Is it unreasonable to suggest that, for better or worse, special effects just don’t seem quite as special now as they were when Ray Harryhausen made them? It’s not even so much that he was a master of the form—though he was certainly that—as the fact that his mastery was the product of a purely physical labor. Harryhausen’s special effects were real, hard work, accomplished as much through technical ingenuity as by sheer dedication to a craft; when you see his work brought to painstaking life on screen, even now, the immense effort is visible in every frame.
Cherishing Harryhausen’s now antiquated stop-motion animation techniques isn’t a matter of mere nostalgia for some outdated facet of movie history—the quality of the work speaks louder than that. It’s true that many of the fantastic creations for which Harryhausen was responsible have aged and look dated, maybe even quaint, but they don’t look dated in the same way that, say, the early computer effects plastered throughout “Tron” do. Digital effects have a tendency to fall into what seems like instant obsolescence, where even the most-cutting edge images are outpaced the moment they arrive, making year-old blockbusters seem clunky and decade-old ones to look practically archaic; the advances are so sudden, the achievements so fleeting, that what’s once-revelatory rapidly becomes an antique. But Harryhausen’s effects never had that problem: their style was so singular, their presence on screen so wonderful and strange, that even today they don’t appear old-fashioned so much as otherworldly.
One of the problems with digital effects, and in particular with our modern over-reliance on them, is that even the most dazzling bit of CGI lacks mystery or intrigue. When Tony Stark’s house collapses around him and the camera plunges into the water with the wreckage, we might be impressed by the stunning display of expense and design, but we’re not left to wonder how it was captured—we know it was simply created on a computer. But when we see a band of sword-wielding skeletons rise from the earth to do battle in “Jason and the Argonauts”, our awe is at seeing something impossible made possible, without recourse to software and the click of a mouse: those marching skeletons are still devised through a kind of trickery, but the effect seems like genuine magic.
And the effects are still astonishing today: it’s hard to conceive of the exertion and diligence required to create Ymir’s fight with an elephant in “Twenty Million Miles To Earth”, the massive octopus crushing a bridge in “It Came From Beneath the Sea”, or the serpent woman slithering and dancing in “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”.
The one quality digital effects consistently struggle to convey—and the major advantage Ray Harryhausen’s work still has over its contemporary alternatives—is a sense of tactility, of the monsters and spaceships and giant vultures seeming to not only look real but feel real, of seeming present to the touch. The enormously detailed (and enormously expensive) CGI Kraken in the recent “Clash of the Titans” may be more technically impressive and even realistic than the Kraken animated by Harryhausen in 1981, but the latter is really there on screen: it isn’t pixels or polygons reducible to code, but plastic photographed for real. It’s an important difference: where CGI is an absence, Ray Harryhausen made things present.