the Curator's Office:
Magic Of Ray 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."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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".
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.
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.
Krystek 2013. All Rights Reserved.