posted 05-09-2013 05:48 PM
Raymond Frederick 'Ray' Harryhausen was an American visual effects creator, writer, and producer who created a form of stop-motion model animation known as "Dynamation." That's an edited version of the Wikipedia listing about the versatile pioneer who died this week at 92. I suspect many collectSPACE readers are fans of his work even if they don't know his name.
He was the man who made giant apes and dinosaurs move in "Mighty Joe Young", and "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms", spaceships fly in "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" and "20 Million Miles to Earth", and the Cyclops walk in "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad." Today his stop-motion technology looks primitive, and CGI has made it an unnecessary but quaint throwback for the few directors such as Tim Burton who still use it at all.
That said, watch "Jason and the Argonauts" again sometime — I say again because collectSPACE readers are exactly the kind of movie fans who have seen it at least once — and tell me that any of the computer-generated chaos in "The Avengers" is as flat-out cool as the fight between Jason's Greeks and the skeleton warriors of Colchis.
Harryhausen started creating stop-motion films when he was a high school kid in Los Angeles. He met a kindred spirit in Ray Bradbury. Both were just teenagers at the time, and both were obsessive movie fans, stargazers, Flash Gordon devotees and general madmen who found mentorship and the occasional free meal among their friends in the Los Angeles Science Fiction League, run by a patriarch of modern sci-fi, the late Forrest J. Ackerman.
Consider the strange gravitational system you could have witnessed in LA of these years: Bradbury working on his home-made science fiction magazine, "Futuria Fantasia", started with a $90 dollar loan from Ackerman: Harryhausen making clay dinosaurs in his garage; and Ackerman running weekly meetings at Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown LA that included Robert A. Heinlein, Leigh Brackett, and Jack Williamson. Bradbury, Heinlein and Williamson all were recognized later as Grand Masters by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Brackett is one of the credited writers of "The Empire Strikes Back", as well as "The Big Sleep", "Rio Bravo" and "The Long Goodbye", but as penniless would-be artists doing work nobody really wanted, they were attracted to the meetings as much for the free lime drink and the possibility of Ackerman buying them dinner as they were for the chance to argue about the future of their craft.
Clifton's is still there, by the way, at 648 South Broadway, and is restored to its original look. It was the venue for Ray Bradbury's 89th birthday party.
In its wider orbits, that system includes L. Ron Hubbard (Ackerman was his agent), and a little further out, Jack Parsons and the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In 1936 the six rocket men whose work was the basis for JPL were testing their fireworks in Pasadena's Arroyo Seco. Parsons was a Williamson fan; he and Hubbard shared lodgings, women, and an interest in the occult.
When you put all of this under the same microscope you see that science fiction and science fact wind in a spiral like the double helix of DNA. George Lucas observed at Harryhausen's passing that "The art of his earlier films, which most of us grew up on, inspired us so much. Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars," but there's more than that here. Fiction inspires fiction, but it also inspires fact — it creates an expectation, a vacuum, and we expect that vacuum to be filled with the things we see.
Apollo 11's "Columbia" was named after Jules Verne's "Columbiad" a hundred years after "From the Earth to the Moon". It happens today more and more quickly — the communicators from the original "Star Trek" became the flip-open cell phones; the tablets of from the second "Star Trek" became iPads; and more than just the technologies sci-fi became our realities. The cultures and the thinking of future people and future societies, the genius of them and the challenges, become real in our time while we watch.
We're living today in yesterday's special effects and watching tomorrow's being storyboarded for us. Someday someone is going to crack the light barrier, and you can bet it'll be someone who dug the NCC-1701 in all its A, B, C, D, and E versions.
I was lucky to be in Los Angeles when you could still meet Harryhausen, Bradbury and Ackerman. Bradbury, the most generous man I ever met, was a longtime friend who produced his own plays at a little theater just half a mile from my place. He showed up every Saturday night. Harryhausen was there for one of them, so I got to say thank you to the man who gave me skeleton warriors. Ackerman held his weekly open house even when he was too frail to rise from his easy chair, and he still had the energy to tell jokes and stories about his memorabilia.
It's hard to fathom that they're gone, but there's some comfort in knowing that these crazy young men all lived into their 90's without ever really getting old. Out of such fortuitous friendships and wild ideas as theirs will come tomorrow's science fact, here and in space. And a lot of great new movies.