Ray Harryhausen


Modern cinema would not be the same imaginative universe if it had not been for Californian-born visual effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. Breathing realistic life into 50ft bronze statues, sword-wielding skeletons, fire-breathing dragons and other magical beings we had never seen before on the big screen. 2020 was the centenary of his birth and I hope to celebrate him in this blog.

Here are his top 10 creatures, as voted for by the public (via the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation).

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A Ray Harryhausen film

My earliest memories of him are as a mesmerised youngster watching Jason and the Argonauts on the TV in the 1970s, and my Mum explaining to me that this was a “Ray Harryhausen film”. Usually films are known as a Director or actor’s film – not the visual effects guy. In the mainstream, you don’t hear of a Stan Winston, Rick Baker or Denis Muren movie – it’s Steven Spielberg, George Lucas or Tom Cruise. It’s only Ray Harryhausen who achieves that and that because, in his films you, would see sights that couldn’t be seen anywhere else – and it’s these fantastical sights that inspired such luminaries as James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Spielberg and Lucas (and Winston, Baker and Muren).

“Without Ray Harryhausen there would likely have been no Star Wars.” – George Lucas

From King Kong to Mighty Joe Young

In 1933, when he was 13, Ray saw King Kong and marvelled at how they were able to bring the giant ape to life like that. A friend of his fathers worked at RKO Pictures and explained to him how it was done, using models, and an animation technique called Stop Motion. A fascinated young Ray then started to build his own models, and shoot his own stop motion stories. He took a model stegosaurus he made to show Willis O’Brien, who created the special effects for King Kong, who advised the young Harryhausen to study anatomy, after describing the model’s legs as “wrinkled sausages”.

Harryhausen did just that – first taking evening classes at the University of Southern California in photography, art direction, and editing and later studying art and anatomy at Los Angeles City College. He eventually managed to turn this hobby into a profession and, in 1947, was invited by his hero, Willis O’Brien, to come and work on another film about a giant gorilla, Mighty Joe Young.

His realisation of the title character led to the film winning an Acadamy Award for Special Effects (given to Willis, despite Harryhausen doing most of the animation) – but it was not a financial success; meaning, not only was a planned sequel not produced, but film companies now veered away from special effects films as major movies, leaving that for low-budget ‘B’ movies.

Monsters in the 'B' Movies

The ‘B’ movie (which was a cheaper film that supported the ‘A’ feature film, when you really got your money’s worth at the cinema), was often where horror and Science-Fiction were to be found – perfect for Ray to perfect his craft. He was soon creating aliens, giant sea creatures and spaceships for movies such as Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 20 Million Miles to Earth and Earth vs the Flying Saucers.

One of those ‘B’ movies – It came from beneath the Sea – matched up Ray with Producer Charles Sneer, which was the start of a film-making partnership that would last 25 years, and would produce some movie classics.

“Harryhausen stands alone as a technician, as an artist and as a dreamer. He breathed life into mythological creatures he constructed with his own hands.” – Ray Bradbury

Mythology and Dynamation

For their next film they wanted to move away from destroying modern day America, and moved to the genre that Ray will be best remembered for – fantasy and mythology. Ray had always wanted to animate a skeleton and felt it would be more believable away from a modern setting – and, thus, the 7th Voyage of Sinbad was born.

Sinbad was Schneer & Harryhausen’s first colour film, and brought to the world a dragon and cyclops, and a fantastic sword fight with Sinbad and the afore-mentioned skeleton. It also brought to the world ‘‘Dynamation’ – a word coined by Schneer to market, and try and describe, the magic of Harryhausen’s visuals. It was Harryhausen’s first film as Associate Producer, as well as visual effects.

“I loved every single frame of Ray Harryhausen’s work. He was the man who made me believe in monsters.” – Edgar Wright

The 'Jason and the Argonauts' film poster

Jason and the Argonauts

The next joint venture is arguably their most famous and  beloved – Jason and the Argonauts. Using the Greek mythological tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Harryhausen created some of his most memorable work – including the giant bronze statue of Talos and, not one, but seven skeletons to fight.

The actors would rehearse for ages with stunt men to give them the feel for where their swords would stop when acting against thin air. Harryhausen would effectively direct these scenes – having already storyboarded them. And this on top of conceiving the characters, working out the story to bring them to life, drawing them, sculpting them (and later doing the stop motion photography).

Harryhausen made another six films over the 60s and 70s (ending in 1981), five of them being produced by Schneer. The one that wasn’t was One Million Years B.C., where Harryhausen was a ‘gun for hire’ for Hammer Films, producing all the dinosaur work.

The others were The First men in the Moon, The Valley of Gwangi (another fond  Saturday afternoon memory for me), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (the first one I saw at the cinema), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and Clash of the Titans.

The Lord of the Rings is my ‘Ray Harryhausen movie’. Without that life-long love of his wondrous images and storytelling, it would never have been made – not by me at least.” – Peter Jackson

Clash of the Titans

Clash was given a bigger budget (meaning they could afford some well-known actors such as Laurence Olivier and Burgess Meredith) and it was the first time Harryhausen didn’t do all the work himself, hiring other animators to help him out. It introduced more memorable stop motion characters such as Medusa, and Bubo the owl.

The film was second-only to Raiders of the Lost Ark in it’s opening weekend, and made a very healthy profit worldwide – but MGM, and other studios, chose not to fund the planned sequel, Force of the Trojans, due to the popularity of films using upcoming computer-aided special effects from the likes of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). It seemed an era had ended, and another was starting. Harryhausen hung up his tools and, sadly, didn’t make another movie.

The Harryhausen legacy

Five years later he later set up the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation to preserve his collection of works and his legacy, and to promote stop-motion. (The foundation continues to this day to conserve and restore Harryhausen’s great creatures – as can be seen at the Ray Harryhausen Exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh.)

In 1992 Ray was finally acknowledged by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar.

His influence continues not only in the blockbuster film-makers mentioned above, but in the continuation of stop motion as an animation technique in modern film and Television (see Wallace and Gromit, The Nightmare before Christmas, Paranorman, Kubo and the Two Strings and Isle of Dogs).

ComicCon at Home 2020

Here is the Ray Harryhausen panel at the 2020 ComicCon. (This in on the Walsh Bros YouTube channel and John Walsh is also the man behind the book Ray Harryhausen : The Lost Movies, and Flash Gordon : The Official Story of the film – see my earlier blog for more details.)

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How did Ray Harryhausen make his models?

Ray created a metal armature as the skeleton (in his early days his Dad made them), and he covered them in latex rubber, applying his knowledge of anatomy to make them look realistic. His work is being conserved, on behalf of the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, by conservator Alan Friswell. You can see the results of his work at the Ray Harryhausen exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland (on now until September 2021), and hear him talk about his restorations in the following podcast.

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Ray Harryhausen - Stop Motion

Stop Motion is a painstaking form of animation where a model is moved tiny amounts and photographed, and when those pictures are played it gives the illusion of movement. Film moves at 24 fames per second, so you can imagine how small the movements must be for each frame to give a second’s worth of movement – sometimes millimeters at a time. For something like Wallace and Gromt where everything is “in camera” ie the sets etc are all in front of the camera, this is a difficult enough process. For Ray he also had to incorporate the live action that had already been filmed (and choreographed as per Harryhausen’s plans) – and it was this incorporation of the live action and the models that Charles Schneer dubbed ‘Dynamation’.

Here is a video by ‘Mashable’ talking about stop motion (made by Alisa Stern, who makes Doctor Who stop motion fan films called ‘Doctor Puppet’).

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Titan of Cinema

If you want to dive deeper there are some excellent books out about Ray’s life and works, the most recent by his daughter, Vanessa – Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema – which recently won Book of the Year at the 19th Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards.

Ray Harryhausen books

Ray Harryhausen Titan of Cinema book cover
Ray Harryhausen : Titan of Cinema
Forbidden Planet £22Blackwells : £21.43
Harryhausen the Lost Movies book cover
Harryhausen : The Lost Movies
Forbidden Planet £22.99 (signed)Blackwells : £20.99
Ray Harryhausen - an Animated Life book
Ray Harryhausen : An Animated Life
Ebay (from £55)Abe Books from £25
Ray Harryhausen Film Fantasy Scrapbook
Ray Harryhausen Film Fantasy Scrapbook
Ebay (from £24.99) Abe Books from £20.10

Ray Harryhausen Movies

Ray Harryhausen Figures for Sale

Star Ace Toys have beautifully reproduced several of Ray’s wonderful creations. (To buy in USA go to Sideshow.com or Entertainment Earth.)

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John Walsh, author, looks at Star Ace Toys’ Harryhausen figures.


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