Photo © 1993 David Barraclough |
Ray Harryhausen & Stephen Jones
Signing at London's National Film Theatre (1993)
Photo © 2004 Mandy Slater
Stephen Jones and Ray Harryhausen (Dark Delicacies, April 18th, 2004)
Ray Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles on 29 June 1920. As a young boy, he was
fascinated by dinosaurs and constantly urged his father to drive him across town to the
famous La Brea Tar Pits in Hancock Park to see the trapped remains of prehistoric
animals. He also frequented the Museum of Natural History near the University of
Southern California, studying the reconstructed dinosaur skeletons.
In 1933, Harryhausen went to see King Kong with his mother at
Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. "I didn't know anything about
the film," he explained, "but I was enthralled. I'd seen guys in gorilla suits,
but when I saw Kong I knew he hadn't been done that way. I came out of the theatre stunned and haunted."
The thirteen-year-old Harryhausen became fascinated with the film, returning time and again
in an attempt to discover how the effects were achieved. A behind-the-scenes
article in Look magazine gave him some of the information, plus the name of the
man who had created the effects—fellow Californian Willis Harold O'Brien ("Obie" to his friends).
The art of stop-motion animation had been around almost since the birth of cinema itself,
but it was O'Brien who first saw the commercial possibilities of the technique.
A highly detailed and meticulous process, it involves the frame-by-frame manipulation of
a physical object to make it appear to move on its own. This is achieved by moving a
jointed or malleable figure very slightly, exposing a photographic frame, and then
repeating the process twenty-four times to produce one second of film. When the many
thousands of frames of a finished animation sequence are projected, the illusion
is that the figure is animated in a fluid and continuous movement.
Around 1915, O'Brien began experimenting with filming a one minute test reel featuring a miniature
dinosaur and a caveman constructed from modeling clay over crude wooden skeletons. After meeting
nineteen-year-old Mexican sculptor Marcel Delgado, O'Brien was given the opportunity
by First National Pictures to create the special effects for a $1 million adaptation of Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle's adventure novel The Lost World (1925). The film took two years
to complete and during a ten-hour day, O'Brien's intricate and time-consuming work would be
lucky to result in thirty-five feet of film (or thirty seconds screen time).
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
First Men in the Moon (1964)
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)
Charles H. Schneer and Ray Harryhausen
during the shooting of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
Ray Harryhausen and the Medusa head from Clash of the Titans (1981)
Ray Harryhausen and some of the miniatures from Clash of the Titans (1981)
Harryhausen's own first attempts at stop-motion animation were accomplished with a 16mm
camera borrowed from a friend. "I built a cave bear in miniature," he recalled, "and
covered the wooden frame with a hunk of fur from an old coat of my mother's." Winding
back the film, he matted himself and his German shepherd named Kong into the sequence.
Although these early attempts were somewhat crude, he persevered and began to refine his filmmaking techniques.
When Harryhausen learned that O'Brien was working in Culver City on the eventually
aborted War Eagles (1939) for M.G.M., he was confident enough to visit his idol in the company of
his mother and father. As he recalled: "It was naturally a very big moment for me, as the admiration I
had for the film King Kong and the work of Mr. O'Brien had already developed into
almost a fetish. I remember he looked at my rather sausage-legged stegosaurus and said
something that stood out in my mind for years. He said, 'You've got to get more character
into your animals'. It was then I decided to study sculpture, anatomy and art much more seriously."
While Harryhausen developed his dream project, Evolution (1940)—"The film was to be an entire
history of this planet," he recalled. "Naturally I started with the dinosaurs, because that's what interested
me the most"—he soon found himself working on George Pal's animated Puppetoon shorts for Paramount Pictures.
Following his wartime experience with Frank Capra's military film unit, in 1945 Harryhausen created a series
of animated fairy tales. The result was an eleven-minute short entitled The Storybook Review
(aka Mother Goose Stories), released to educational outlets the following year.
He continued the series with The Story of 'Little Red Riding Hood' (1949), The Story
of 'Rapunzel' (1951), The Story of 'Hansel and Gretel' (1951) and The Story of King Midas (1953).
Many years later, a final fairy tale, The Story of 'The Tortoise and the Hare' (2002), which
Harryhausen had started and abandoned in the early 1950s, was completed by a team of young animators.
In 1947, Merian C. Cooper teamed up with John Ford to produce a variation on King Kong. He reassembled
many of the same team, including O'Brien, who in turn hired the twenty-eight-year-old Harryhausen as
his assistant. The effects for Mighty Joe Young (1949) took O'Brien and his crew of twenty-five
over a year to complete and, as Harryhausen revealed, "I did about eighty-five per cent of the
animation. Most of Obie's time was, by necessity, consumed in planning and devising ways of doing the many complicated shots."
Although the film was not a huge box-office hit, O'Brien received the 1950 Oscar for his contribution,
after being shamefully overlooked for King Kong.
In 1953, Harryhausen landed his first solo feature assignment when he was paid just $10,000 to create
the stop-motion effects for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), based on a Saturday
Evening Post story by Ray Bradbury. Using a split-screen process, he developed a method of
inserting his articulated three-dimensional model between the live action background and
foreground without resorting to expensive miniatures or glass paintings. The film was a hit,
and the young animator's career assured.
Although Harryhausen had originally met Charles H. Schneer in the Army during World War II, they began
their long association in 1955 when Schneer produced It Came from Beneath the Sea. They followed this
successful collaboration with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), 20 Million Miles to
Earth (1957), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960), Mysterious
Island (1961), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), First Men in the Moon (1964), The Valley
of Gwangi (1969), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
and Clash of the Titans (1981). During this period, Harryhausen worked with other producers
only twice—on the documentary The Animal World (1955) with Willis O'Brien for Irwin Allen,
and Hammer Films' One Million Years B.C. (1966) starring a memorable Raquel Welch in designer furs.
For The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Harryhausen introduced a new process which he
dubbed 'Dynamation'. Schneer described it as "a photographic process which combines a live
background, in colour, with a three-dimensional animated figure in combination with flesh and bone actors."
However, Harryhausen's success and reputation over the years have not just rested on his technical
accomplishments; he learned his lesson from O'Brien well, as he explained: "Most of our dinosaurs
are very accurate from the physical point of view. Visually, though, I feel it is far more
important to create a dramatic illusion than to be bogged down with detailed accuracy."
Four years after his last film, Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen revealed to an audience at
the San Jose Film Festival that he would not be involved in Force of the Trojans, the
next project by his longtime collaborator Charles H. Schneer, on which he was to have worked
with George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic. Instead, he was retiring.
"When we started out in the 1950s, we were the only ones doing fantasy," said Harryhausen. "We
like to think we kept it alive. Now there are so many companies, everything's been done.
"There reaches a point where you can't see yourself spending another year of your life in a
darkened room twisting little models around. But I still love the work and I miss it sometimes.
"I've been spending my time doing the things I've really wanted to do for a long while, but
never had the time for. I've been making bronze figures from some of the characters we
used in our films. When you devote too much time to a film, you have very little time to
see your family. Now I'm spending a lot of time getting reacquainted with them."
As it turned out, Force of the Trojans was never made. Nor was the
proposed Sinbad on Mars. Instead, Harryhausen has lent his name to a range of model
figures, comic books, limited edition prints and DVD releases. Meanwhile, along with his wife
Diana, he continues to split his time between London, Spain and his hometown of Los Angeles
where, whenever he has the opportunity, he still sees his old childhood friends, Ray Bradbury and Forrest J Ackerman.
Ray Harryhausen continues to exert an enormous influence on contemporary filmmakers: he made
cameo appearances in Spies Like Us (1985), Beverly Hills Cop III (1994) and the 1998
remake of Mighty Joe Young, as well as voicing the Polar Bear Cub in Elf (2003). The
restaurant in Disney/Pixar's Monsters, Inc. (2001) is named after him, while a grand piano in
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005) carries a gold plate with his name on it.
Although The 8th Voyage of Sinbad starring Keanu Reeves was cancelled by Columbia Pictures
in 2005, a remake of Clash of the Titans has been announced by Warner Bros., and
Willis O'Brien's War Eagles project has recently been resurrected with Harryhausen as one of the producers.
"I'm very happy that so many young fans have told me that my films have changed their lives," he
revealed. "That's a great compliment. It means I did more than just make entertaining films. I
actually touched people's lives—and, I hope, changed them for the better."
Harryhausen has admitted that he was a little disappointed that his many films were passed over
for Oscar consideration in their time. However, in 1992 he was finally awarded a long-overdue
honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, "I was delighted to be recognised," he
said, "and pleased now that animation is recognised as a legitimate profession."
Although I had been a fan of his films since the mid-1960s, my first meeting with Ray Harryhausen was at an
event organised by London's Gothique Film Society in April 1971. (For those who may be interested in such
things, there are photos of my eighteen-year-old self inspecting the original models
from Jason and the Argonauts in the third and final issue [Summer, 1972] of the American
fanzine Special Visual Effects Created by Ray Harryhausen, or FXRH for short.)
Although we met up again at various events over the years—including a BFS Open Night in
Holborn that I helped organise, the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton, and
the Famous Monsters of Filmland convention in Los Angeles—it was not until 1993 that I
had the pleasure of getting to know him personally, after he kindly contributed the Introduction
to my book The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Guide. Not only was I invited to his London home
to view his remarkable stop-motion models and bronze sculptures, but we also undertook a brief
signing tour together to promote my volume and the reissue
of his Ray Harryhausen Film Fantasy Scrapbook from Titan Books.
As a previous recipient myself, I think it is wonderful that Ray Harryhausen has been awarded
this year's Karl Edward Wagner Special Award for his many contributions to fantastic
cinema. Although he regretfully cannot be here to celebrate with us this weekend, I am
sure that he is absolutely delighted at this honour from the British Fantasy Society.
So let us all raise a glass at the Awards Banquet and celebrate the career of a man
who, for more than three decades, spent his life realising the worlds of gods and
monsters through the magic of stop-motion animation.
London, August 2008
Copyright © 1993, 2008 by Stephen Jones.
Parts of this article were originally
published in The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Guide (Titan Books, 1993). All rights reserved.
Mighty Joe Young (1949)
Mighty Joe Young (1949)
Storyboards from One Million Years B.C. (1966)
Finished Scene from One Million Years B.C. (1966)
The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)