Ray Harryhausen – 90th birthday BAFTA & BFI gala celebration
It’s beginning to look like a vintage year in terms of NFT activity, as well as a few very exciting events and seasons coming up over the next few months I attended a very special gala celebration yesterday evening, a BAFTA sponsored tribute to one of the few remaining bona-fide legends, a technician without which the Lord of The Rings franchise would not exist, without whom Spielberg, Lucas, Dante, Jackson, Cameron, Burton, Del Toro, Lasseter and others wouldn’t prevail as we know them, one of the undisputed titans of the adventure, fantasy and SF film, a 90th birthday celebration of the life and work of Ray Harryhausen. I’m a huge genre fan and like anyone else of my or previous generations we owe an enormous amount of respect and awe to his phenomenal contribution to the art-form, I’ll admit that his films don’t litter my DVD collection but every time one of his movies crops up in the TV listing I’ll always record them for future re-visits. Some of the pictures are naturally clunky by todays standards but if you look beyond the contemporary situation you can see an astonishing level of skill and craft combined with a simple, sheer love of movies, an adoration of fantastical storytelling that have ensured his position in the pantheon along with his mentor and guide Willis O’ Brien. I can’t possibly craft a comprehensive reproduction of this magnificent gala but I will litter this post with similar clips from Harryhausen’s career in much the same way that the programme ran, hopefully you’ll get some flavour of the evening from my rambling recollection.
The evening was compared by the incorrigible John Landis, a long term fan and friend of Harryhausen whose inspirational viewing of The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (and let us never forgot his bad-movie admiration of the legendary Trog) led to his career in the industry and he was quite frankly fucking hilarious throughout the event, developing a fine running gag as the panorama of clips occasionally went astray from the planned running order, suffice to say I guess you had to be there but he was fantastic. The event was opened up with a context setting speech from Sir Christopher Frayling, Landis wryly introducing him with the comments ‘Our opening speaker needs no introduction. He has been the Chairman of the Arts Council of England, a Chairman of the Design Council and sat on the Royal Mint Advisory Committee. He is currently a trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum and a past governor of the British Film Institute. A traditional underachiever <big laugh> he is also the official biographer of Sergio Leone and one of the world’s leading experts on the American and European Western, in fact he is the man who coined the phrase ‘the spaghetti western’….
I’m not normally one to get star-struck – no, honestly I’m not – but this was something else in terms of the fellow patrons I rubbed shoulders with during the gala, I recognised quite a parade of guests, many of whom got up to deliver their warm birthday wishes and affection for Harryhausen’s work and life, we’re talking about the usual suspects Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (accompanied by Papa Lazarou), Nick Park and the other Aardman chaps, Caroline Munro (that’s her remember – it may have been cool to see certain alumni in the flesh but they are a close second to the star of Starcrash eh?), Andy Serkis and the flabbergasting trio of Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett (who led a rousing ‘Happy Birthday To You’ choir at one point) and Ken Ralston – nothing more than the original guys behind Industrial Light & Magic. Oh yeah, I almost forgot that a certain Peter Jackson was sitting in front of me, some of the similarly minded fanboys sitting behind me exclaiming ‘fuck me, that’s Jackson’ as he took his seat. I’m still pinching myself.
A cluster of other speakers expressed their heartfelt thanks including some of the technicians behind the likes of Ghostbusters, Robocop, Starship Troopers, Jurassic Park and erm Puppet Master 2, there was also Jim Rygiel who was the premier animation executive on the LOTR series and with a nice nod to the future some young chaps who are on some sort of student studio programme that were assisted in their production of a graduation piece by Ray, a fine example of his commitment to progressing and assisting the future pioneers of the craft, I apologise for not remembering any of their names. Two of the British actors from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad delivered a wryly amusing recollection of acting scared of invisible monsters on a Spanish beach, Rick Baker – one of the worlds leading makeup artists – complained in a depreciating fashion that his thunder had been stolen by previous speakers with a potential ‘we are the children of Harryhausen in much the same way that those skeletons sprouted from the discarded hydras teeth in Sinbad‘ before confessing that without Harryhausen he’d probably be working in McDonalds and Peter Jackson would be shearing sheep’ – ouch. One of the peripheral artists of 2001 also made an appearance, namely Colin Arthur who performed some mask design work on the apes and also designed the facsimiles for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad – how’s that for full on nerd paraphernalia. Whilst that may give me another Kubrick themed arrow to my quiver I will still be missing this event due to an utterly unavoidable work commitment – let’s just say that an upcoming July event will bag me another trophy in terms of that movie, and a rather more prestigious prize thank Monolith. Watch this space. Heh.
As well as the speeches in the auditorium there were also video tributes that interspersed the evening, mostly from all the ‘tight-fisted student film-makers who wouldn’t stump up the airfare to fly over’ as Landis cheekily put it, you’d not be surprised to hear that this was a parade of some of the biggest names in the contemporary film industry, including Frank Darabont (a funny report from the set of the eagerly anticipated Walking Dead set), Tim Burton, Guillermo Del Toro, John Lasseter and some of the other Pixar boffins, the two beards (Lucas and Spielberg), James Cameron and one special video from an extra special guest that was throughly revivifying;
For us genre fans this was absolutely amazing, it was of course a heartfelt message from Ray’s best friend of 70 years, the other living legend Ray Bradbury – there was an audible gasp as the video rolled. Through a cracked voice – he’s looking very, very frail bless him and will similarly celebrate his 90th birthday in a few months – Ray recounted how as 18-year-old friends they met at the house of their mutual friend Forrest J. Ackerman and chatted about stuff, talking about what they wanted to do with their lives, Harryhausen confessing that he wanted to make movies and Bradbury nervously admitting that he wanted to be a writer – they’ve met or spoken on the phone almost every month since. It was a genuinely moving speech and he’s reminded me that I simply must revisit some of his books, he will always be one of my cherished authors and without sounding too trite I would love to re-read my absolute favourite Something Wicked This Way Comes whilst he’s still on the planet. I’m unsure of the pedigree of that movie but I urge you to devour the book, its stunning if you’re so inclined, here is a nice hagiography that I may have posted before, forgive me for repetition but it deserves a chime.
The final guest speech and lifetime achievement BAFTA was appropriately delivered by Jackson, I was flabbergasted at seeing him at the event, especially when you consider that he must have soldiered in all the way in from New Zealand and one would imagine that he has some other things on his mind, even if those are finding an appropriate replacement and fighting those tiresome rumors – I kind of hope he does it rather than some of the other candidates. Like many others Harryhausen was the inspiration that made Jackson devote his life to the movies, he brought along and talked through some understandably hilarious footage of stop-motion material he had made when he was fifteen, mostly consisting of him and co-opted friends fighting invisible skeletons on a New Zealand beach, an embryo of certain functions of Brain Dead and Bad Taste which he explained as ‘I understood that you had to film the live action frames and insert the animation footage, then insert the SFX at a latter date. The problem is I never understood how to do that last part so this is all I’ve got.’ – huge, genuine laughs. Again, I guess you had to be there but it was hilarious, Jackson talking through moments with enthusiasm that illuminates just how one of the worlds most successful film-makers has been influenced by the previous trailblazers.
Not a great photo but I’ll look out for more official stuff on the BFI website, the whole event was filmed so there will be better coverage and an update in the future. A standing ovation was inevitable – and throughly deserved – as the guest of honour took to the stage there was a real aura of celebration and affection I have to say, much as I loved the Scorsese and Kubrick events I’ve attended over the past few years they were a little more staid and reserved in comparison to the genuine affection that permeated the auditorium. For a ninety year old Harryhausen is still pretty sharp, during his short speech he humbly accepted the award and insisted that film is a collaborative effort and he wouldn’t be around without the essential input of countless friends and colleagues over the past seventy years. He got a big laugh when Landis insisted that he take centre stage on a hastily arranged chair for a photo opportunity – as you can see above – with all the evenings speakers and devotees in attendance, Harryhausen’s eyes mischievously narrowing as he remarked ‘why John, what have you got in mind?’ before comically scanning the ceiling for imagined traps and pitfalls. Overall this was just first class fun, the fan-boys were just as much in awe as the established industry figures who were all were eagerly photographing Ray as the event closed, I amusingly noticed that it was Simon Pegg who eagerly leapt to his feet to lead to lead the charge of applause and adoration as the prize was awarded.
Fuck me this was an epic one to put together, I really need to get paid for this nonsense. Quickly, here is some fun on the CGI front here, I’ll keep my current 3D opinions quiet until I see Toy Story 3 but as the rumblings that Ebert, Kermode plus others may be turning to the ‘dark side’ and may accept that this development is here to stay, at least for certain projects, I’ll just stamp my current manifesto – yes in some cases, not for those and gosh no – never. Next up, my review of À bout de souffle‘ – I’m conflicted….