• My Golden Voyage with Harryhausen

    By Brock DeShane


    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.

    Brock DeShane is a writer, director, and producer based in Los Angeles. His new short film, Pondwing, is an ode to childhood and a three-second shot in The Empire Strikes Back. The American Cinematheque is celebrating the work of Ray Harryhausen with a retrospective at Los Angeles’s Aero Theatre beginning June 6.

    Photo courtesy of the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation.


  • By Silent-Freak
    June 05, 2013
    01:52 PM

    Harryhausen will be missed.
  • By coolhand
    June 05, 2013
    02:45 PM

    would love to have a jason and the argonauts and 7th voyage of sinbad criterion release on my shelf
  • By Sean
    June 05, 2013
    09:26 PM

    How about the original Theatrical versions of the original Star Wars Trilogy. Plus all the other versions when George Lucas attempted to re-edit his series which caused controversy and yes I'm not happy about the changes either. Please Criterion I want you to release every version of the original Star Wars Trilogy in a 4K transfer and tons of features and if you do so I'll buy it on Blu-Ray day 1! Please Criterion your our only hope!
  • By Davey32
    June 05, 2013
    10:27 PM

    Harryhausen will forever remain one of the geniuses of cinema.
  • By Craig J. Clark
    June 05, 2013
    10:41 PM

    A heartfelt tribute to one of the silver screen's true legends. Thanks so much for this.
  • By Cecelia Levin
    June 06, 2013
    09:23 AM

    The artistry of Ray Harryhausen has always been woven into my childhood memories of summer camp. Everytime it rained we were taken inside and shown the only movie reel they apparently had on hand, "It Came From Beneath the Sea". While the ethical and political messages were lost to me, I always marveled at the giant octopus and its painful roaring. As an adult I went to live in San Francisco, and always imagined the tenacles of the movie's "star" clinging to the side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Somehow, without them, something was always missing.
  • By Page14
    June 06, 2013
    01:22 PM

    Mr. DeShane ... Thank you for sharing this wonderful article with us and for helping others to remember this wonderful man and his great great contribution to film history. Mr. Harryhausen was a legend while alive and his legendary status will only grow larger as time moves on. My most memorable life-changing Harryhausen moment (of many) was seeing Talos come to life in "Jason and The Argonauts". I thought I was somewhat unique in wanting to become a stop-motion animator for a good part of my life due to seeing Ray Harryhausen's films, but have since found out that I'm not alone. It would be beyond wonderful if Criterion could put some kind of package together honoring Ray Harryhausen. I wouldn't even be too fussy about which film you would use (although they *all* are deserving). I would especially like to see Mr. Harryhausen's old fairy tales remembered in the special features of whichever film you would choose to honor with a release. I think it's important that these early works aren't forgotten or left to slip through the cracks.
  • By Aaron Miller
    June 06, 2013
    08:52 PM

    ray will be missed very much
  • By Tati35
    June 08, 2013
    12:10 AM

    Nothing beats a Good Skeleton Sword FightingbArmy or a creaking Living Metal Statue Leaking steam and hot fluid 'blood'