special effects point zero

i was going to write a post for today about the first season of life on mars, touching lightly on john simm’s ability to cry on cue (truly miraculous) and philip glenister’s ability to bluster and mow down on sarnies, also on cue (also miraculous — and slightly stomach-churning).

but instead i’m going to write about ray harryhausen because the man is 90 and he is awesome. in fact, he may be one of the top 10 “made of awesome” people ever. he even got his own evening at the bfi to showcase precisely how awesome he is: guardian coverage of same evening here. look at the people in that room: phil tippet (i want to see that short), dennis muren, rick baker, george lucas, james cameron, peter jackson — the list goes on and gets more staggering.

this is all for a guy who, basically, spent a lot of time making octopi out of modelling clay and figuring out how to make a plasticine medusa scary. which seems really ridiculous until you sit down and watch it came from beneath the sea — one of my personal favorites for the peculiar interpersonal relationship between the main characters alone, to say nothing of the huge octopus — or clash of the titans or jason and the argonauts. yeah, they look stilted and kind of funny given the sexiness of effects we’re used to now — but if harryhausen hadn’t put together his plasticine skeletons and clay octopi and made them work in a very real way, then there would have been no rancor, no terminator, no kraken, no predator— the list just goes on.

i’m sure there are plenty of other people who should get listed with harryhausen as “special-effect pioneers” — melies, lang, and lots of other people i’m not clever enough to remember the names of — but harryhausen, for me at least, probably tops the list. if nothing else, working through his back catalogue will give you a really interesting netflix queue for awhile!

and the harryhausen stuff still works if i knew precisely why, i’d probably be a very highly-paid film executive somewhere living in a perpetual haze of air-conditioning and expensive espresso, but i don’t and i’m not. but go and watch jason and the argonauts or the original clash of the titans — there’s something highly watchable about the claymation monsters and beasties. and, yes, part of the watchability is that if we look at the 1981 kraken, we can all look back a few years and see the 2006 kraken blowing johnny depp’s hat off. and, yes, in comparison the hand-molded beastie does look a little silly — but it’s still kind of scary. and, if you’re a little kid, downright terrifying. it’s still big and inhuman and just damn strange. it’s a monster in all the ways a monster is supposed to be.

and without the claymation kraken in 1981, there really is no cgi kraken in 2006 because — well, why would there be? someone has to be the first to make it apparent that something is possible. and then other people take it, elaborate on it, invent quicker, better, shinier ways of doing it. that doesn’t invalidate or devalue the original demonstration of what could be done.

which is precisely why in the corpse bride, the piano victor is playing on is called a ‘harryhausen.’ happy birthday.

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