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Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life

Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton

Aurum 304pp Hardback £35 ISBN 1-85410-940-5

For those of us of a certain age, the words “Ray Harryhausen” almost define your childhood, well the good bits at any rate. His use of stop-frame animation to create mythical creatures, monsters, aliens from other worlds and all manner of wondrous things took us to worlds we otherwise could only dream about. Think of the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts, Medusa from Clash of the Titans, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms or the pteranodon whisking away Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC. In this digital age of so-called photo-realistic CGI it’s hard see how all the incredible work on Jason and the Argonauts was the work of just one man. Nowadays the credits on most Hollywood films list hundreds of people solely responsible for the effects work – 20 people rendering the heroine’s hair, lit by 10 others and textured by a team the size of an average classroom. Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life is no standard autobiography, sure it covers his life from his first viewing of that masterpiece of fantasy cinema King Kong and so on, but more than this it is about the work, of one man’s lifelong dedication to the art of stop-motion special effects. All Harryhausen’s films are covered, from the large-scale fantasies to the more intimate fairy tale short films that have delighted children and adults for decades (the latest of which, The Tortoise and the Hare has finally been finished having been started fifty years ago – surely some kind of cinematic record). The creation of these special effects is examined in detail, from the exquisite pre-production sketches, through the animation process to the finished result (viewed with copious thumb-nail stills). This is a film-buff’s delight in that we learn the whole Dynamation process from start to finish, see how the models are armatured, how the animator moves each little intricate piece and also the overall scale of these creations. In some respects you would think that this de-mystification of the process would somehow take away the charm and awe of the films (after all the quick fix thrill of a Hollywood fx-movie has diminishing impact when you’ve watched the fifty-third DVD featurette) but paradoxically the opposite is the case. You look on them with renewed enthusiasm when you realise the sheer attention to detail and painstaking (often crafty) methods of production. In Earth vs. the Flying Saucers each exploding building was hand animated, brick by flying brick, the wires hidden by painting them to match the background… frame by frame. Think about that for a moment and consider that one error, at any moment, would have meant re-shooting every single frame all over again. The secret of Harryhausen’s patience is revealed early on, a necessity for the animator. Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life is a solid book – over three-hundred pages of full colour high-quality photographs and sketches accompanied by detailed text. This is no mere coffee table book but an indispensable look at one of cinema’s greats, profusely illustrated and a cracking read to boot. But be warned – you’ll need to work out before dipping in, as it’s a behemoth of a tome requiring Talos levels of strength to hold in one hand. And how can you not want a book that has a quote from Kermit the Frog on the back? Essential for all lovers of fantasy cinema and those interested in the history of special effects.