Ray Harryhausen is 90 today. It says so on my Simpsons calendar and my Simpsons calendar don’t lie.
There was a suitably ‘star-studded’ tribute at BFI South Bank – formerly the NFT – last week, and there’s a cracking Harryhausen exhibition titled The Fantastical Worlds of Ray Harryhausen at the Academy building on Wilshire Boulevard. I’ve seen a lot of the stuff before in other RH exhibitions in Bradford and the late, lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London, but it’s the most comprehensive.
Because of the way the foam rots and the armatures get cannibalised, what survives has the air of precious medieval relics… for me the high spot was the stripped armature of the 7th Voyage cyclops, one leg missing, on Ray’s actual animation bench. Some of the stuff I’ve seen before; three of the skeletons from Jason (one of them, if I recall correctly, repurposed from Sinbad) and some hard rubber ‘stand in’ models cast from the moulds and used for lighting, but lots that I hadn’t… a crumbly squid, the flying saucers (tiny!), some breakaway model sets, and loads of original sketches and storyboards.
My friend Archie Tait attended the London tribute and reckons that Harryhausen is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. And I reckon Archie’s right. His films are unique, and will remain so; never again will a mainstream commercial feature be handcrafted with one person supplying so much of the concept, design, fabrication, execution, and performance. He may have had assistants on the original Clash of the Titans, but that was nothing compared to the anonymous flashmob of (undoubtedly talented) animators involved in the remake.
I’ve seen Ray speak once and had the honour of interviewing him onstage twice. And in Stockport’s restored art deco Plaza Cinema I introduced him and Forry Ackerman when they spoke before a Festival screening of the restored print of King Kong.
Proudest moment? When he walked over to me in the hotel bar, jabbed me in the chest, and said, “I remember you! From Preston!”
(He’d accepted an invitation to visit the Preston SF group about three years before; he, his wife Diana, and family friend Philip Strick lodged at the small hotel in my village.)
The Academy exhibition runs until August 22nd. In the meantime, another exhibition opens today at the London Film Museum housed in the old County Hall building, south of the river. It’s called Ray Harryhausen – Myths and Legends and I believe it’s a touring collection that I’ve seen under that name before.
But – and this is hot news, apparently, just announced – Ray is offering to donate his archive and the accumulated materials of a life’s work to the National Media Museum in Bradford. According to the BBC news website:
Harryhausen said: “Now I have reached 90 it is important, certainly in my profession which does not have a reputation for looking after cinematic artefacts, to preserve my art in all its forms – models, drawings, equipment etc, and that this will be available for future generations.”
Paul Goodman, head of collections and knowledge at the National Media Museum, said: “With our proven expertise in caring for, exhibiting and interpreting such a range of artefacts, the museum is an ideal place for this extensive and remarkable archive.”
How cool is that?
As a bonus at the Academy, down in the lobby on Wilshire, there’s a similar exhibition of stuff honouring Chuck Jones. Which is a peek into another universe of brilliance, that I’ll say something about another time.
3 responses to “Happy Birthday, Uncle Ray”
There had been a spare ticket going for the BFI event but I left it too late and when a pal called to ask if I was going it turned out he had just nabbed it. I called him a short while ago to ask how it went.
The report back was the tribute lasted two hours with filmed testimonials from Stephen Spielberg, Ray Bradbury, James Cameron, George Lucas, Tim Burton and Guillermo Del Toro. In the audience were the likes of Sir Christopher Frayling, Peter Lord and Nick Park, Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett, Rick Baker and Caroline Munro, who came on stage to talk about either working with Ray or to explain what an inspiration he had been to them. Last up was Peter Jackson, who presented Ray with an honorary BAFTA. After giving a speech, Ray was about to head off stage when John Landis (who was the MC for the event) called him back, along and invited everyone who had taken part to join them for a group photo.
I remember at the crew screening for Roger Rabbit in Leicester Square everyone was excited to see the finished film whereas I was more excited that Ray Harryhausen was two rows in front of me. A few years back I finally got to interview him for a piece to camera. A great man and an absolute genius.
In the wake of the Preston visit I wrote a letter on behalf of a bunch of us to the producer/presenter of a flagship Arts program of the day (okay, it was Melvyn Bragg) to suggest – diplomatically – that a thoughtful look at RH's work was long overdue and a more appropriate arts subject than some of the PR-driven material the South Bank Show had descended to.
MB's response was to the effect that Ray had been mentioned in an earlier show on a more general subject, and that was probably about his cultural due.
You see an element of this, still, in the 'special effects wizard' tag. Which I see as evidence of an inability to acknowledge real art if it isn't first separated from popular culture. But the night's turnout is evidence of a profound influence on the perceptions and imagination of generations. Thank God he's lived to see it; his mentor Willis O'Brien died unfulfilled, and largely lives on through one great movie and his influence on his most apt pupil.
Such a testimony to the man's talent that even though he hasn't made a film in almost thirty years he is still regarded has a Master.
People talk about Jason and Sinbad, but for me "Valley of the Gwangi" was my first real glimpse of Harryhausen's genius.
How can you not fail to like cowboys and dinosaurs?
Happy birthday Ray!