Ray Harryhausen Is Cinema To Me

May 9, 2013

Ray Harryhausen is cinema to me.

I use the term cinema and associate it with him because my love of the moving image was not forged in theaters but on UHF and early cable television. When I was 5 years old I was semi-disappointed one day when I thought I heard my mom say The Birds was on TV that afternoon, and it ended up being Thunderbirds Are Go. Semi-disappointed because Thunderbirds, Hitchcock, Universal horror, and the cannon of Ray Harryhausen were what captivated me at that time and what made me love the moving image.

I use the term cinema because, as a result of this, I was not tied to film projection as the sine qua non of the enjoyment of watching moving images. To me it is about the creation of illusion, about the frame. It is about the sense that just outside the frame are 30 people, backgrounds that would ruin the historical or geographic setting, and some crazy special effects guy pressing buttons and moving levers. It is about the sense that editing these pieces of film and variations in performance can create an infinite number of works spanning across genres. It is about tromp l’oeil and rear projection and prosthetics and matte painting and animation.

I use the term cinema because, really, for about half the lifespan of film, video and digital moving images have existed. However, though I know they are not easy, on a personal level I dislike CGI and 3-D because they seem easy. I enjoy the challenge and creative thinking that go into practical effects, the skill and mental trickery that give two-dimensional images depth and body.

I use the term cinema even though it sounds tiresome to say that cinema is illusion. But it is not an illusion in magical terms. It is illusion created from skill, imagination, coincidence, and the risk of gut feelings. The illusions often fail from the get-go, or they fail several years later when superseded by other technologies that appear more “real”.

I use the term cinema because it transcends time periods and formats. And though Ray Harryhausen’s techniques were superseded by newer technologies and newer approaches of storytelling, what he did was beyond that. What he did was the Homer and the Shakespeare and the Dickens of moving image. What he did was create a language that was so vernacular and specialized, so common and so unique that it seemed as if it had always existed. That it was an instant classic. That is was immediately something that any subsequent filmmaker had to copy, adapt, or work against.

I use the term cinema because it is the only high-falutin’ term we have for this type of thing, and because Ray Harryhausen has passed away, and because I wonder if I would be doing the work I do without the impact of the work he did. Work that enthralled me. Work that inspired me. Work that educated me and made me seek more. Wort that made me pretend to be sick so I could stay home from school and watch Jason and the Argonauts on the Bowling for Dollars Afternoon Movie.

Thank you, Ray.

—¬†Joshua Ranger