Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ray Harryhausen and the Brass Golem

I, like all right-thinking people, am a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen's films. Closing in on 50 years after its release, Jason and the Argonauts is still an amazing thing to watch, thanks both to its timeless story and the awe-inspiring stop-motion effects. I suppose that for people who grew up with CGI, the animation sequences might seem whimsical and phony, which is sad. The irony is stunning: visual effects created with objects that actually existed and moved in the real, 3D world can seem less true than effects that never existed beyond momentary blips of electricity blazing through a maze of wires and silicon chips.

When I was a kid, opportunities to see films like Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad were rare. We were at the mercy of late-night and Saturday afternoon broadcast TV schedules. If we got to see three Harryhausen stop-motion masterpieces a year, we counted ourselves lucky. Without DVRs or videotape recorders, there was no backing up to watch the skeletons give battle or Talos groan to life for a second, third, and fourth time. All that animated wizardry was on the screen once and then it was gone, not to be seen again until the next magical time it aired -- a wait of a year at least, if not longer.

In the interim, my friends and I made our own stop-motion films using the school's super-8mm camera and G. I. Joes (the multi-jointed, 11-inch versions) as maquettes, along with whatever other props and scenery we could manufacture or scrounge. Our films were violent, gory, and shamelessly awful in ways that only grade-schoolers can revel in.

The fact that I can now order DVDs or stream Harryhausen's entire library, along with just about any other classic movie from my childhood, and watch and re-watch them as often as I want, is immensely cool.

What else is cool is that a few years ago, WotC gave a nod to one of Harryhausen's creations with the brass golem in the Night Below set of D&D Miniatures. Harryhausen's minoton was created by the evil sorceress Zenobia in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. It rowed her barge across the ocean and forced an entrance into the Hyperborean shrine where two more Harryhausen creations, a giant troglodyte and a saber-toothed cat, fought to the death.

Aside from the fact that the brass golem tips its horns to one of my cinematic heroes, I love the way it continues a D&D tradition. In Appendix N, Gary Gygax mentioned movies and screenplays as part of the fantasy melange that helped to shape D&D creatively, but he didn't credit any particular films. There can be little doubt that he was a fan of Harryhausen. Those movies influenced the game's original creators and, 35 years later, still inspire the people working on D&D. On the eve of the release of what may be the biggest CGI extravaganza of the decade, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, Ray Harryhausen's accomplishments are still worth celebrating.


  1. FYI, the warrior skeleton from the Archfiends set is clearly from Jason and the Argonauts.

    There are other nods to movies like e.g. the Death Priest of Orcus who is very similar to the priest of Kali in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

  2. The Sample Dungeon in the Holmes Basic set (1977) has a giant crab hidden in the sand on a beach, just like in Harryhausen's Mysterious Island adaptation from 1961.

  3. I also grew up in an era when seeing one of these great fantasy epics was a rare thing, and I remain awed by Harryaousen's mastery of stop-motion animation.

    However, people who are unaccustomed to it might find it jarring. One thing that seems to divide the younger people that I know on whether they enjoy Harryhausen's work is their view of film and television. Specifically, do they see it as a storytelling medium in which we are to be tricked into seeing what is on-screen as being real, or do they see it as a medium in which we are to appreciate the artistry of the work.

    Both are valid ways to view, and certainly different television producers and film makers themselves want their products viewed in different ways.

    For those who want to be fooled into taking things as real, the most photorealistic special effects possible are a requirement. For those, like my nephews, who want to appreciate the artistry, there is a joy in Harryhausen's work, because whil it may not look realistic, it certainly looks amazing and is the product of great skill.

  4. Steve, are you back at Wizards? You mentioned full-time work on Dungeon/Dragon in the last post. Not to pry, but as a big fan of the blog I'd be happy to hear it.

    1. I'm producing Dragon and Dungeon online magazines, as a contractor. I'll be there for three to six months, I expect, depending on whether WotC renews the contract and how other things go.

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