen also contributed to the scripts for his films). Late one afternoon, Ray asked if I’d like to hang out in his upstairs office while he ran an errand. I said yes, of course, and for the next half hour wandered alone around a room encircled by ceiling-high glass cabinets. Each was devoted to one of his movies, the shelves filled with puppets, props, and miniatures. All the old friends were there: Jason and the Argonauts’ seven-headed Hydra, the six-armed death goddess from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, a Styracosaurus found in The Valley of Gwangi, and so on. But the cabinet that occupied most of my time was reserved for Clash.

Perched before me was the winged Pegasus, still proud despite its molting feathers. And look there! The two-headed wolf, growling at one of the scorpions spawned from the Gorgon’s blood. The Kraken, which I’d attempted to emulate in one of my Super 8 epics, was out of town for an exhibit. But never mind. For lurking above them all was the magnificent Medusa, who had slithered like a shadowed omen across my adolescence.

As I stood there, gazing into the Gorgon’s cracked rubber face, the late-afternoon sun slipped through the office window and spread into the room. There was something familiar about the glow, and then it struck me. It was the same warm light that had painted my grandmother’s back bedroom on bygone Texas evenings, when I dreamed of meeting Ray Harryhausen and his creatures, now smiling at me from a hundred mirrored shelves. In that moment, I had the rare and strangely comforting sensation of being in two times and places at once. My dream had realized itself.

Photo courtesy of the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation.