Back when movies about giant apes, dinosaurs and monsters were considered "B" fare and not $100 million extravaganzas, Ray Harryhausen was the go-to animator in special effects. Spielberg and Lucas and CGI may have glammed up the field in recent years but Harryhausen was the pioneer. A protege of Willis O'Brien, the man who invented stop action animation, Harryhausen brought refinement and innovation to the field but toiled in relative obscurity for many years.
So it's wonderful to see how history has come around. This weekend, 86-year-old Harryhausen held court at Dark Delicacies as a steady stream of animators, special effects wonks, film historians and fans made the pilgrimage to Burbank to meet him and get books, posters, still photos, DVDs and model figures signed.
I discovered Harryhausen last year while researching my new crime novel, which is set in 1949 Hollywood. It's inspired by the real life disappearance of a starlet, and I'd been looking for a way to write about the done-to death film industry from a new and oblique angle. When I realized I could tell the history of special effects through a Harryhausen-like character, I knew I'd hit the sweet spot.
I'm late to the game — the special effects crowd has worshipped at Harryhausen's armature and foam-rubber shrine for years now. I'm only happy he's still with us, and getting more renown each year.
It's eerie to hear Harryhausen talk about how he met sci-fi collector Forrest Ackerman and author Ray Bradbury in 1938 when all three belonged to a science fiction club that gathered each Thursday evening in the long defunct "brown room" upstairs at Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles. Can you imagine the conversations? Oh to be a fly on the wall.
"We'd talk about rocket science and traveling to the moon and space platforms," Harryhausen says. "People thought we were crazy. But we were just ahead of our time."
What's even more amazing is that all three of these legends are still alive and on the LA circuit, (Harryhausen lives in London but visits his native city occasionally) recounting their stories for people whose grandparents hadn't been born when they started their historic friendship.
As the afternoon goes by, I sit with this living legend and in between the fans, I chat with him about what it was like on the set of the 1949 movie "Mighty Joe Young," for which he did 90% of the animation.
In addition to the painstaking stop motion animation, Harryhausen helped formulate the script, edited his animation scenes and ate celery and carrots for snacks each day "so I'd get into the mood of a gorilla."
As he speaks, a young and ardent fan comes up, bearing DVDs and books. He's a special effects make-up artist who's just moved here from Kentucky 14 days ago. In that mythic LA way that sometimes actually does happen, he's already working on a Brad Pitt movie. And now he's met his idol Harryhausen. For him, L.A. is full of miracles.
The fan slides over a DVD of "One Million Years B.C.," the dinosaur movie that Harryhausen animated which is famous in non special-effects circles for launching the career of Raquel Welch.
Harryhausen stares at the cover. There's Raquel in her leather bikini.
"Would you look at that. Not a dinosaur in sight," the animator sighs, shaking his head.
"Now tell me," Harryhausen asks the young man. "Did you initially go to see this movie for my dinosaurs or for Raquel Welch? Be diplomatic now."
"For the dinosaurs," the young man answers. He sounds sincere.
"Look at Raquel. Wait a minute. Wasn't she one of the animations," Harryhausen jokes. "Didn't I animate her?"
They bat that one back and forth for awhile, and Harryhausen signs more stuff. He gets plenty of respect these days. Reverence, even. He's the last living elder in the temple and there's something historic, sacrosanct, magical, about meeting him.
Raquel's va-va-voom curves may be splashed all over the DVD cover. But for Harryhausen's many fans, it's the bad-skinned cold-blooded, squint-eyed lizards that are the true pin-ups.