“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Sir Isaac Newton
Newton wrote this in the 1600s as a modest response to people praising his genius. It’s a simple and clever description of an obvious sentiment: our achievements are incremental, dependent entirely on progress made by previous generations.
Harryhausen was a stop motion animator in films who first started tinkering with models after seeing Willis O’Brien’s King Kong (1933). He would later work with O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young. Harryhausen did the effects work for everything from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad to Clash of the Titans.
His masterwork was undoubtedly Jason and the Argonauts. As Jason and his comrades quest for the golden fleece, they encounter a massive bronze statue brought to life, a multi-headed hydra, and in the film’s signature moment, a battle with animated skeletons. Harryhausen spent four months on the stop motion animation for the skeletons alone.
It’s impossible to accurately capture just how big an influence Harryhausen has had on what you see in theaters today. His work inspired Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, and Peter Jackson. Lucas has come out and said there would likely be no Star Wars if not for Harryhausen. If it has a creature in it, it’s very likely the makers were mesmerized by the visual effects master in their youth.
For my part, the animator’s creations sparked my imagination like little else I had seen as a child. I spent many a Saturday afternoon watching his Sinbad tales brought to life on screen. To this day, one of my dream gigs would be writing a new Sinbad adaptation. Jason and the Argonauts was both thrilling and the stuff of nightmares. And I can still remember going to see Pegasus, Medusa and the Kraken brought to life on the big screen in 1981’s Clash of the Titans, his final film.
The thing that amazes to this day in watching his film is that Harryhausen was a one man operation. If you notice a hair or a wrinkle on one of creations, its because he physically put it there himself. Think about that the next time you sit through ten minutes of faceless computer techs names scrolling through the credits of a summer blockbuster.
Harryhausen toiled in relative anonymity with general audiences, but was beloved by genre film fans. Anyone working in special effects today can trace at least part of their influence back to the man.
Harryhausen spent his career bringing giants to life. Today, Hollywood stands upon his broad shoulders to show us other worlds.
- Mighty Joe Young (1949)
- The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
- The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
- Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
- The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
- The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)
- Clash of the Titans (1981)