Friday, May 10, 2013

Ray Harryhausen was a Magician (including random tables)

(Part of the Ray Harryhausen Blogfest)

Ray Harryhausen was a magician. He took foam rubber and fur wrapped around a wire armature and made it come to life in dozens of feature films and short subjects.

Harryhausen's contributions to visual and photographic effects cannot be overestimated. His pioneering work in refining the art of stop-motion animation over the course of 50 years gave us defining moments in the history of science-fiction and fantasy films. His technical wizardry and attention to detail mark the work of a true professional of the craft. Several generations of film fans, filmmakers, and gamers have been inspired by his creations.

This should have been a story in honor of Ray Harryhausen's 93rd birthday in June. Instead, it is in memoriam for the filmmaker, artist and writer who passed away on Tuesday.

I don't remember the exact first Harryhausen movie that I saw. Many of my early memories of movies as a kid are mixed together. My best guess is that it was 20 Million Miles to Earth, about an alien creature loose in Rome; a late-night showing (9pm?) that my parents let me stay up to watch. I soon began to recognize his work in other movies over many more late nights and Saturday afternoons. They were known as "Harryhausen movies", as his special effects overshadowed the names of producers, directors, and often the actors. I wrote about one particular film, The First Men in the Moon, in this review.

To me, the battle with the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts represents the pinnacle of Harryhausen's talent, even if he would go on to create more intricate models and complicated effects in later films. He spent four months animating the skeleton models, and the amount of synchronization required to match up models to the live actors is still astounding.

Although we can create all manner of wondrous effects, creatures, and whole worlds through the use of computer animation, I feel that sometimes we lose a connection to the real objects, like stop-motion models and the physical sets they inhabit. Their lack of slick perfection make them less polished and more uneven, but more immediate and ultimately, real.

Bonus: Two d12 tables for random Harryhausen monsters in the fantasy role-playing game of your choice.

Small Creatures

1 -A Roc hatchling

2 - Skeletons

3 - Pterodactyl

4 - Giant bee

5 - Harpies

6 - Selenites

7 - A homunculus

8 - Animated ship's figurehead

9 - Centaur

10 - A chess-playing baboon

11 - A mechanical owl

12 - Medusa

Large Creatures

1 - Giant ape

2 - Rhedosaur

3 - Giant octopus

4 - Triceratops

5 - Cyclops

6 - Giant crab

7 - Talos

8 - Hydra

9 - The Avatar of Kali

10 - Griffin

11 - Troglodyte

12 - The Kraken

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