Friday, November 22, 2013

Ray Harryhausen: Master of the Haus

Here's an article I wrote several months back on the legendary special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, on his passing.




By Jedd Jong 13/5/13

We hear the term “escapism” used a lot to describe a good time at the movies. There are certain genres audiences love for their ability to whisk us away from the mundane for two hours or so. Genres like fantasy, adventure and science-fiction. And there’s an undeniable mass appeal to movies that lead to collective jaw-dropping and gasps of “how did they do that?!”

One of the pioneers of the art of making moviegoers drop their jaws and gasp “how did they do that?!” was special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen was responsible for creating some of the most iconic beasts, critters and magical beings to ever stomp and slither their way across the silver screen. The swordfighting skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts? The six-armed scimitar-wielding Kali statue from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad? The fast-growing Ymir that crushed Rome beneath its reptilian feet in 20 Million Miles to Earth? All lovingly crafted stop-motion puppets and the handiwork of Ray Harryhausen.

But isn’t all this quaint and old-fashioned? Hasn’t computer-generated imagery long since usurped jerky puppets as the go-to method for creating movie magic? Read on, for you just might be surprised at the far-reaching effect the work that Harryhausen did has on some of the most prolific and well-regarded filmmakers today.


Before exploring the realm of fearsome mythological creatures and lumbering dinosaurs, Harryhausen’s earliest professional work was slightly cuddlier. “The Fairytales were what I really call my ‘teething rings’,” he recalled. His father Fred helped machine the metal armatures for the puppets and his mother Martha crafted the clothes said puppets would wear.

The Impact:

Nick Park, animator and creator of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, says the Mother Goose stories were his first exposure to Harryhausen’s work and he went on to become a lifelong fan. “I always considered Ray Harryhausen’s work so fine that it was way out of my league,” the animator graciously wrote in his tribute to Harryhausen.


If Harryhausen is considered the grandfather of stop-frame animation, then Willis O’Brien could be considered the great-grandfather. O’Brien was responsible for realizing the titular character in the 1933 classic King Kong. Harryhausen cites King Kong as the film that got him really interested in pursuing a career in the industry, and he got to work alongside Willis O’Brien as his assistant on a slightly different giant gorilla film, Mighty Joe Young.

Harryhausen had a particularly healthy method when animating Joe Young: “I thought I’d get in the mood by eating celery and carrots for my tea break so I’d feel like a gorilla!”

The Impact:

“I think that’s some of his best stuff because the personality in Joe Young is amazing!” said John Landis, director of An American Werewolf in London. “And the way he moves, he does move like a gorilla whereas King Kong doesn’t move like a gorilla at all.”

Mighty Joe Young was remade in 1998, this version starring Charlize Theron.


Harryhausen’s good friend and fellow “Ray”, science fiction author Ray Bradbury, said “Ray Harryhausen and I showed up at the same time, and he said ‘well, maybe someday, you’ll write a screenplay for me and I’ll do dinosaurs for you,’ and I said ‘well, I’m gonna pray to God for that’.” The Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms, based on a short story by Bradbury, was the eventual result.

The titular Beast, a “Rhedosaurus”, was a fictional dinosaur devised by Harryhausen, the writers and producers of the film. In order to complete the film economically, Harryhausen devised a revolutionary rear projection method that would allow him to superimpose his stop-motion animation on the live-action photography – a precursor of sorts to digital compositing.

The Impact:

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when one hears “giant lizard rampaging about a big city”? That thing was inspired by The Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms.

““Gojira is a direct result of Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms! Exactly! I think Toho (studios) said ‘we’ll make one of those!’” John Landis declared.

The Japanese filmmakers took a different approach in creating their monster, though. As Harryhausen himself put it, “(Gojira) was a man in a suit stomping around on miniature sets!”


Producer Charles H. Schneer wanted to create a monster movie about a giant octopus attacking San Francisco. Schneer and Harryhausen had a hard time getting the City Fathers to cooperate, as they felt that seeing an octopus bring down the Golden Gate Bridge would shake the confidence of moviegoers. Harryhausen recounted the ‘guerrilla tactics’ they used in the making of the film. “We had to do things from devious means. We put a camera in the back of a bakery truck and went back and forth on the bridge to get projection plates, secretly”.

Due to budget constraints, the octopus from It Came from Beneath the Sea only had six tentacles. Harryhausen had to animate it in such a way as to hide this shortcoming. He apparently liked referring to his creation as the “sextopus” (feel free to insert your own adult anime reference here).

The Impact:

The Kraken in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was given six tentacles as a reference to the octopus in It Came From Beneath the Sea. Davy Jones was also designed to emulate the “in-your-face” feel of Harryhausen’s creature animation.

Steve Johnson, animatronics and prosthetics artist and special effects supervisor on Spider-Man 2 noted “I think it’s pretty obvious that Sam Raimi is a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen if you take a look at the work in Spider-Man 2 – Doctor Octopus.” The way Doc Ock’s robot arms moved and behaved gave them a personality not unlike that displayed by some of Harryhausen’s creatures.

And from another superhero film sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the ‘Forest Elemental’.


The 50s were arguably the height of UFO mania, and Hollywood was quick to capitalize on it and stoke the fires. Senior Visual Effects Supervisor at ILM, Dennis Muren, said “there were a lot of movies made in the 50s with flying saucers that were pretty dull to look at but Ray gave them personality and life and you were just enthralled as a kid looking at them.”
Harryhausen found it a challenge to give the suggestion of an alien intelligence within the metallic discs – without ever showing what exactly was inside. The flying saucers were machined with the help of Ray’s father Fred, and Ray invented a geared aerial bracing system that allowed him to suspend the flying saucers at an angle.

Harryhausen happily declared, “I knocked over the Washington monument long before Tim Burton did!”

The Impact:

Mars Attacks! , of course!

Independence Day went a tiny bit larger with its monument-destroying flying saucer.


In this film, an alien beast from the planet Venus crashes on earth off the Sicilian coast – he starts out tiny, but very soon he’s fighting elephants and rampaging through Rome. The monster was to have originally laid waste to Chicago, but Harryhausen “changed it to Rome because (he) wanted a trip to Europe”.

“I felt you could get much more emotion out of a humanoid type of figure than with an animal type of figure,” Harryhausen said of the decision to give the Venusian Ymir a humanoid torso.

The Impact:

“The Ymir is probably one of the best black-and-white monsters that he’s ever created, particularly in the early stages when it’s small…(with) all the humanoid gestures that make these monsters so personable and so much more appealing,” said Joe Dante, director of films such as Piranha and Gremlins.  “The design of the creature that we have in Piranha is a little bit like an Ymir,” he pointed out. “In Piranha, there was no stop-motion monster written into the script. The stop-motion monster was in the movie simply because Jon Davison, the producer, and I liked stop-motion. Any kind of stop-motion in my movies is a tribute to Ray Harryhausen or Willis O’Brien.”

Vicenzo Natali, director of the sci-fi horror film Splice, also remarked on Harryhausen’s ability to make his creatures likeable to a degree. “You can’t make a creature film without thinking of Ray Harryhausen because he created creatures that were so sympathetic and let’s face it, he made some of the greatest monster movies of all time.”


The 7th Voyage of Sinbad marked Harryhausen’s first foray into the realm of period fantasy in which he would create some of his best-remembered work. Harryhausen said “I destroyed New York with the Beast, I destroyed San Francisco with the octopus, I destroyed Rome with the Ymir and I destroyed Washington with the flying saucers, and that got rather tedious so I was looking for a new avenue in which to use stop-motion animation, and I latched upon Sinbad.”

Sinbad was a risk for the studio because a then-recent film on the same subject, Howard Hughes’ Son of Sinbad, was a flop. “Oh, costume pictures are dead,” studio executives would say. Harryhausen was inspired by the likes of the Arabian Nights films from the 40s and The Thief of Baghdad.

For The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Harryhausen would produce what went on to be among the best-loved of his creations. “I get more fan mail coming in about the Cyclops I think than any other creature,” he said. “I designed the Cyclops very carefully because I didn’t want people to think it was a man in a suit, so I put goat legs on like a satyr in ancient mythology. I gave him an appearance of three fingers so no one could assume that there was a man inside the Cyclops, and I think it worked out very well.”

The Impact:

“It’s so inspiring that it made you want to make movies,” Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter said. The Pixar film Monsters, Inc. included a shoutout or two in the form of the Cyclopean characters Mike and Celia who go to eat at the fancy restaurant named ‘Harryhausen’s’.

“Without The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, you would never have Lord of the Rings,” Vicenzo Natali commented. He might’ve been right: take a look at this guy Peter Jackson brought along to the Return of the King set from a short film he had made at age 15, called The Valley:

“When I was 12, 13 years old and other kids were getting interested in cars, sport and girls, I used to love monsters and I particularly loved Ray’s films,” Jackson said fondly of his teen years.


Based on the Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Jason and the Argonauts is held by many as Harryhausen’s crowning achievement. “A lot of people find Jason and the Argonauts one of our best films,” Harryhausen acknowledged. “It’s my favourite because it was the most complete.”

“Some of the films are better made than others. And some of them have better scripts than others. I mean Jason and the Argonauts probably has the most literate screenplay, so it is a better movie,” John Landis remarked.

“I want to speak on behalf of all the actors that appeared in Harryhausen films,” John Cairney, who played Hylas in Jason, said. “They weren’t all monsters, they weren’t all effects – there were real live actors in there…We were trained to be classical actors. To appear at the Old Vic, that was our standard. But there was I, eating sand in Palinuro – and loved it, loved it, loved being there, being part of this titanic imagination of this man.”

But of course, the stars still were the creatures. Jason and the Argonauts boasted the seven-headed Hydra (in lieu of a more ordinary dragon) and the gigantic Bronze figure of Talos that rises from its pedestal to stomp across the beach. However, the most iconic sequence from the film probably was the skeleton fight.

The skeletons were conceptualized with rotting flesh hanging off them, but in order to avoid an X rating, Harryhausen went with the clean-cut skeletons we’re so familiar with today. The skeletons were designed with all the joints a real human skeleton would have, and it wasn’t easy putting it all together. The actors meticulously rehearsed the battle with stuntmen, and then shadow-fought against nothing with the skeletons inserted later via Harryhausen’s rear-projection method. “Sometimes I would only get about 13-15 frames a day,” Harryhausen revealed (you need 24 frames for one second of film). “It took four months to animate the sequence; it only took two weeks to shoot the live-action.”

The Impact:

Where do we even begin?

Army of Darkness

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
The Terminator

“The images of those skeletons leaped off the screen and drove straight into my DNA… I’m sure there’s a direct link between those demonic skeletons and the chrome death figure in The Terminator,” James Cameron said of the influence the Jason and the Argonauts scene had on him.

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams


Ray Harryhausen had always loved the works of H. G. Wells and wanted to make a film based on a Wells story. After finding that the rights to War of the Worlds and The Time Machine were unavailable, he settled on First Men in the Moon. The film was also owed a fair bit to Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon and Harryhausen even owned an original business card of the pioneering filmmaker.

The Impact:

“I’m always saying to the guys I work with now in computer graphics, ‘do it like Ray Harryhausen’ or ‘why don’t you look at Ray Harryhausen and see what he did,” said Phil Tippett, creature visual effects supervisor on Starship Troopers.


Yeah, we know this film is best remembered for the fanservice Raquel Welch so lovingly provided. “Raquel Welch was cast in the picture; that was one of her first films. She never looked like a real cavewoman; she wasn’t supposed to – that wouldn’t have been very entertaining to the public. If cavewomen in prehistoric days looked like Raquel Welch, we’ve regressed today!” laughed Harryhausen. 

The film was a remake of a 1940 film starring Victor Mature and Carole Landis – for that film, lizards with fins glued to their backs stood in for dinosaurs, something Harryhausen felt looked too “phony”. The dinosaur models in the newer one were inspired by paintings and drawings done by Charles R. Knight, one of the first painters to envision what dinosaurs might’ve looked like back in the day. Harryhausen also made research trips to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In order to make the dinosaurs look less static, he would animate them with their tails swishing about as they moved.

The Impact:

“Ray Harryhausen’s work had a huge impact on us during the design of King Kong (2005). There are a lot of different ways we could possibly go with the design of the creatures and the dinosaurs, and Peter (Jackson) especially, he said he didn’t want them to be real dinosaurs as such, he wanted them to be movie dinosaurs,” said Greg Broadmoore, concept designer on King Kong. “So we were trying to evoke that era of dinosaurs from movie history and really wanted to capture that, so in that sense they were more like monsters in their characters than true animals.”

There’s also Roland Emmerich’s 10 000 B.C.


The next feature film Harryhausen worked on also dealt with dinosaurs and was about a group of cowboys who hope to stage the ultimate rodeo after capturing the “Gwangi” of the title – a vicious Allosaurus – from the valley of the title. The film is most famous for a scene in which the cowboys attempt to lasso Gwangi, a sequence that took Harryhausen well over two and a half months to complete. Unfortunately, the film was released too late and dumped on the market, with moviegoers assuming it was a Japanese production. Harryhausen has stated that it didn’t have the advertising required to give it visibility, and that perhaps it was too kitschy for audiences to swallow even then.

The Impact:

This bit where poachers try to lasso a Parasaurolophus in The Lost World: Jurassic Park.


Following the box office failure of Gwangi, Harryhausen decided to do a Sinbad sequel. This would be followed by Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger in 1976. The film is known for the six-armed Kali idol which comes alive to battle Sinbad and his compatriots. The Kali sequence was a vestige of the intention to use India as a filming location; the movie was eventually shot in Spain.

“I think my favourite creature from a Ray Harryhausen film would probably be from the first one I ever saw, which was The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and it was the Kali, the giant statue that comes to life,” Vicenzo Natali said. “And it was just so shocking to see so beautifully rendered and animated and I think stands the test of time. It hasn’t really aged one bit and I still find it terrifying.”

The Impact

Notice the way General Grievous extends his extra arms in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

And the Brahman statue that comes to life in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.


The last major motion picture Ray Harryhausen worked on gave him the chance to create mythological creatures that would stand alongside the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses – including Sir Laurence Olivier’s “I’m only doing this for the money” turn as Zeus. One of the highlights of the film is the tension-filled sequence in Medusa’s lair.

Ray Harryhausen recalled a film that portrayed Medusa by way of giving an actress a wig with rubber snakes that would bobble around as she walked. “It wouldn’t frighten a two year-old child!” He declared. “I tried to design her so that she wouldn’t have clothes, that’s why I gave her a reptilian body, because I didn’t want to animate flowing cloth. We gave her the arrow from Diana’s bow and arrow and the rattlesnake’s tail so that she could be a menace from the sound effects point of view. It became a big problem because she had 12 snakes in her hair; each snake had to be moved, the head and the tail, every frame of film, along with her body and her face and her eyes and the snake body.” He wanted to give the character green eyes, but had to make do with blue eyes that he manipulated with the eraser end of a pencil.

 The other famous creature Harryhausen made for Clash of the Titans was the Kraken – which is actually a sea monster from Norse, and not Greek, myth. Harryhausen opted for a more humanoid design, with tentacles that ended in hands. He cited French artist Gustave Doré as one of his main influences over the years - Doré was known for a dramatically-illustrated edition of the Bible.

Harryhausen found himself needing some assistance and hired animators Jim Danforth and Steve Archer – up until that time, he had done all of the animation himself. Danforth animated the bulk of the sequences involving Pegasus the winged horse, and Archer was responsible for most of the shots featuring Bubo the mechanical owl.

The Impact:

Clash of the Titans was remade in 2010. Many devotees feel that in spite of the refined look of the newer film, it just doesn’t match the heart and the charm of the original.


When asked about what led to his decision to retire, Harryhausen answered “young people have been brainwashed by television to want everything quickly, and you just can’t have an explosion every five minutes in Greek mythology, so I felt it was time to retire. I felt I had had enough.”

“Steven Spielberg, when Ray was in town, got him over to the editorial suite for Jurassic Park,” recalled Phil Tippett, animator and ‘dinosaur supervisor’ on that film. “Ray was blown away by it. He thought it was just really an amazing process.”

“I couldn’t say anything negative because it was most impressive!” Harryhausen admitted.

James Cameron said, “I think Ray would have loved to have had access to the tools that we have now for computer-generated animated characters, because…the stop-motion puppetry was a way for him to get the images that were in his head up on film, and that was the only way to do it at that time. If Ray were working right now, he’d be using the tools that we’re using right now, he wouldn’t cling to the puppetry, his imagination would require that he use the best, most fantastic techniques available.”

However, Harryhausen himself wasn’t so sure. “Well, I don’t know, it’s hard to say – it’s just another way of making films. I think I would prefer to make films with the model animation rather than CGI, today even…I would find it rather unappealing to just sit at a desk and push buttons to get a visual image up on a screen!”

Both stop-motion animation and computer-generated imagery are different ways of creating movie magic, and each has its own pros and cons. While stop-motion animation is, more often than not, not quite ‘realistic’, Harryhausen saw that as one of its charms. “There’s something that happens with a model I’ve always felt, when you use a model instead of computer-generated images, the model is strange, it gives the nightmare quality of a fantasy. If you make fantasy too real, I think it loses the quality of a nightmare, of a dream.”

The way Harryhausen made films, where it was largely just him designing, building and animating his models, just isn’t the way things work anymore. Now, there are armies upon armies of visual effects artist, each working on a small part of a scene. While it is more efficient, perhaps some of the human touch that Harryhausen gave to each frame by painstakingly manipulating the models by hand has been lost.

 “There’s a real danger of the effects not being special anymore, they’re just common,” Dennis Muren warns. It’s interesting to note that some of the big names in the digital effects business today, including Muren and Tippett, started out as stop-motion animators.

The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, which seeks to educate the public on stop-motion animation and preserve the heritage of Harryhausen’s work, was set up in 1986 to ensure that Harryhausen’s contributions to film history will always be remembered. Peter Jackson’s visual effects company Weta Digital helped make a digital duplicate of one of the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts. So while the way visual effects are made may be changing, what won’t change is the tremendous effect Harryhausen’s work has had on filmmakers and film-lovers everywhere.

“His legacy of course is in good hands because it’s carried in the DNA of so many film fans,” James Cameron said. “I think all of us who are practitioners of the art of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant. If not for Ray’s contributions to the collective dreamscape, we would not be who we are.”

“I just want to acknowledge the fact that we wouldn’t be here today making these movies like Jurassic Park and like Avatar without Ray, the father of all we do today, in the business of science fiction, fantasy and adventure,” said Steven Spielberg. “Ray, your inspiration goes with us forever.”


The primary source for this article was the 2011 documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, which I highly recommend. Packed with revealing interviews, footage from all the films Harryhausen has worked on and behind-the-scenes images of him creating his magic.


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