“I brought in the stories many times. I don’t just do animation.”
– Ray Harryhausen
I wasn’t a terribly special kid when I was a toddler. I bumped into things, sucked my thumb, refused to drink my orange juice from anything but my designated sippy cup. I just like every other technically-retarded illiterate munchkin in the world. I had an imagination, I’m sure, but it’s been so long I can’t recall what it was I typically did during my imaginative playtime.
So one day, in 1990, I was strolling through the family room while my father was eating a late lunch. I threw a quick glance to the television set and saw that there were men on TV. Not a rare thing, I know, but these men were being chased. By something huge, it seemed, gauging from their upturned, terrified faces. But what was it that had them so excited…?
I froze then, because HE appeared.
Thirty feet tall. Cloven hooves and gnarled claws. Brutish muscle and a ferocious snarl. A one-eyed, one-horned monster that, in that moment, seemed more real than real.
It was beautiful and glorious and savage and more vibrant than any image I’d seen before.
The CYCLOPS! Eater of men! Hoarder of gold! Beast of Colossa!
The men he chased fought for their lives, throwing spears and hacking at the monster with scimitars. The monster flung men aside with kicks of its hooves, and flung boulders at their boats as they rowed for their ship. It was amazing and thrilling and it WAS ONLY JUST STARTING.
I watched with fire in my blood as Sinbad – my new, lifelong fictional hero – returned to the cursed island to battle its monsters, blinding the Cyclops and luring it to its doom over the edge of a cliff. He and his men fought the vengeful Roc, a titanic two-headed bird who killed to avenge its invaded nest. Sinbad dueled an animated skeleton, fled a fire-breathing dragon that annihilated anything in its way, laying low even another Cyclops as it stormed after the hero. I was dazzled by the image of the giant crossbow, as it sank a bolt deep into the dragon’s neck, killing the beast, and with it, its evil master, the sorcerer who’d plotted against Sinbad the whole movie. I knew I’d witnessed a spectacle when it was over.
My father fed my amazement when, noting my clear enjoyment, he mentioned that there were more movies like it. “Sinbad movies,” as I started calling them, even though I quickly learned other movies shared their style, if not necessarily the same characters. It wouldn’t be until about third grade that I learned the name of the man who’d made that kind of cinematic magic possible. I read it on the back of my first VHS copy of “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad:”
“Special Effects by Ray Harryhausen.”
I hunted his name in everything. The Sci-Fi Channel (back when it was still the Sci-Fi Channel) ran a “Ray Harryhausen week,” showing a film of his every night. Every new movie to me was precious, like some kind of treasure you need special permission to see. I felt enormous pity for the persecuted Ymir in “20 Million Miles to Earth.” I was glued to the set when soldiers fought off the tentacles of the octopus in “It Came From Beneath the Sea” with flamethrowers. I bounced in excitement when alien warships crashed into the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building in “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.” And even now, during the iconic scene in “Jason and the Argonauts,” when Talos the giant statue turns his head for the first time to see Hercules and Palias stealing his treasure, I get a creepy chill. (Though not nearly to the extent as I do when Medusa descends upon Perseus and his men.)
There were so many movies, each one firing my imagination with new visions, like bursting seedpods. Few things have matched the wicked deadliness of the giant scorpions from “Clash of the Titans.” Sinbad’s duel with an animated statue of Kali (controlled by a pre-“Doctor Who” Tom Baker) in “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” is one of the most genuinely beautiful action sequences set to film. To be honest, I always found “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” to be a little weird, but its monsters were amazing, so the exuberant twelve-year-old in me can easily forgive its eccentricities.
I could go on for volumes about my adoration for each of his movies, and they really were HIS movies. John Landis, in an interview with him, noted that Harryhausen was probably the only effects artist who got the creative credit for the films he worked on. Not the directors, the producers, or even the writers; if Ray Harryhausen contributed to your film, it became “a Ray Harryhausen movie.”
And despite the colossal impact he had on generations of filmmakers (George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson are just a few who have expressed their admiration and influence from Harryhausen’s work) Harryhausen never seemed pretentious or egotistical. He was simply driven by a feverish dream that he expressed through a quiet, methodical, single-minded devotion to perfecting his vision. Considering his love for grandeur, his evaluation of what made his work so dynamic was never in and of itself grandiose or flighty; he explained his vision and creative process in direct, practical language, and never wavered in what he thought made spectacular things so spectacular. He was artist and artisan, a student who surpassed his mentors, and left a world of students in his wake.
“I’m very happy that so many young fans have told me that my films have changed their lives. That’s a great compliment. It means I did more than just make entertaining films. I actually touched people’s lives – and, I hope, changed them for the better.”
– Ray Harryhausen
My love for Harryhausen doesn’t diminish my appreciation for the work of his mentor, the legendary Willis O’Brien. O’Brien’s masterpiece “King Kong” mesmerized me, with its portrayal of the indomitable Kong braving both man and beast in two separate, but equally hostile worlds. I spent a lot of hours acting out scenes from that film, as Kong. I was always Kong. I was a scrawny, easily picked-on kid in glasses – Kong was a raging powerhouse, an unstoppable conqueror against a world bent on his destruction. It isn’t hard to see the appeal such a character would have for me.
O’Brien allegedly told Harryhausen, upon seeing test footage of animated dinosaurs that the young man had composed, that his dinosaur legs “looked like sausages,” and advised Harryhausen to study anatomy and illustrating. The impact of this advice is clear in Harryhausen’s work, with the meticulous detail in the musculature of his creatures, and the exact timing many of his sequences required. I know O’Brien’s eye for detail is responsible for this, but the vibrancy of Harryhausen’s work – the feeling that you’re watching a living spectacle unfolding before you – was a quality unique to Harryhausen himself.
Kong roared and beat his chest – Mighty Joe Young had playful temper tantrums, and flashed puppy-eyes when saddened. The dinosaurs of “The Lost World” snapped and smashed – Gwangi scowled at his foes, and screamed in agony as he burned to death. Willis O’Brien breathed life into beasts – Harryhausen gave them souls.
“I had to do learn to do everything, because I couldn’t find another kindred soul.”
– Ray Harryhausen
Sometimes neighbor kids would ask me why I played by myself so often, swinging sticks in my backyard like they were swords, and shouting commands to my “men” to “keep fighting, drive it to the cliffs!”
“Is it because you’re lonely?” one well-meaning boy asked me one day. I couldn’t make him understand that I was just “playing Sinbad,” as my mother always called it, even if on odd days I was Jason aboard the Argos, or Perseus evading Medusa.
No, I wasn’t lonely. I was Sinbad – Sinbad, who lead men against monsters, and dueled sorcerers to the death.
“I was blessed with parents who indulged me and my interests. My father set aside the entire garage so that I could animate my own shorts, and my mother would help me construct my sets and build my armatures. Without their support, I probably never would have gotten into movies.”
– Ray Harryhausen
“Jason and the Argonauts has too many gods in it,” I once complained to my father. He laughed, and though I could hypersensitive at times when I was little, I got the humor in what he’d heard, and I laughed too. Gods, after all, were the only reason that movie worked.
“Yeah, you’re right kid,” my father said, sipping tea and eating popcorn. “They could probably cut a few gods out of this.” He knew what I loved – monsters, and the sword-wielding warriors who fought them.
But I watched anyway, as Triton pushed the rocks aside and allowed the Argo to pass. Then Jason fought the Harpies, and slew the Hydra, and dueled dead men, and I was sated. And I burned it all into my memories and dreams.
I’m nine years old, and I’m sword-fighting a great, multi-armed being in our living room. My sister helps me until she gets bored, which is okay, because I needed some of the crew to fall before this monster anyway.
I’ve just watched The Golden Voyage of Sinbad for the twelfth time. Something in me knows I will love his duel with Kali until the day I die. And though I believe I’ve improved the menace by giving my enemy twelve arms, I also know that, no matter how much I focus on it, the being in my mind’s eye will never match the vibrancy that Harryhausen gave to that expressionless statue.
But still I fight on, because Koura had to be stopped. Because Sinbad never lost.
“I was never restricted. I was never told what to do.”
– Ray Harryhausen
I’m thirteen. I’ve only ever scribbled monster stories, written in No. 2 pencil onto typing paper. But now I’m working on something bigger, a tale about a guilt-ridden murderer, plagued by nightmares that lure him to the grave of his victim.
I look almost bored to everyone but my family. They see me writing all the time now – they know the actual intensity behind my efforts. My mother already calls me a writer. My father suggests books for me to read – they both read my stories when I go to bed, leaving notes in the morning telling me what they thought and what I could fix. They’re the only adults in my family who tell me I should keep going. All the others laugh as soon as I tell them that I want to be a writer when I grow up. One aunt tells me: “But you don’t have anything to say!”
I say she should go fuck herself. My father laughs, then takes away my phone privileges.
My sister starts writing too. She’s a lot better at it than I am. For a fleeting second I’m jealous, then I chastise myself because it’s clearly important to her that I like it, and it’s plain to anyone that she’s got more talent at it than I do.
Soon I realize I don’t really mind at all anymore that she’s a better writer than I am. Because the creatures I conjure in my stories make my heart beat like a timpani, and though no one else I know will feel that way over inhuman giants, I do, and it’s enough.
I’m at Boy Scout Summer Camp. I hate summertime – I could never tolerate the heat as a kid – but I’m pretty good at scouting. I can light a campfire without matches, shoot five out of five clay pigeons from the air, and I’m the sole reason our troop won our knot-tying event. But I’m also the nerdy kid in glasses, so none of the other kids congratulate me. When our raft ride down a river goes badly, I’m blamed because I can’t steer us away from the riverbed brush fast enough. The boys complain to me for an hour and a half. Our assistant scoutmaster, an asshole named Hank, berates me as well until we make landfall. As I start to lift my end of the raft, Hank lifts it high enough that I can’t reach it, then waits a beat to chastise me, so it’ll look like I’m just walking while everyone else carries. Hank is in his forties, and I’m eleven.
He’s still bitching when we get to camp, how “Sean decided to take a nap while we hauled the raft up the bank.” He’s going on and on. We break for fifteen minutes before mess; I retreat to my tent, find an old issue of For Monsters Only! my father has had since he was my age. I love it for the biography of Ray Harryhausen.
Hank snatches it away. “You need to pay more attention,” he says, with the weird half-smile he always had. He says it like he’s mildly frustrated with me, like I’m a chronic nuisance. He’s holding a piece of my heart in his hands, crumpling it like my father’s monster magazine is trash. “Is this what you were daydreaming about when we were in the river?”
“Hey!” Mr. Chuck calls from his tent. Chuck’s the scoutmaster. He’s a Creek Indian, and the only parent I know who scolds his kid for not growing his hair out. Chuck is fond of me, because I always achieve my merit badges on my own. I don’t have nearly as many as the other boys – it takes time to earn badges when an army of your parent’s friends aren’t earning them for you, Chuck likes to say. I love Mr. Chuck.
“That boy pulls his weight,” Chuck snaps. He’s sitting on a cot, recovering from a twisted ankle he got the other day. “He does it a lot more than you think.” He’s getting upset by Hank’s automatic dismissal, an almost imperceptible shaking of the head, but he keeps his irritation to his eyes. “He’s the kid won us knot-tying, and he knocked his swimming requirements out in half the time the others did. You ain’t started cooking yet; give him his magazine back.”
Hank stands still for a moment, looking at Chuck like the scoutmaster had bitten into a baby. Then he hands me the magazine, one flex away from just tossing it to me. Chuck lies back down almost immediately. The boys, sitting around the picnic table, sound like they’re complaining about something. Ray Harryhausen’s monsters dance on cheap, yellowing paper. I smooth out the wrinkles Hank made as I read.
Koura hamstringed the griffin in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and because of this, the evil cyclopean centaur was able to strangle it and beat it to death. And in the evil monster’s victory, I saw every unfair teacher I had, every hyper-critical relative I knew, every bully who arbitrarily shoved me as I got in line for recess.
And I saw Sinbad leap upon the centaur and strike it down. The bullies win a lot. But not always.
I have my arm around a girl in the front seat of her car. I won’t drive until college; I’m not popular, but people seem to like me, this girl in particular. We’re best friends, and almost more, but in six years I’m going to torpedo a budding romance between us through my own indulgent moodiness and selfishness. But right now we’re leaning against each other, talking about movies and aware of our touching shoulders. She has my hand in both of hers – she has a habit of counting my fingers. At sixteen I alternate my gaze between her lips and her cleavage. We won’t kiss until five years from now.
I’ve asked her what her favorite movie is. She goes on for a while about “The Man from Stony River,” an admittedly well-made movie that clearly spoke to something in her. She’s running her fingers in the grooves between my own, tracing the outline of my hand as she goes. She has blond hair that makes me think of sun-baked wheat.
“How ‘bout you?” she asks when she’s done. She curls my fingers, one by one, into a fist. This seems to amuse her; she grins while she does this. Even in the dark, I can make out how breathlessly red her lips are.
“When I was little,” I tell her, “you couldn’t convince me there was a bigger movie hero than Captain Sinbad…”
The Ymir never wanted this. Kidnapped from home, borne in an alien world, mutated to freakish proportions, it is hounded by a cruel race and driven to flee atop the mighty Coliseum. The arena, where many helpless victims before it were slaughtered for the pleasure of bullies, will serve as its deathbed.
The peaceful, defensive creature screams in outrage, begging to be left alone. The humans shoot it down with rockets, and with an innocent cry, it falls and dies.
I empathize, probably more than I should, but the poor monster’s fate resonates with me. I’m twelve, and a bully has given me a bruise on my cheek. I knocked him down in turn with a shove. His friends took offense and broke the glasses I wore back then, snatching them off my face and snapping them in two. In a weird twist, my eye doctor will soon tell me I don’t need them anymore anyway.
The Ymir was an innocent. The humans forced their evil onto it, so they wouldn’t have to feel it themselves.
We almost had a romance. We’ve kissed occasionally, we hang out and cuddle and talk for hours on the phone. But I’m twenty-two and oversensitive, and like most men of my age and my temperament, I over-think things when I should really just let them be. Petty resentment borne of old adolescent jealousies scuttles our progress. I keep her at arm’s length, attack her with my words when she calls me out on it. She’s more patient than she should have been, and she tells me she’s no longer interested in us being together. I tear our friendship to shreds with just a few vicious words. I’m the bad guy, plain and simple, and I’m the worst kind – I’m the villain who thinks he’s a victim. A bully.
We talk only sporadically ever after. Over the next four years, I can count the number of times I see her on one hand.
The griffin fought for Koura as much as it fought for anybody, and he slashed its leg and left it to die. She was my best friend, and after she’d given me all she could, I pushed her away because I wanted more. Over the next few broody months, I still think about Sinbad and Jason and Perseus. I still daydream adventures to stick them in.
When I was little I was always in Jason’s and Perseus’s place. But for some reason, it feels more naturally to imagine I’m Sakura, the sorcerer who feigned friendliness, and threw the sailors who helped him to the monsters of Colossa.
I was her best friend, and I left her in the cold. Then again, I’m a grown man who still daydreams about pirates and monsters; she deserved a lot more room in my head.
I watch The Golden Voyage later that week. I wonder a little if I see it the same way as I used to.
It wouldn’t have worked out, not as well as it does with the girl I end up with later. The first girl had liked me, but there was never any doubt in her mind that pirates and monsters were not for grown men.
The other girl I meet at a party. I say things that make her laugh, I get drunk enough to call a guy out when he tries to wedge himself between me and her. It’s a good night.
We don’t see each other for several more months, until a New Year’s party. She was blond last time – she’s a brunette now. But she remembers me. Good sign. She remembers something else, too:
“You like movies about Captain Sinbad, right?”
I can see myself falling in love with her.
I once found little glossy photographs of Ray Harryhausen’s armatures, in the back of an old antique shop. They were beautiful – I’d even call them sacred. The figures in the photos are posed on a desk, in the perfect angle to see their proportions by. Knowing their true size, in a weird way, makes them so much more real to me. I’m twenty-two.
One photo shows the man himself, smiling, aged, kind and properly grandfather-like. I buy the lot: they’re still in a lockbox at my parent’s house, in the closet of my childhood bedroom. I may keep them forever, even though I don’t want children. Maybe I’ll have nieces and nephews to give them to one day. Or maybe I’ll happen to have them in my pocket when I finally keel over. I’m good with either eventuality, really – it’d be a mortal sin if they went to someone who doesn’t understand how precious they are.
The woman I love and I aren’t together anymore. Both of us are caught up in life events that don’t leave enough room for the other. We still live together, we still love each other, but we sleep apart, work apart, live our lives in different directions. I see her maybe thirty minutes a week, to be truthful.
She knocks on my door when she gets home. It’s one of those rare moments when we’re awake and in the apartment at the same time. She’s had a busy, stressful day; she takes advantage of my presence to vent. She notices I’m not as attentive as I usually am.
“What’s wrong?” she asks, knowing it isn’t something as trivial as another rejection email. If I printed them out I’d have a small mountain; if I took each one personally, I’d be the world’s biggest alcoholic.
“My idol died,” I tell her, simply. She immediately knows who I mean. The only celebrity I ever said I’d actually mourn. The man who invented my imagination.
“Oh, baby,” she says, and hugs me. I feel silly, getting sad over a man I never met. But I’ll miss him. I really will.
She hugs me. She has red hair now – she loves dyeing it. She’s wonderful. I don’t tell her that enough. Luckily I’m not so self-absorbed I don’t tell her then. She kisses my forehead, and I feel better. I’m not as good of a friend to her as I should be, but I’m so damn grateful for her. It seems like a crime to be sad around her – she always makes things around her better than they were before.
I hug her back, and tell her again that she’s wonderful.
The Rhedosaurus barrels across the screen of my laptop. I’m two beers deep, and the movie’s barely half over. I have four more DVDs to get through.
I pop open another beer. The bottle cap flies over the screen. The Rhedosaurus looks ready to tear into me.
“Here’s to you, buddy,” I say. I’m asleep before they even kill the monster, like I was when I first saw It Came From Beneath the Sea! when I was ten, though there wasn’t any alcohol involved back then. Just the same childish stubbornness I have now, that tells me I’m not sleepy, not really. I can keep watching…just…let me see this last part, before…before…
…before I have to turn it off…
Goodbye, Mr. Harryhausen.
You had the rare ability to bring your dreams to life before the eyes of others. And you did it before the eyes of millions.
I’ll miss you, Mr. Harryhausen.
I’ll miss you so damn much.