I cannot speak for everyone who fell in love with the movies at an early age. Still, it stands to reason that what enchanted us about movies in our tender years had little to do with the way that cinema could convey psychological nuance, or even necessarily how distinctively it could convey a story. No, what got us hooked, I think, was the movies' ability to show us things we'd never seen before, things we might have dimly imagined, or hoped, or dreaded seeing, but never actually laid eyes upon. The land of Oz. The sun going down on Tara. A twenty or, back in the day, forty-foot high snow globe. The Frankenstein Monster. An—impossible!—invisible man.
Ray Harryhausen himself would have been happy to tell you that it was the sight of a giant ape traversing and wreaking havoc on the streets of contemporary Manhattan that not only made him love movies but set him on his life's path. King Kong was the movie. Harryhausen was in his early teens when he first saw it. About fifteen years later, Harryhausen would work on the effects for Mighty Joe Young.
It is fascinating that Harryhausen's two closest childhood friends, Forrest J. Ackerman and Ray Bradbury, would themselves become ambassadors of the fantastic in the realms of magazines and literature respectively. The triumverate had an incalcuable impact on the pop imagination. What Harryhausen did with clay and plastic and a stop motion camera still constitutes the most dazzling and awe-inspiring body of visual effects a single filmmaker can lay claim to. Even once you knew the rudiments of how stop motion animation was done, what Harryhausen accomplished was unfathomable. The combination of his deep understanding of the frightening and the grotesque (as intuited via the Greek myths from which he drew so much inspiration), and his painstaking draftsmanship, and his literally saintly patience yielded cinematic miracles. The lack of a certain kind of seamlessness in the films that bear his work is in itself seductive, exhilarating. Watching Jason and the Argonauts, the introduction in a scene of a particular kind of visual degradation, the then-unavoidable result of matte work, is exciting, because it's a signal, a cue: an indication that some kind of mind-blowing effects sequence is about to begin. And then the skeletons start swordfighting with Jason and his men, and the consciousness of the matte work goes away; the action is brilliantly choreographed and completely mind-blowing, because you are convinced. Even if you intellectually know that these images are the result of one man making near microscopic movements on a miniature model and taking a still shot of each one, and keep reminding yourself of that, you can't not believe that you are watching living skeletons swordfighting. They're the stuff of nightmares, as are the harpies who torture Phineas in that picture; and yet there'a also a guiltily giggly kick to watching these demonic manifestations. Just as the alien craft demolishing the Jefferson Memorial and more in Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers nails the ecstasy of destruction in a precise, painstaking way that subsequent hypertrophied derivations such as Independence Day never, ever could, not just because of the differences in technology but because of a lack of genuine personal investment. Harryhausen understood the things that we secretly wanted to see and made them happen with his hands and his fingers and his lights and his camera. He was the not-so-secret sharer of every kid who ever skipped his or her homework over the course of a week and instead spent the time getting that Aurora model of the Forgotten Prisoner of Castlemare assembled just right. And we knew his name because Forrest J. Ackerman told us about him in Famous Monsters magazine, and because Ray Bradbury wrote "The Fog Horn," and because Bradbury's friend the other Ray took the minimally (albeit beautifully) described monster of Bradbury's story and made him into The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.
It's so easy to bring to mind the formidability of his creations that one may momentarily forget their wit. Recall the giant not-quite-chicken of Mysterious Island. (And delight in the fairy tales collected on the self-published Early Years DVD collection.) And let's not forget the humanity of Mr. Joseph Young himself, Harryhausen's tribute to the pathos that his master Willis O'Brien brought to both Kong and the son of Kong. Harryhausen lived a rich, long life, and he left a magnificent record of it for his fans, including a remarkable book (An Animated Life), in which the detailings of how he made his incredible visions only enhances their impact when the movies themselves are re-viewed.
My friend Joseph Failla will be contributing some reminiscences and thoughts later.
UPDATE: From the February 2004 issue of Premiere, Joseph Failla's review of the DVDs of Beast, The Valley of Gwangi, and The Black Scorpion. Joe presented the issue to Harryhausen in person at a Lincoln Center event that year.