Ray Harryhausen: The Master of Movie Magic By Raquel Stecher


June 29th marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late, great Ray Harryhausen. A master technician and visionary, Harryhausen transported audiences into worlds of fantasy and mythology through his stop-animation. What now takes a team, Harryhausen did mostly on his own. He was autonomous, preferring to have control over his work and his vision, and he became heavily involved in many aspects of filmmaking including writing, storyboarding, producing and in many cases co-directing. 

Harryhausen fully immersed himself in the process by analyzing the skeletal structure of ancient beasts, studying animals in motion, sketching models and building them by hand and then finding the most creative and dynamic ways to bring his fantastical creatures to life on screen. He poured so much of his time and energy into his models that he’d often develop emotional attachments to them. Harryhausen’s unique gifts as a visual effects artist improved on the work that came before him and would pave the way for future filmmakers to come. Among those who credit Harryhausen for inspiring their work include directors Tim Burton, James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson.

Harryhausen’s own source of inspiration came from the work of stop-animation artist Willis H. O’Brien who worked on the monster adventure classic KING KONG (’33). Watching KING KONG for the first time made an indelible mark on teenage Harryhausen. Inquisitive by nature, he set out to learn about how the film was made. Once he learned about stop-animation, he contacted O’Brien at MGM and made his acquaintance. O’Brien took Harryhausen under his wing and the mentorship would help him launch his future career. His parents were extraordinarily supportive of their teenage son. His father built a small studio in the corner of their garage and his mother would give him scraps of fabric and fur for modeling. Harryhausen’s father was particularly good at creating armament, the metal structure that helps the models move with manipulation, and would work with his adult son on many films.

What was unique about Harryhausen was his singular vision and ingenuity. It can be seen with the innovations he brought to many of his projects. Harryhausen worked with O’Brien on the film MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (’49), another monster adventure film that was born out of the continued success of KING KONG. Harryhausen worked for two years on the film, and while O’Brien was busy solving production problems, Harryhausen got to work on the animation. He studied footage of large gorillas from the Chicago Zoo and according to Harryhausen the film proved to be “most useful for studying the pace and stride of his walk as well as detailed idiosyncrasies.” The armature was based off the skeleton of a gorilla and Harryhausen used his skills to manipulate the model to give Joe Young more nuanced movement than Kong had before him.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG led to work on other monster films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (’53), where Harryhausen used front-projection technique as a cost-saving measure, and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (’55). The latter film included a giant killer octopus that Harryhausen gave six tentacles instead of eight. Time meant money in Hollywood, something Harryhausen was keenly aware of, and it made sense to spend time animating fewer legs. Especially when the audience didn’t need to see all eight to get the full effect.

With UFOs being all the rage in the 1950s, Harryhausen used his unique brand of innovation to animate flying saucers for the science fiction film EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (’56). He used an aerial brace that connected the saucer to metal wires. The brace allowed Harryhausen to tilt the saucers so they appeared to fly at an angle when necessary. The most difficult part of this project was depicting the saucers destroying buildings. In his book Film Fantasy Scrapbook Harryhausen wrote, “they had to be photographed in the process of disintegration by a death ray, frame by frame —each falling brick being suspended by invisible wires.”

Harryhausen found his calling when he transitioned to fantasy stories where mythical creatures are aplenty. Working alongside his longtime collaborator Charles Schneer, to ensure that THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (’58) was a success they came up with a new name for Harryhausen’s work: Dynamation. Had the film been promoted as a live action film with animation, adult audiences might turn away thinking that it was for children. Dynamation rebranded the stop-animation to cast the widest net possible. In THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD Harryhausen animated a skeleton in a thrilling sword battle that would be revisited in just a few years on a bigger scale.

JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (’63) was the pinnacle of Harryhausen’s career. He called the film his favorite because it was “the most complete.” The skeleton fight sequence, which has since become the most iconic scenes of Harryhausen’s work, took four months to complete. Harryhausen insisted there be seven skeletons because of the importance the number seven had in mythology. However, this created more work. He created anatomically correct skeletons with movable heads, arms and legs. Stuntmen and actors rehearsed to get the action scenes just right and Harryhausen filmed the skeletons over a rear-projection of that footage matching the skeletons’ movements with that of the actors. The longest animated sequence in the film features Talos, a giant bronze statue that comes to life to seek revenge. Harryhausen was inspired by the myth of Talos and by the Colossus of Rhodes and created a gigantic version of Talos with movements “deliberately stiff and mechanical.”

Other innovations include the giant crab in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (’61). Harryhausen bought a live crab from Harrods in London, had it humanely killed and replaced the meat with metal armature and reanimated the dead crab on screen. In CLASH OF THE TITANS (’81), he finally got his wish to create a more dynamic interpretation of Medusa. He specifically created a reptilian Medusa to avoid having to animate a human one with clothes. Animating Medusa was incredibly difficult as each of the twelve snakes on her head had to constantly be in motion. Harryhausen joked that the process gave him a “Gorgon-sized headache.”

While Harryhausen’s style of animation has now been replaced by more advanced stop motion techniques as well as CGI, his films continue to awe and inspire audiences. It’s still a thrill to see his many mythical and ancient creatures come to life in his films.