Ray Harryhausen: Maestro Of Stop-Motion Animation

Ray Harryhausen Was Born This Day 95 Years Ago

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“…You must remember that my type of film is very distinctive from the average special-effects picture… but they really belong in a separate category, which I don’t think many people realize” – Ray Harryhausen.

“It all started with King Kong, of course,” Raymond Frederick “Ray” Harryhausen recalled in one interview. His aunt took the then 13 year old schoolboy to watch the movie in 1933. “I knew it was a ‘gorilla picture,’ but didn’t know anything much about it… I saw that at Grauman’s Chinese [Theater, Hollywood Boulevard] and I haven’t been the same since.” 

Like most seven-year-old kids, yours truly – back in the day – lived and breathed dinosaurs, Ancient History and sci-fi. So to find someone like Ray Harryhausen who had not only followed those exact same interests, but lovingly crafted them into his work, was a sheer delight. Some of my most cherished childhood moments involved some of Harryhausen’s most thrilling screen moments. 

When he passed away in May 2013, notes for an Obituary were hastily prepared; unfortunately, none were published anywhere.

What better time, what better place, to put them to good use?  

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 ^ The Master At Work, plus some of his impressive conceptual artwork

“Ray Harryhausen was a legend, a genius, an artist, a filmmaker, a magician, but more than that he was an inspiration. He showed us the way. He showed us that a grown man could play with monsters and get away with it. How cool is that?” – Rick Baker.

From 1949 – when Willis O’Brien hired him as an assistant on Mighty Joe Young (1949), a poor imitation of King Kong – to 1981 (and since), his menagerie of monsters has thrilled generations. For one thing, the sheer diversity of his work is of particular merit. From his original Ymir: the Venusian alien from 20 Million Miles To Earth (1957) which grows to Kong-like proportions and runs rampant through Rome, to the intricate designs of the alien vessels in Earth vs The Flying Saucers (1956) and the bizarre Selenites in First Men In The Moon (1964) Harryhausen produced some of the most striking science fiction and fantasy films.

His unique creative process is even more remarkable when you consider how paltry the budgets of those movies really were... Even the giant octopus from It Came From Beneath The Sea (1953) destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge with only six tentacles. “We couldn’t afford to make the other two,” was Harryhausen’s amusing excuse.

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One Million Years BC (1966) (above); The Valley of Gwangi (1969) (below)

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“We both loved King Kong with all of our hearts… I said: I wanna be a writer some day. He said: well maybe some day you’ll write a screenplay for me and I’ll do dinosaurs for you…” – Ray Bradbury.  

Ray Harryhausen’s first cinematic foray into prehistoric monsters – and also his first solo screen credit – came in 1953 with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, based on a Saturday Evening Post short story by Ray Bradbury. Here, Harryhausen developed his celebrated Dynamation process; his monster: a Rhedosaurus makes for a truly awesome spectacle and the film became a success.

The Hammer remake: One Million Years BC (1966) was a showcase for Harryhausen at the height of his stop-motion prowess. The scenes of the Allosaur attacking Raquel Welch’s tribe, the duel between the Tyrannosaur and the Triceratops and the encounter with the giant turtle on the beach were particularly memorable. 

In 1969, along came The Valley of Gwangi – in which cowboys had to fend off dinosaurs in the Forbidden Valley. A rare critical and commercial failure for Harryhausen, it marked the end of his personal association with animated dinosaurs. Harryhausen remarked that “Hollywood is noted for glamourizing the actors, and I tried to glamourize the dinosaur as well.” 

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“This master craftsman gave unforgettable shape to figures drawn from those depths where the creatures of myth, legend and dream reside in all of us. They have beguiled children for half a century, haunted their memories as grown-ups and influenced generations of special effects artists” – Leonard Nimoy.

Harryhausen is said to have chosen Jason and the Argonauts (1963) as his personal favourite endeavour. Todd Armstrong (apparently dubbed throughout by another actor) had to contend with various mythical creatures, including the Harpies and the Hydra.

Most fans cite the climactic battle with the army of skeletons as the animator’s most accomplished sequence. Yes, its terror lies in its flawless and intricate execution, enhanced dramatically by thumping music from Bernard Hermann. But for me, the moment when Talos suddenly creaks his head around to stare down at Hercules, cuing another fabulous Bernard Hermann score, never fails to induce the goosebumps!

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^ The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

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^ The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

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^ Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

“Seventh Voyage was the first Harryhausen feature to be filmed in Technicolor and Dynamation… Golden Voyage… carries a sense of mystery and wonder quite unlike that of any other fantasy film… The Eye of the Tiger was not the film it might have been…” – Phil Edwards. 

A fascinating factor of the Harryhausen portfolio was the trilogy of Sinbad adventures. In 1958, the The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad set the box office alight with its enticing blend of eastern adventure and sensational animated figures: the dragon, the two-headed roc, but it was that horned cyclops that stole every scene. The sensational duel with the skeleton was deemed so frightening, the British Film Censor deleted the scene(!) in order to grant the film a ‘U’ Certificate.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) did well to recapture Seventh’s exotic charm. It had an excellent cast and wondrous location photography alongside startling effects. The highlight almost certainly was the battle with the six-armed goddess Kali, one of Harryhausen’s more exciting accomplishments.

Although it had strange bug-eyed bipeds, a troglodyte, even a baboon, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) could not compete with its forebears, critically or commercially. No matter. For me, it was still Harryhausen – i.e. it still held the power to amaze.

“Sinbad was a breakaway from the mad monsters and dinosaurs-on-the-loose…” Harryhausen explained. “That type of inexpensive exploitation picture was very popular in those days… We had to include a lot of destruction and fast movement, or we couldn’t sell the idea to the studio.”  

Incidentally, at one point, a “Sinbad on Mars” was mooted. Whatever happened to that? 

“It’s in limbo,” the Master sighed.

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ray-medusaTHE KRAKEN CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981)

“He’s great, he’s funny… First, Ray talks you through it. Then he will tell you… how you are going to fight the creature. Then Ray comes in with a big cardboard cutout. He says: ‘This is how big the monster is. This is where the monster is going to go'” – Harry Hamlin.   

Clash of the Titans (1981) turned out to be his final – but most ambitious – movie. Incidentally, it would have the largest budget of them all. As Perseus, Harry Hamlin had to contend with top British actors as well as some of Harryhausen’s most fiendish monstrosities: Calibos, giant scorpions, the Kraken and my all-time fave: the genuinely terrifying Medusa. Out of all that wondrous Dynamated gold that could be uploaded on this Post, it’s the Gorgon that gets it (see below).

He expressed joy at having received “many fan letters from young people; our films influenced their lives… George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Mr. Cameron – James Cameron – all say that our pictures when they grew up affected their wanting to get into the film business. 

“So, the snowball rolls on. It really started with Willis O’Brien, who was the father of it all. Then, it got bigger with me. And it continues to grow. Who knows where it will go next?”

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Fear Of F/X: The Evolution Of CGI

Trapped inside an electronic arena, where love, and escape, do not compute!   

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“Nobody cares About making movies about people any more. All they care about is special effects” – Ellen Keith, F/X: Murder By Illusion (1986). 

The lone cowboy marched through the terrain, determined to track down the man who had shot him dead. The pixelated vision of Yul Brynner’s relentless android gunslinger, developed for Westworld (1973), introduced computerised effects to movies (not Tron (1982) as commonly misconceived). These pioneering images were the work of Information International Inc. or Triple-I. 

Little did anyone know that from these tentative beginnings, we would get the ubiquitous Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) of today.

Before we were bombarded by CGI, there was an exciting period of SF imbued with the more awe-inspiring and organic delights of animatronics, make-up, puppetry and blue (not green) screen wizardry. You got the feeling that real ingenious creativity was unfolding before your very startled eyes, and the fantastic results often inspired the how-the-hell-did-they-do-that?! response.

Nowadays, we know that it’s a team of technicians working on machines. Jeez, where’s the sense of wonder in that?! 

ACE IN THE HOLE: "The shaft is ray-shielded, so you'll have to use proton torpedoes"
ACE IN THE HOLE: “The shaft is ray-shielded, so you’ll have to use proton torpedoes”

“That’s impossible, even for a computer” – Wedge Antilles.  

The director of American Graffiti needed to create special effects for a new “space adventure” he’d been working on, tentatively titled: “The Star Wars.”  In May 1975, the effects team Industrial Light and Mgic (ILM) was born to create the flying spaceships, lasers and explosions in space and all the other awesome stuff. What they achieved in terms of sfx magic was nothing short of rermarkable. Most notable were the 3D wireframe graphics used during Jan Dodonna’s Death Star attack briefing. 

Obviously, this line of historical enquiry must reserve a special mention for Tron (1982) which, as the first feature-length computerised film, is commonly referred to as the one with the first computerised images ever. Apparently, a heaving 2 Mb of memory (that’s approximately 1/2000th of the capacity of your average PC, folks!) went into the making of this film about a computer programmer (Jeff Bridges) who gets sucked into the gaming world. Who can forget that pulsating light cycle race? Still looks pretty neat even now…

Th Last Starfighter (1984) relied on revolutionary new computer technology to produce its space battles. A childhood fave (to be covered more fully in a later Post), its story and entertainment value still stands up remarkably well, but regrettably, those vfx have dated horribly…

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“It’s all CG now, creating worlds in CG. It’s a completely different toolset. But the rules of storytelling are the same” – James Cameron. 

James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) presented the first CG water effects, while Total Recall (1990) provided engaging viewing primarily for the varied experimentation that went into crafting a substantial number of original visual effects, but then two veritable game-changers were set to burst and crackle onto the big screen.

Terminator II; Judgment Day (1991) (Cameron again!) became one of the most enjoyable Summer blockbusters of all time. A new level of technology pioneered by ILM was unleashed. Quite unlike anything experienced before, the liquid metal T-1000 morphed, mimicked and mutated in highly original ways into the SF(X) Hall of Fame. Then in 1993, along came another colossal pioneer of sfx. Jurassic Park (1993) offered the first physically-textured CG animals, which just happened to be the species made extinct millions of years ago. Admittedly, the T-Rex and the raptors were very impressive… but how many technicians were required to painstakingly process those awesome scenes? Having marveled at stop-motion animation, you just cannot beat the one late great Ray Harryhausen…

Starship Troopers (1997) was a dull and forgettable experience, and not surprisingly a box office flop, but it carries the distinction of being the first motion picture to showcase an intricate CG military battle. Funnily enough, it would have won the Best Visual Effects Oscar that year if it wasn’t for Cameron’s Titanic…

Beyond Y2K, computerised viz accelerated at an exponential rate. There appears to be an abundance of CGI at the expense of a decent plot, characterisation or any other essential ingredient necessary for sufficient visual story-telling. CGI now holds scant joy for me – that’s why no CG movies from the last two decades feature in this historical study. Yet there are those who would argue that computer-generated effects are imperative because they have attained spectacularly sophisticated standards. Like some inhuman unstoppable force, CGI appears to be relentless, uncompromising, and looks like it will mercilessly consume all traditional f/x methods until the allure and awe of cinema are eradicated forever.

The beast is loose… 

OMG F/X: Fear and loathing in the CGI Factory
OMG F/X: Fear and loathing in the CGI Factory

“Even today, a lot of the CGI you see in movies is so clean and crisp that it just looks fake. It’s weird: the more advanced they get, the faker it looks” – Jim Lee. 

What do you think of CGI? 

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