Notes from the Curator's Office:

The Magic Of Ray Harryhausen

Harryhausen contemplates one of he miniature skeletons from Jason and the Argonaunts - Photo courtsey of Mirzamalkam licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

(8/13) One morning back in the 1960's, I flipped on our family's black and white TV and caught the image of a dinosaur climbing out of New York's Hudson River. I watched, fascinated, as the scaly creature went on to tear up the city that never sleeps and then met a fiery end in the burning remains of a roller coaster on Coney Island.

The name of the film was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. It was the first independent work by a young special effects artist named Ray Harryhausen and would ignite my lifelong interest in monster movies.

After making The Beast, Harryhausen went on to become an extremely influential filmmaker in the genre of science fantasy and fiction. On May 7th of this year, he died at the age of 92.

There are very few filmmakers alive today in this genre that don't admit to Harryhausen's work having an impact on their careers. George Lucas stated that, "Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars." Director Peter Jackson noted, "The Lord of the Rings is my Ray Harryhausen movie. Without his lifelong love of his wondrous images and storytelling it would never have been made - not by me, at least." Tim Burton was inspired to do his comedy Mars Attacks after seeing Harryhausen's Earth Verses the Flying Saucers. Wes Craven, the dean of horror and monster movies like The Swamp Thing, upon hearing of Harryhausen's death wrote, "Here's to the man who invented movie magic... I'm so glad Ray Harryhausen lived to see the amazing proliferation of wonder that his work inspired."

Seeing Kong

Ray Harryhausen was born on June 29th, 1920, in Los Angeles, California. The event that would change his life at 13 years of age when he was taken to Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood to see the 1933 classic monster film King Kong. Years later he remembered watching a full-size bust of the giant ape that moved under the power of compressed air as he stood in line. Inside, the film version of the monster ambled magically across a 30-foot-high screen. Young Ray went to the theater over and over again that summer, entranced by the wonder of it all. He wasn't exactly sure how the filmmakers had made the giant ape come to life, but he was determined to find out how they did it and emulate that technique himself.

The method used was not well known to the public at the time and there was speculation by many that Kong was done using a man in a gorilla suit on a miniature set. The actual process, however, involved the use of a puppet with an embedded, poseable, metal armature. The eighteen-inch-tall Kong was placed on a miniature set with a motion picture camera pointed at him and locked into position. One frame of the film was exposed, and then the filmmaker would reach onto the set and move the position of the puppet just slightly. Then the next frame was exposed and the puppet would be moved again. When the film was developed and played back at regular speed of 24 frames a second, the puppet would seem to be moving by itself. The technique, pioneered by King Kong's visual effects supervisor Willis O'Brien, was called stop motion animation.

The 18-inch miniature Kong puppet terrorizes actress Fay Wray in this publicity shot from the 1933 film. Harryhausen was so impressed by the picture that he named the family dog Kong.

Using magazine articles and a visit to the LA County Museum to see an exhibition about the film, Harryhausen figured out how the magic was done. After buying a Kodak Cine II camera that had the ability to shoot single frames, he soon had his own studio set up in his parent's garage. His first models were a woolly mammoth (built using fur from his mother's old coat), a brontosaurus and a stegosaurus. His most ambitious project from this period was called Evolution of the World, in which he planned to use his models to tell the story of the planet from its dawn to the end of the age of the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, this ambitious project was never completed but it gave young Ray the experience he needed in order to make stop motion films.

It was during this teen period that Harryhausen would meet two other boys that shared his interest and would become lifelong friends. The first was Forrest "Forry" J. Ackerman. The second was Ray Bradbury. Ackerman would go on to be a well-known collector of movie memorabilia and the publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Ray Bradbury would become a successful science fiction writer.

Willis O'Brien

Eventually Harryhausen wrote to Willis O'Brien and won an invitation to visit him at the MGM production offices of War Eagles, bringing some of his models with him. While he was there he saw some of the sketches from the production that were plastered over the walls and began to understand how 2D drawing could help him build better models. O'Brien, on seeing Harry's models, recommended he study art and anatomy. "You've got to put more character into it and study anatomy to learn where the muscles connect to the bone" O'Brien said. Harryhausen decided to do just that and started taking night courses at Los Angeles City College. As he continued his education he realized that he also needed to understand photography and art direction, so he began to study these at University of Southern California.

On completion of his education, Harryhausen started looking for a job in animation. He soon found a position with Hungarian film producer George Pal. Pal was producing a series of short stop motion animation films he would eventually call Puppetoons. Pal, impressed with Harryhausen's work, hired him as one of his first animators.

In 1941, as America entered World War II, Harryhausen decided to use his skills to assist in the war effort. He used stop motion to create a short film called How to Build a Bridge to demonstrate how the animation technique could be used for training films. When he joined the army in 1942, this short so impressed director Frank Capra (who was in charge of Special Service Division) he had Harryhausen transferred to his command to help with making U.S. propaganda films.

Mighty Joe Young

After his discharge from the army Harryhausen decided to make a series of his own short films based on nursery rhymes which he called the Mother Goose Stories. His big break came toward the end of the decade, however, when Willis O'Brien contacted him. Merian C. Cooper, the producer of King Kong, was planning another giant ape picture and O'Brien wanted Harryhausen to work with him on it. The film Mighty Joe Young (1949), about a huge, but kind-hearted gorilla, was a dream come true for Harryhausen. He got a chance to work with O'Brien and gained plenty of hands-on experience as he completed about 90% of the animation on the picture.

The work Harryhausen did on Mighty Joe Young was so good that the film won an academy award for special effects. The award went to O'Brien as the technical creator, but Harryhausen's stop motion material clearly contributed to the success of the picture.

Soon after, Harryhausen and O'Brien talked about making a dinosaur movie entitled Valley of the Mist or an adaption of H.G. Well's War of the Worlds. Though Ray drew several sketches for these projects, no studio expressed an interest and by 1950 he was back working on his own. He produced a series of stop motion children's fantasies known as The Fairy Tales. In 1951, however, an opportunity came his way that would change his life.

The Beast

Producer Jack Dietz had a script for a film called The Monster From Under the Sea which would eventually be released as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Dietz couldn't decide exactly how to make the monster, however. Should he put a man in a rubber suit? Or maybe just stick some extra fins on a real alligator and put him on a miniature set? Ray showed Dietz some of his stop motion demos and he was impressed. Pitching the producer a low ball figure for the cost just to get the job, he convinced Dietz to let him bring the dinosaur, with the fiction name of Rhedosaurus, to life.

The Rhedosaurus climbs out of the river in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Though Harryhausen barely made any profit on the film, it firmly established him as an independent special effects filmmaker who could do the work for a major motion picture on his own. (This is perhaps a good time to mention that Ray did all his stop motion work by himself during most of his entire career).

During The Beast, Ray figured out how to place his dinosaur puppet into scenes with real people using a technique he would later call Dynamation. This procedure not only allowed Ray to put people in the scenes with his monsters, it also greatly reduced the need to build expensive miniature sets. Only the objects the monster needed to directly interact with had to be built as models, as the rest of the foreground and background elements were provided by the full-sized sets shot with the actors.

This production also brought Harryhausen back into contact with his teenage friend, Ray Bradbury. Dietz had stolen the idea for one of the scenes - the Rhedosaurus knocking over a lighthouse - from Bradbury's short story The Foghorn. By the time the script was finished and needed fixing, however, he had forgotten about who he'd lifted the scene from and hired Ray Bradbury to work on the script. Upon reading the story, Bradbury demanded credit and got it.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was a huge success and launched a spasm of similar, though not as good-looking, copies. When it was seen in Japan it inspired its admirers there to create Godzilla.

Charles Schneer

A producer named Charles Schneer saw The Beast and it gave him the idea for a monster movie about a giant octopus that ravaged San Francisco, so he contacted Harryhausen. At first Ray wasn't sure that he wanted to work on It Came from Beneath the Sea, as it was so similar to his last picture. However, the thought of being able to film an octopus (actually a sextopus as the budget was so low that they could only afford to have the puppet built with six arms instead of eight) bringing down the Golden Gate Bridge was just too tempting.

Trailer for It Came from Beneath the Sea

It was a good thing that Ray did decide to do this picture. If he hadn't, he might never have worked with Schneer. Together they formed a partnership that would make movie magic for 25 years, creating a dozen fantasy films.

The next picture the pair worked on didn't involve monsters, but UFOs. Earth vs. The Flying Saucers was the story of a war between invading aliens and the people of our planet. The special effects work included using Dynamation to destroy the Washington Monument and crash a spaceship into the dome of the nation's capitol, causing it to collapse.

A picture entitled 20,000 Million Miles to Earth followed. A rocket ship returning from Venus crash lands and one of the expedition's specimens escapes. The creature, named a Ymir, is one of Ray's most recognizable creations. Affected by Earth's atmosphere, it grows from a cute, tiny hatching into a dino-sized, dangerous monster in only a few days.

When Harryhausen helped author the story with writer Charlotte Knight, they set the action in Chicago. Later Ray decided he wanted to see Italy and changed the location to Rome. This not only gave Harryhausen a vacation in Europe, it gave us the spectacle of the Ymir plunging off the top of the Coliseum after being shot by artillery. Ray considered this flick to be his tribute to O'Brien and King Kong.

Fantasy Myths

The next picture was the first in a number of films the pair did based on myth and folklore. In these, I feel that Harryhausen really hit his stride, meshing classic tales of adventure, mystery and magic with incredible special effects. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, released in 1958, was an idea the Ray had been toying with since 1953. The Arabian Sinbad stories had just the right mix of action and fantasy to bring out the best in Ray's art. In Ray's version, Sinbad encounters a living skeleton, a cyclops, a two-headed giant bird and a dragon, all powered by his Dynamation (in this case marketed as Dynarama).

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad - One of Ray's fantasy films, and my personal favorite of his works.

The film was so successful that Harryhausen and Schneer would take two more journeys with the irrepressible Arabian sailor: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) - which, my for money is the best of all of Harryhausen's films - and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).

In 1959 Harryhausen was back in the fantasy world with The Three Worlds of Gulliver based on the writings of Jonathan Swift. Mining another famous writer's work, in 1960, Schneer and Harryhausen released a movie based on Jules Verne's book Mysterious Island. However the original book didn't seem to have much in the way of items that would lend themselves to stop motion. In the story a group of balloonists escapes from a Civil War prison and lands on a deserted island where they have to fight for survival. Nevertheless, Harryhausen came up with the idea that the island is the experimental laboratory for the mysterious Captain Nemo who is breeding gigantic creatures as a means of finding a way to handle the world's food shortage. Using this plot device the firm has the castaways come across giant birds, huge bees and, in one memorable sequence, an enormous crab.

For this project a real, live crab was a bought by Harryhausen at Harrod's Food Hall. After having it humanely killed and the internals cleaned out, the creature's shell fitted with an appropriate armature. It was then ready for the animation table and an epic battle with the balloon crash survivors.

The Skeleton Fight

Three years later Ray would get involved in a project that would not only be one of his best remembered films, but ranks among aficionados as having the most complicated and amazing stop motion sequence of all time. The picture was Jason and the Argonauts (1963). It was based on the Greek myth of the adventurer who goes seeking the fabled golden fleece. Toward the end of the film, Jason and his companions anger King AeŽtes who scatters the ground with the teeth of a Hydra. From each tooth grows an undead skeleton warrior. These seven warriors engage Jason and his two companions in a long and energetic sword fight. It took Ray four months to complete this sequence, carefully moving each of the seven model skeletons frame-by-frame so that their actions convincingly complement the parry and thrust of the actors that had previously been filmed on a full sized set.

In First Men in the Moon (1964) Harryhausen again found himself telling another Jules Verne tale. Three 19th century adventurers are shot to the moon and find that it is populated by insect-like creatures named "Selenites" and giant catapiller looking creatures called "Moon Cows."

This was followed by two dinosaur flicks: One Million Years BC (1966) - famous because it featured Raquel Welch in a fur bikini - and The Valley of Gwangi (1969) which had a script that utilized the odd combination of cowboys and dinosaurs.

The Medusa from Clash of the Titans.

Ray's final film was Clash of the Titans (1981), a retelling of the mythic story of Perseus. It contains one of Harryhausen's most exciting special effects sequences as a young Harry Hamlin, cast as Perseus, plays cat and mouse with the Medusa in her underground lair. Ray Bradbury considered the scene "The best thing that Ray ever photographed." Though the Medusa scene is impressive, the picture is often better remembered for the catchphrase uttered by actor Laurence Olivier, "Release the Kracken!"


Though Harryhausen worked on several more projects after Titans including a sequel called Force of the Trojans, none of them ever made it to the screen. In 1984 he officially retired, though occasionally he involved himself in small projects such as the 1999 U.K. documentary Working With Dinosaurs. In 1992 he received a special lifetime Academy Award recognizing his work. Tom Hanks (who announced the award) told the audience, "Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane...I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made!"

Iin 2003 Harryhausen was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Then in 2010 Ray was given both a Lifetime Achievement award by the VES (Visual Effects Society) and special Bafta (The British Academy of Film & Television Arts) award.

Though Harryhausen did less new film work in his retirement, his art continued. He took many of his iconic monsters and recast them in bronze (the latex used for many of his originals deteriorated over time). He also supervised the conversion of a number of his films that had been shot in black and white for budget reasons to color, making sure that the hues chosen matched those envisioned during the original production.

Trailer for 20 Million Miles to Earth

During retirement while working with writer Tony Dalton, Harryhausen also produced a number of books about the art of fantasy motion pictures including Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, The Art Of Ray Harryhausen, A Century Of Model Animation and Ray Harryhausen's Fantasy Scrapbook.

Just as Ray was inspired by Wills O'Brien, a generation of filmmakers were inspired by him. If you look closely enough, you can see the tributes to him in their films. In the 2001 Pixar film, Monsters, Inc., the characters visit a sushi restaurant named "HARRYHAUSEN'S". In Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, the character Victor Van Dort plays a brand of piano labeled a "Harryhausen".

The Harryhausen Legacy

Many of Harryhausen's admirers have seen his death as marking the end of an era. There are very few people working with stop motion animation today and those that do tend to use it in a very stylized way - think of Tim Burton's Corpse Bride - whereas Harryhausen always strove for realism. In a world where CGI (Computer Graphic Imagery) allows almost photorealistic monsters to be built on any $2,000 desktop, there seems to be very little reason to do the painstaking work needed for stop motion.

Looking at many of Harryhausen's films these days, one can see they do not achieve the realism of CGI. The stop motion technique has no way to create the blur seen in frames in a live action film and always has a staccato look to it (Blur is something that can be done with relativity little effort in CGI). What they lack in technical perfection, however, they make up for in artistic sensitivity. As good as many CGI monsters look on the screen, if a true artist isn't behind the controls, the creatures lack personality. That is what Harryhausen gave his creations in scads: personality: The slight cock of the head, the tiny movement of a tail, the little turn of a hand that made them seem alive and allowed them to engage our emotions.

The trailer for Jason and the Argonauts

CGI has bought us marvelous, mind-blowing images. However, the price of that is that it has robbed us of the emotion of wonder. Because the image of a dinosaur walking across a movie screen was so rare in Harryhausen's day, it filled his audiences with amazement. Now we can see a totally realistic looking gecko pitching insurance in a 30-second television commercial, and we simply shrug our shoulders.

I think those of us who grew up in an era when such images were rare are in a way very lucky. We saw amazing things and were, in turn, amazed by them. And the person we have to thank for that is now gone.

Thanks for the memories, Mr. Harryhausen.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2013. All Rights Reserved.