Long before high-tech digital dinosaurs and similar CGI creatures overran the Hollywood ecosystem, pioneering stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen created otherworldly visions using painstaking labor-intensive means and an inimitable personal touch. Trick-photography wizard behind big-screen fantasy classics like ape-amok tale Mighty Joe Young (1949); One Million Years B.C. (1966), in which cavegirl Raquel Welch famously gets airlifted via pterodactyl; and gauzy winged-horse opera Clash of the Titans (1981), Harryhausen, who will turn 84 next month, is appearing at the Walter Reade to celebrate his comprehensive coffee-tabler, Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life (Billboard), with screenings of two of his most lavish films, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958).
Unlike the assembly-line cartoonists at Warner Bros. and Disney, Harryhausen worked solo. “I never had a crew,” he says. “Every inch of animation was done by me. It requires a lot of concentration, and I prefer to work alone.” Always pushing his talents toward greater challenges, he moved from one-monster pictures to battle epics with scores of complex combatants. Jason, for example, “was particularly difficult with the Hydra, which had seven heads. Two or three heads are going forward and two or three heads are recoiling backwards. Then the phone rings and your concentration breaks, and you forget which head goes where!”
Harryhausen’s technique results in far more expressive movements than much of today’s sleek animation; he thinks contemporary films should still benefit from traditional techniques. “I do think CGI can be a wonderful thing,” he says. “Little Gollum in The Lord of the Rings was fantastic. But it’s just one tool, and I don’t think everything else should be discarded in favor of CGI.”