Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Thank You, Mr. Harryhausen

This past weekend I had a chance to watch The 7th Voyage of Sinbad on the big screen. Despite what seem today like dated, homebrew special effects -- combining stop-motion animation and live-action through a process called Dynamation or DynaRama -- the film made me realize I owe a debt of gratitude to special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen for bringing to life on screen the amazing fantasy beasts that inspired my sense of wonder and imagination I channeled into my nascent roleplaying game experiences.

I grew up on a steady diet of television broadcast movies, especially versions of Harryhausen’s work, including the aforementioned first Sinbad film and the subsequent Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (coincidentally released the same year as Star Wars, which inspired me in another genre), Jason and the Argonauts, and the original Clash of the Titans. During this formative stage of my youth, before the flood of various flavors of fantasy films in the 1980s, such entertainment based on classical tropes appealed to my emerging enthusiasm for archaeology, legendary tales, and adventurous stories.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad embraced many elements I felt, even as a kid, represented the fantasy genre…not space fantasy like Star Wars, or what I’d call “high medieval fantasy” like Tolkien, but entertaining fare like deceitful sorcerers, obedient jinni, treacherous journeys to strange lands, magical spells, captivating princesses, cyclops, dragons, and sword-wielding heroes with bravery and determination.

Many might consider Harryhausen the king of fantasy films before the genre re-emerged with a vengeance through such 1980s fare as Dragonslayer, Conan the Barbarian, Legend, Ladyhawke, Labyrinth, and Willow -- many enabled by Industrial Light and Magic’s groundbreaking work in Star Wars, as well as other pioneers like Jim Henson’s Creature Shop -- in an age well before today’s ubiquitous and often shallow-feeling computer generated images.

Audience Thrills

At the theater screening I attended recently the audience consisted of two distinct demographic groups: older adults (like myself) who enjoyed this genre when they were younger, and parents with kids seeking an afternoon’s diversion of fantasy and/or an opportunity to share a piece of their own childhood with their kids. The manager’s introduction noted a newspaper review from the film’s 1958 release emphasized the horrific elements of the “fantasy” movie, including screams from kids and parents leaving theaters with their frightened children.

I don’t think anybody left the theater screaming, but I certainly heard at least one child crying for a parent’s comfort during some of the more gruesome scenes…though by today’s standards such tame film violence might only garner a PG rating at best. The film contains some iconic special effects images: the lady in waiting transformed into a writhing, naga-like dancer with four serpentine arms; the two-headed roc (and its unfortunate hatchling) assaulting Sinbad’s crew; the scimitar- and shield-wielding skeleton animated by the magician’s dark magic; and, of course, the formidable cyclops and dragon who battle to the death in the climax. Though some might feel the special effects seemed jittery, stiff, and unrealistic, for the time -- and for those immersed in the screening -- they still impart a sense of suspense and amazement.

Early RPG Influence

Films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and other Harryhausen vehicles greatly influenced my early explorations in the roleplaying game hobby.

One of my first games, both designing and playing, was a clone of Dungeons & Dragons based on my observations of some friends playing. In the absence of my own copy of the rules, I created my own original game based on what I’d seen. This turned into something called Creatures & Caverns, which I’ve offered free at the Griffon Publishing Studio website for years and am currently revising (more as a “ludological curiosity” and marginally as a fun game to transition kids from board games to roleplaying games). The contents clearly reflect the influence of such stop-motion monsters as the cyclops and non-winged dragons as well as a host of mythological monsters.

When I moved on to Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons I brought my penchant for stop-motion monsters into the games I ran. I populated islands in the Sea of Dread (the default Expert Set campaign milieu) with creatures and concepts from Harryhausen’s Sinbad films, particularly the obligatory Isle of the Cyclops. I even included an entire dungeon level based on the later scenes of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, complete with animated, multi-armed statues and bestial green-skinned savages.

Special effects have certainly come a long way from Ray Harryhausen’s pioneering efforts. Though his films were vehicles specifically created to highlight his stop-motion effects, they still operated within the framework of entertaining stories with exotic settings, heroic (and dastardly) characters, and fantastic plots; elements that provided ideal Saturday matinee fare and wondrous inspiration to young, imaginative minds. Thank you, Mr. Harryhausen.