Ray Harryhausen, A Celebration

by Joe Fordham

Welcome ceremony. (L to R) Ray Harryhausen, Paul Dimond, Carolyn Dimond.
Photo by Adam Timrod
© Lee Salem Photography Inc. Courtesy of VES.

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.

Speeches. (L to R) Ken Ralston, Ray Harryhausen, Tom Atkin.
Photo by Adam Timrod
© Lee Salem Photography Inc. Courtesy of VES.

"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.

Harryhausen and peers. (L to R) Jon Berg, Phil Tippett, Ray Harryhausen, Ken Ralston.
Photo by Adam Timrod
© Lee Salem Photography Inc. Courtesy of VES.

"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.

Harryhausen speaks. (L to R) Nathan Juran, John Landis, Ray Harryhausen.
Photo by Adam Timrod
© Lee Salem Photography Inc. Courtesy of VES.

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.


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