Golden voyage: A tribute to Ray Harryhausen

Ray HarryhausenYesterday morning I booked a ticket to see the 1963 Ray Harryhausen epic Jason And The Argonauts on the big screen. It’s playing at the NFT1 in June, complete with a Q&A from film historian Tony Dalton – an event to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary. The BFI programme, posted to members last week, says: “We also hope to welcome Ray Harryhausen.”

Yesterday evening, I heard the sad news that Ray had died.

As a young kid in the 1970s, I was in thrall to stop-motion animation. Like Ray, I was bowled over by the original King Kong – I can still clearly remember sitting and watching it, having been guided to it by my parents – and I never missed a chance to see any of Ray’s own films when they were on telly. The fantastic creatures of The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad and, of course, Jason And The Argonauts just seemed magical. I was also a dinosaur nut, and the likes of One Million Years BC and The Valley Of Gwangi wowed me in exactly the same way that Jurassic Park would 20 years later.

Long before I had an awareness of writers, directors and composers, I knew Ray’s name as a guarantee of something special. In fact, my whole family did. When my parents took me to the cinema to see Clash Of The Titans in 1981, we all came away open-mouthed at the artistry – not to mention the patience – behind its creatures, and years later my mum would still talk about the Medusa sequence in awed tones.

Meeting Ray Harryhausen, October 2009It was these childhood experiences that led me to queue for Ray’s autograph in October 2009, when he attended Collectormania London as a guest of the Cinema Store. He was there with Tony Dalton to promote the book Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life. I’d been regularly attending signing events for a couple of years and had met a good few people whose work I enjoyed, but this felt like the real deal. It was like meeting a mythical creator – the Wizard of Oz or something – and, yes, there was a tingle.

I bought the book, which Ray and Tony both signed, and I asked whether Ray would sign my Mighty Joe Young DVD sleeve – which he did very carefully, so as not to write over any of the artwork. I was surprised to hear that he’d not been presented with anything to do with Joe for a while, as to me it’s his best work. The film contains many, many beautifully clever effects shots, and not just for 1949. And being a fan of King Kong, I’m thrilled to think of Ray and the man who influenced him – Willis O’Brien, animator of Kong – working together to bring to life another giant ape. It’s curious to me why Mighty Joe Young isn’t more revered, but I suspect that the film will have its day.

Mighty Joe Young DVD sleeve, signed by Ray HarryhausenThanks to the BFI, in June 2010 I got to see Mighty Joe Young on a cinema screen, along with King Kong, for which Ray provided an introduction. That same week I was also lucky enough to attend Ray’s 90th birthday celebration at the NFT1 – a joyous evening, attended by Ray, in which the likes of Peter Jackson, Rick Baker, Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett queued up to praise him, and a host of other filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron and Tim Burton, sent their thanks on video.

These 90th birthday celebrations seemed to kickstart a wave of tributes that didn’t stop. I’m so pleased that Ray knew how much he was loved and appreciated. So often people only say this kind of stuff after someone has died. It’s wonderful that not only was Ray around to hear it, but that people said it to him. And it’s lovely to think that a man who mostly worked alone brought so many people together, through a love for the magic and possibility of fantasy cinema.

The guy who created all these special effects had a special effect. An animated life, indeed.

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