Drafthouse Gets Animated Over Ray Harryhausen
Mondo's Justin Ishmael leads tribute to the FX innovator
By Richard Whittaker, 7:30PM, Tue. May. 21, 2013
The skeletons. The hydra. The giant bronze statue of Talos. Jason and the Argonauts may list Don Chaffey as director, but for his revolutionary special effects, the 1963 mythological adventure will always be remembered as a Ray Harryhausen film. So what better way for the Alamo Drafthouse to say goodbye than a special screening Wednesday.
When the stop motion pioneer died on May 7, the Drafthouse contacted Justin Ishmael to host the screening. The creative director for print house and gallery Mondo said this was one of the few celebrity, But a mutual friend, effects icon, Phil Tippett. put into a happier context. He told Ishmael, "There is no better way to go. You live 'til you're 93, you're relatively fine, you're surrounded with your friends, and you get to do what you love for your entire life."
Tippett was friends with Harryhausen for years, but Ishmael got the chance to meet him once – in Kansas City, of all places. "It doesn't really sound like somewhere where you'd meet someone like this," Ishmael said, but that's where the Halfway to Hollywood festival changed his life.
Normally, Ishmael said, "They'd bring in actors. 'Oh you were in Angel one time?' I'm not that excited." But across two successive years they brought in guests who excited him: First Tom Savini, and then Harryhausen, who atteneded a screening of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. "It was the first time I ever saw that movie, with him there, and he did this big Q&A thing with most of the props there." Coolest of all may have been the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts "The carrying cases were coffins," he recalled. He still has the signed poster he bought on the day. "It look's like this really bad, independent underground 80s action movie, but with Harryhausen stuff."
For Ishmael, Harryhausen's impact is simple: "When you think of movie magic, he's definitely the guy you think of." His work was always unique, distinctive, and otherworldly. Compare that to, say, the effects in Die Hard. Ishmael said, "That's not really glass in his feet. That's fake blood, and that's fake glass you can walk on. Or you watch Aliens and I know there's a guy in that suit, or its a puppet." But with Harryhausen's stop motion, he said, "They all had individual movements that were exclusive to them. Like Pegasus in Clash of the Titans didn't move like a horse. It wasn't, 'Oh, they put wings on a horse." There was something weird going on. Medusa was another one where I go, 'Oh, I've got this, it's a person in a suit.' And then you look at it, and you realize, that doesn't move like a real thing. It's cool seeing something that doesn't look like anything else."
Harryhausen's work was always unique and recognizable, much like that of Ishmael's favorite poster artists. He said, "You look at dudes like Dru Struzan or Frank Frazetta or Bernie Wrightson, they're drawing in ways that are unique to them. They're not making something look like something else, or drawing after someone. They take in what they need to take in, and they put out something that is them. I think that's what Harryhausen did."
Something else that sets Harryhausen apart from so many of his behind-the-scenes contemporaries is that, decades after his retirement in 1984, he's still a name that makes film lovers smile in wonder. Ishmael saud,"That was the year I was born, so I wasn't even alive when he was working and I'm playing catch-up with everything he did." Now he hopes that the Wednesday screening will carry on that sense of awe and magic to a new generation. Ishmael will even be delving into his private collection and handing out some Harryhausen memorabilia. He said, "I would love to give a little kid that sort of thing and I hope they'll be inspired."
The Alamo Drafthouse presents Jason and the Argonauts, 7pm, May 22 at the Alamo Ritz. Tickets available now.