When Ray Harryhausen turned eighty Creative Planet was there for this star studded tribute to a true industry inspiration. Joe Fordham reports.
At 7 p.m. on July 13, cars began to line the streets outside the home of British Consul General and Mrs. Paul Dimond in Los Angeles. A band was set up in the consul general's garden, situated west of the Wilshire Country Club in the residential district of Hancock Park, along with cocktail bars, a buffet dinner and attendant security, and a large screen and video projection system which loomed over the swimming pool. Approximately an hour later, guests and band were silenced, and the guest of honor arrived. Tom Atkin, executive director of the Visual Effects Society (VES), had gathered members of the international filmmaking and visual effects community to spring a surprise on visual effects designer and stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, in celebration of his 80th birthday.
"I'm just so grateful that, when I was growing up and looking at motion pictures, I wasn't influenced by Little Caesar," Harryhausen said later in the evening. "I could have been 'The Godfather' tonight!"
Both Harryhausen's contemporaries and representatives of present practitioners of the art -- including filmmakers, creature effects artists, animators and stop-motion and digital effects artists -- greeted the maestro as he made his way to the center table. As twilight fell, Atkin introduced Ken Ralston, president of Sony Pictures Imageworks, who took the microphone and set the tone for the events to follow.
"When I was a boy, I went to see The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. I got my popcorn and my JuJy Fruits, came into the theater, sat down, the lights went down, and when the movie started, I was just knocked out. I saw the most amazing things I had ever seen -- a Cyclops chasing these guys and stomping them with a tree trunk, the two-headed Roc, a fire-breathing dragon and these amazing skeletons in a sword fight -- and I was never the same. It was brilliant work and brilliantly directed. I walked out of that theater and I wanted to be a visual effects guy. I didn't even know what that meant at the time, but I wanted to create that kind of magic. It was such an inspiration to me. I know your movies have done the same for so many people here who are in the business now," Ralston told Harryhausen. "We will always look up to you and try to emulate your work. We never can, of course, but we keep trying!"
Ralston listed Harryhausen's 1949 collaboration with Willis O'Brien as a point of reference. "I just saw the nightclub sequence from Mighty Joe Young on TV the other day, and I thought, 'Man, Ray was out of his mind!'" Ralston said. "This giant ape was tearing down the side of a nightclub and it was all stop-motion -- with no digital!" Bringing laughter and more applause, Ralston nominated the rhedosaurus from Harryhausen's first solo feature, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), as another highlight, along with the classic skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts (1963) -- which brought whistles and applause -- and Harryhausen's 1961 adaptation of Jules Verne's Mysterious Island.
"That has always been one of my favorites," Ralston said of Island. "I love that movie. But there are so many, and it was all just amazing work, Ray, for all those years. It's hard to describe what those films mean to me and to everyone here. You created these characters, basically by yourself, which was a huge undertaking, and it was always brilliantly done. So I just wanted to thank you for all the magic you've given me over the years and to wish you a very happy birthday."
A 30-minute video presentation, to the accompaniment of Bernard Herrmann's score from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, followed, kicking off proceedings with a computer-generated parade of very familiar-looking skeletons by Pyros Pictures. One skeleton, with a smiley face instead of a battle insignia on his gladiator shield, stumbled into his pals and caused a pileup of bones atop a giant birthday cake.
Video greetings followed from novelist Ray Bradbury, author of "The Fog Horn," the short story upon which The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was based. Harryhausen later recalled that he and Bradbury first met at a science fiction club in Los Angeles in 1936 and have been friends since then. Bradbury celebrated the friendship in his short story "Tyrannosaurus Rex," which described the plight of a struggling stop-motion artist and a recalcitrant producer and appeared in his 1964 collection, The Machineries of Joy.
Next, King Kong was seen scaling the Empire State Building, peering into windows and clutching an invitation to Harryhausen's birthday. Reaching the observation deck, Kong came across a dancing Kermit the Frog, remote-controlled by an animatronic ape from Jim Henson's Creature Shop to croak his own birthday wishes. The creature effects theme continued with an earnest plea from prosthetic and animatronic designer Rick Baker, who chastised Harryhausen, deadpan, for branding him an outcast as a child by instilling a desire to walk on tiptoe with his shoulders back and roar at everything in sight.
Filmmakers John Landis, Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Frank Darabont and James Cameron added their voices to the list, recalling their personal encounters and childhood reminiscences with Harryhausen's creations. Spielberg cited his childhood efforts to model his own versions of Harryhausen's creatures in clay and their encounter in 1992 when Harryhausen critiqued early wire-frame tests for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Dennis Muren and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) president Jim Morris added salutations and introduced a screening room full of their crew with a giant "Happy Birthday, Ray" banner. Ralston and the crew from Sony Pictures Imageworks staged a similar mass ovation. ILM also flew five of its lead animators down from the studio in San Rafael to join the celebration.
Other noted speakers included Wah Chang, Richard L. Bare and Nathan Juran, alumni from Harryhausen's days as an animator at George Pal's Puppetoons in the early 1950s; Jean Picker Firstenberg, director and CEO of the American Film Institute; and Robert Rehme, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Aardman Animations' Nick Park and Peter Lord added a jubilant greeting, posing in front of an enormous English country manor. Matte artists Syd Dutton and Bill Taylor also sent greetings from in front of a giant Harryhausen-esque painting at Illusion Arts, while VFX artist Jon Berg added a moving reminiscence from stop-motion artist David Allen, who died recently.
A re-creation of the original Argonauts skeleton fight was next interrupted as animated skeletons griped about the punishment their animator was giving them, animating eight seconds a day. "Ray said if we do good, he'll put us in a Spin Bad movie," one slow-witted skeleton said, just as a background column fell flat, revealing an apple box and C-stand. Peeved, one headless performer stormed off, fumbling for its head, only to find a cube-shaped Earth instead, which signaled the animated antics were courtesy of Flat Earth Productions.
One of the most elaborate pranks came from MTV Animation's Celebrity Death Match team, who dropped a Jules Verne time machine into foggy London to reveal a stop-motion Harryhausen inside. A death match ensued between Harryhausen and two mean-spirited but extremely clumsy skeletons, which both met grisly ends. Harryhausen later received his own puppet facsimile encased in Plexiglas, presented by representatives of the MTV Animation team.
Rolf Giesen and members of the Berlin Film Museum (Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek) introduced themselves to camera in front of their museum, where they have been preparing a permanent exhibition housing all of Harryhausen's work. Giesen also introduced a special guest from Harryhausen's past, Paul Christian Hubschmid, star of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. The actor, now in his 90s and partially disabled, gave one of the most spirited greetings of the entire assembly, saying, "From one dinosaur to another." Other personal greetings included a message from Diana Harryhausen, Ray's wife, who teased her husband that she was not going to flatter him in public; and one from a group of young women all wearing false noses and glasses, one of whom was Vanessa Harryhausen, Ray's daughter.
Atkin concluded the 30-minute presentation, recalling Harryhausen's appearance at the VES Festival of Visual Effects 1999, where Muren introduced Harryhausen to the crowd, which rose to its feet in a standing ovation. "I asked Ray, 'Does this happen everywhere you go?'" Atkin said. "Without missing a beat and with no ego at all, he said, 'Everywhere.' Ray is definitely a standard bearer for all the people in this room and most of the people in this industry."
VFX designer Phil Tippett recited a breathless recap of Harryhausen's 16 movie titles, followed by a swaggering barbershop chorus of seven computer-animated skeletons who wailed "Happy Birthday to You" until they exploded upon hitting a high note, falling into a pile of bones that spelled out Tippett Studios' greeting.
Harryhausen replied, "I'm so grateful that we were able to make films that inspired people. It's a little worrying what some of the films do to young people today. I don't want to get on a soapbox about that, but I'm glad that everybody found a little more in our films than a few hours of entertainment. Thank you so much for this wonderful, wonderful celebration. I'll never forget it."
Atkin finally delivered a congratulatory card from Washington, D.C., signed by President Clinton and the First Lady. Clearly moved and thrilled, Harryhausen remarked amid loud applause, "And I didn't even vote for them!"
After an official cake-cutting, festivities continued until after midnight, proving the Harryhausen legacy endures, as noted in the video tribute from the Secret Lab, Disney Feature Animation and the Walt Disney Co. Modifying an excerpt from their remake of Mighty Joe Young -- where a modern-day rendition of Harryhausen's giant ape shone a searchlight into clouds to reveal a birthday greeting -- Charlize Theron's final voiceover from the film stated: "The people here are saying the sacred guardian has returned to protect the mountains. Other people say this is just a legend. Legends live forever."
Joe Fordham is the editor of VFXPro.com.
Republished from VFXPro, a fellow Creative Planet community Web site, and on-line news resource for the visual effects community affiliated with the Visual Effects Society.
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