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Ray Harryhausen: Wizard of Stop-Motion Special Effects

Updated on September 2, 2017
Ray Harryhausen and his monsters
Ray Harryhausen and his monsters

Ray Harryhausen’s monsters were some of the best in the movies

Science fiction is mostly about monsters. Whether they are from earth or outer space, the best sci-fi shows the most realistic and terrifying monsters.

Like many other kids in the early decades of the 1900s, Ray Harryhausen grew up watching monsters in movies such as The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933). Once Harryhausen watched that 50-foot ape climb the Empire State Building and snatch bullet-spitting biplanes from the sky, he was hooked for life. Harryhausen was going to make dinosaurs, giant apes and other monsters come alive and wreak havoc on the world.

The following article is about the career of special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, perhaps the greatest stop-motion animator of all time. For decades Harryhausen’s monsters were the best in American films. Let’s find out why he was so darn good at making monsters that could scare people to death:

Harryhausen's monster from Venus runs amok
Harryhausen's monster from Venus runs amok

Ray Harryhausen's Early Days

Appropriately, Ray Harryhausen was born in 1920 in Los Angeles, film capital of America. As a teenager, once Harryhausen saw King Kong, he knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He then bought a 16 mm camera and began making his own animated short films, at one point cutting up his mother’s fur coat to make a cave bear! Stop-motion animators often make their own models, which they then film one frame at a time, so that when the film is played back, the model appears in motion.

Some of Harryhausen’s very earliest work can be seen on the DVD, Aliens, Dragons, Monsters and Me: The Fantasy Film World of Ray Harryhausen.

Eventually Harryhausen showed his models, storyboards and demo films to Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion master who made King Kong come alive, and thus began their life-long working relationship and friendship.

During World War Two, Harryhausen worked in the Army Motion Picture Unit, producing animated sequences designed to educate and train soldiers. His commanding officer was Frank Capra, one of Hollywood’s famous directors. Luckily, Harryhausen managed to get free surplus film, which he then used to make some fairy tale-based short films.

In 1949, Willis O’Brien hired Harryhausen to work as an assistant animator on O’Brien’s latest movie, Mighty Joe Young, another film about a giant ape, though this one was somewhat smaller than Kong. This was Harryhausen’s first major film and, because O’Brien spent much of his time solving technical difficulties in the film, Ray did much of the stop-motion work. Understandably, Mighty Joe Young won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1949. (A remake of Mighty Joe Young was produced in 1998.)

The 1950s – the Golden Age of Sci-Fi Films

By the early 1950s, Ray Harryhausen was already one of the best special effects animators in the film business; and the extraordinary work in his next film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), based on a short story by Ray Bradbury, proved that Harryhausen was almost certainly the best.

For this film, Harryhausen developed a technique that divided the foreground and background elements of each scene into two separate films – with the footage of the monster placed in the middle – creating a kind of “reality sandwich.” At times, using techniques pioneered by Willis O’Brien, the live footage could be matted out and replaced with a glass painting or miniature-projected images. These multiple elements would then be run through an optical printer, essentially combining all elements on one film strip. The realism in this film was – and still is – startling. No superlatives can match the greatness of this tour de force!

Harryhausen then did the visual effects for It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), a flick about a giant octopus that attacks San Francisco, seriously damaging the Golden Gate Bridge in the process. Amusingly, the octopus Harryhausen animated had only six arms – to save money! This was Harryhausen’s first film with producer Charles H. Schneer, famous for making monster movies.

A tribute to War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers followed in 1956. Saucers was about an alien invasion that destroys much of Washington D.C., including a toppling of the Washington Monument! But, strangely, the aliens are seldom seen in this movie. In the book From the Land Beyond Beyond by Jeff Rovin, Harryhausen said, “The budget dictates a lot of what you’re going to do. So there simply wasn’t the funds to animate the aliens.” Rather than have midgets dressed in green suits spilling from the saucers, Harryhausen opted for aliens in metallic garb, which were only seen briefly in the film. Managing on a tight budget was something Harryhausen often had to do.

In Saucers Harryhausen made excellent use of the aerial brace, which consists of a spindle that can be rotated horizontally. Combined with high-speed photography, the use of the brace allowed Harryhausen to shoot the spaceships and falling buildings with great precision, creating astonishing realism and excitement in the movie.

Then, once more, Schneer and Harryhausen teamed up to make The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, in 1958. This was Harryhausen’s first movie filmed in color, the use of which demanded more optical units than projected images. For the marketing on this movie, Schneer coined the term Dynamation. The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad certainly deserved this fancy tag, as it dazzles the eye with dynamic mythological creatures such as the Cyclops and fire-breathing dragon. And who can forget Sinbad’s sword fight with the demonic skeleton warrior?

Allosaurus attacks cavemen in "One Million Years B.C."
Allosaurus attacks cavemen in "One Million Years B.C."
The Meddusa in "Clash of the Titans"
The Meddusa in "Clash of the Titans"
Scene from "Mighty Joe Young"
Scene from "Mighty Joe Young"
The Cyclops and Dragon in "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad"
The Cyclops and Dragon in "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad"
Scene from "The Valley of Gwangi"
Scene from "The Valley of Gwangi"
Scene from "Jason and the Argonauts"
Scene from "Jason and the Argonauts"
The seven-headed Hydra in "Jason and the Argonauts"
The seven-headed Hydra in "Jason and the Argonauts"
Giants octopus in "Mysterious Island"
Giants octopus in "Mysterious Island"
Kali from the "Golden Voyage of Sinbad"
Kali from the "Golden Voyage of Sinbad"
Talos the bronze titan in "Jason and the Argonauts"
Talos the bronze titan in "Jason and the Argonauts"

The 1960s

From this point on, Harryhausen only made color films, and his partnership with producer Charles Schneer continued. Harryhausen did the visual effects in The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and Mysterious Island (1961), based on the sci-fi classic by Jules Verne. Even though Harryhausen’s work in Mysterious Island is first-rate as usual, perhaps the best thing about the film is Bernard Herrmann’s spectacular musical score!

Harryhausen’s next movie is often considered his greatest. Jason and the Argonauts (1963) contains so many incredible special effects action sequences, it’s hard to name them all. The most impressive may be the Argonauts duel with Talos, a 100-foot bronze titan, and then there’s Jason’s battle with the Children of the Hydra - seven saber wielding skeleton warriors, a sequence which took four months to animate.

It’s hard to figure, but all of the films Harryhausen made in the early 1960s weren’t a success at the box office. Seemingly, the times were a’ changing, as Bob Dylan sang, and the youthful counterculture apparently wanted something other than sci-fi monsters running amok in American cities.

Until 1967 anyway, when Harryhausen created the special effects for One Million Years B.C. The movie was a book office smash, its popularity aided almost certainly by the eye-popping attributes of Raquel Welch, who played a scantily clad cavewoman, the posters of whom became a pop culture sensation. Also, Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation of the dinosaurs was never better than in this prehistoric magnum opus.

Rounding out the decade, Harryhausen made another dinosaur flick, The Valley of Gwangi, in 1969. This story takes place in Mexico in 1912. A scientist and some cowboys trek to a land-locked valley, where they find dinosaurs roaming about. Evoking similar scenes in Mighty Joe Young, the cowboys rope an Allosaurus and bring it to the circus. The animation of the Allosaurus is without peer, but this movie didn’t make much money either.

1970s to the Present

In the early 1970s, Harryhausen didn’t have many movie projects. In those days, the stories were apocalyptic, cynical or allegorical, as in the movies The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). And in many cases, the monsters were bikers, corrupt cops or politicians – stop-motion effects not required. In the aforementioned book, From the Land Beyond Beyond, Harryhausen reflected on this job market: “A naked dinosaur just wasn’t outrageous enough.”

Nevertheless, Harryhausen’s colleague and friend, Charles Schneer, persuaded Columbia Pictures to revive the Arabian Nights tale of Sinbad, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad hit the theaters late in 1973. Then Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger followed in 1977. These movies did well at the box office, so audiences were coming back. Perhaps they were growing tired of cynical or allegorical tales!

In 1981, Schneer and Harryhausen made a big budget movie with equally big stars – Sir Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith, Harry Hamlin and Maggie Smith. Dealing with the story of Perseus and Andromeda in Greek mythology, Clash of the Titans made a mint at the box office. Overall, the movie was very good, but the animation for the Kraken, the seamonster to which Andromeda was to be sacrificed, was not stellar. Clearly, this was not Harryhausen’s best work. (Sorry, Ray!)

Thereafter, as more sophisticated technology such as computer generated imagery (CGI) used in the movies Star Wars and Tron began to dominate sci-fi and fantasy movies, both Schneer and Harryhausen retired from active moviemaking.

Finally, though, in 1992, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave Harryhausen the George E. Sawyer Award, given to people whose technological achievements have brought credit to the film industry. Ray certainly deserved an Oscar for his marvelous work!

Final Words

It could be said that time has passed by the legacy of Ray Harryhausen, but his achievements in special effects wizardry were unrivaled for decades, making him a kind of cult figure to many. Certainly in the minds of many sci-fi and fantasy enthusiasts, the work of Ray Harryhausen will always be, well, monstrous.

Ray Harryhausen died at the age of 92 on May 7, 2013.

Please leave a comment.

Buy some of Ray Harryhausen's stuff

© 2011 Kelley Marks

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    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley Marks 

      7 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, Steve Lensman, it's obvious I'm also a great fan of Ray Harryhausen and his stop-motion work. "Jason and the Argonauts" is also my favorite of his work and definitely one of the greatest fantasy films of all time. Later!

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 

      7 years ago from Manchester, England

      Great hub. I remember buying Harryhausens Film Fantasy Scrapbook back in the 70's. £6 it cost, a lot of money for a book back then but I had to have it. :)

      I also have RH'S An Animated Life and the Art of Ray Harryhausen so I guess I'm still a fan.

      Favourite film - Jason and the Argonauts.

      Voted Up.

    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley Marks 

      7 years ago from California

      Thanks, A.A. Zavala, I grew up fascinated with the work of Harryhausen, who made the best monsters ever. Later!

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 

      7 years ago from Texas

      I'm a big fan of Harryhausens work. My all time favorite movies are Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Thank you for sharing.

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