Ray Harryhausen – Godfather of Special Effects Cinema

ray harrhausenBefore Avatar, before Inception, before Pixar, before The Weta Workshop and digital 3D cinema, there was Ray Harryhausen.  While he’s not exactly a household name, Ray Harryhausen revolutionised special effects cinema, pioneering the art of dimensional stop motion animation and creating some of the most magical scenes in cinematic history.

Born in Los Angeles in 1920, Ray Harryhausen was fascinated by mythical creatures and dinosaurs from a very young age.  As a five year old boy watching Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925), Harryhausen was hooked on the magic of cinema, a revelation that would propel his life’s work into a career spanning seventy years.   His first experiments in model animation took place when he was thirteen, using his own models and marionettes to recreate scenes from King Kong (1933). Soon after he moved onto making wooden models and shooting experimental films on a 16mm Victor camera around his Harryhausen and his Mighty Joe Young modelparent’s home.  Harryhausen was encouraged to pursue his passion and on the advice of Willis O’Brien, visual effects supervisor on King Kong and The Lost World, he studied art and anatomy at city college night classes, and went  on to study technical film making at university.  His first job in animation came from George Pal studios, working on Puppetoons, a series of European puppet films.  Harryhausen worked with Pal on thirteen Puppetoons films, but left the company seeking a style of creative work that he could not find in the replacement animation Pal utilised.

mighty_joe_young_1949_01In 1942, Harryhausen joined the Army. A year prior to this he made How to Bridge a Gorge (1941), a short film illustrating the potential uses of stop motion animation in US propaganda films.  The short piece was seen by influential film maker and US Army Colonel, Frank Capra.  Harryhausen was then assigned to the Special Service Division, serving under Capra, and spent the war producing US propaganda films, including the famous Why We Fight series.

Following his honourable discharge in 1946, Ray returned to lighter filmmaking and produced The Mother Goose Stories (1946), a collection of traditional nursery rhymes animated using wooden armatures, and shot on 16mm Kodachrome stock.  The Mother Goose Stories were enormously successful, and were widely distributed through schools across the United States.  Following his work on The Mother Goose Stories, Harryhausen was contacted by his former mentor, Willis O’Brien and offered the opportunity to work on the visual effects team for Mighty Joe Young (1949).  The film won the 1950 Oscar for Best Special Effects.  Following the success of Mighty Joe Young, Harryhausen and O’Brien continued to collaborate together on several projects, however none were ever completed.  Harryhausen returned to making fairy tale and nursery rhyme animations.

Beast from 20,000 FathomsIn 1951, Harryhausen was offered work on his second feature film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Based on a story by Ray Bradbury and directed by Eugène Lourié, the film was about a carnivorous dinosaur emerging from the sea and terrorising New York.  The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was the first film to use Dynamation, a split screen technique developed by Ray Harryhausen using models inserted into live action footage.   The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a hallmark in special effects cinema and a critical turning point for Harryhausen’s career.

The 1950s and 60s saw the production of a multitude of science fiction and fantasy adventure films.  From the tacky low budget to high end, huge budget, extravagant spectacles the era is considered a Golden Age for speculative fiction cinema.   The popularity of the genre in this time is arguably due to the development of space travel and increased cultural interest in outer-space stories, as well as the increasing development and sophistication of film making technology that enabled many of these fantasies to be realised.  There is also an argument that the Cold War political and cultural landscape triggered a widespread cultural fear of ‘the other’, resulting in a myriad of man vs. monster or alien stories.  The success of Harryhausen’s work was in no doubt due to this explosion of cultural interest in the genre, though it can also be seen that his skill and ingenuity in bringing so many of these images to life in turn fuelled audience fascination.

The six legged killer octopus from It Came From Beneath the SeaIn 1955, Harryhausen worked on It Came From Beneath the Sea, another monster movie, this time featuring a giant octopus.  The film was produced by Charles H. Scheer and marked the beginning of a professional relationship between Harryhausen and Scheer lasting twenty five years and twelve films.  Because the budget allowed for the killer octopus to have only six legs, it was designed so that it would always be seen partially submerged in water.  The 2001 Pixar feature Monsters Inc. pays tribute to Harryhausen and It Came From Beneath the Sea by featuring a bar called ‘Harryhausen’, run by a six legged octopus.

In 1956 Harryhausen worked with Willis O’Brien on The Animal World, a documentary on the history of animals. The film used table top animation without any live action and met minimal success.  The following year, Harryhausen returned to speculative fiction with Earth Vs the Flying Saucers (1956), reportedly his least favourite of all of his films.  In 1957 he co-produced and co-wrote 20 Million Miles to Earth, a story of earth’s invasion by lizard creatures from Venus. Filmed in Italy, 20 Million Miles to Earth was the last film Harryhausen made in black and white. Harryhausen’s most 7th Voyage of Sinbadconsiderable contemporary successes came with the Sinbad films.  In 1958, he co-wrote and co-produced The 7th Voyage of Sinbad with Schneer. Directed by Nathan Juran and starring Kerwin Mathews, filmed in Spain, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was the first stop motion animated film to be shot entirely in colour.  Its enormous success prompted Schneer to insure Harryhausen’s hands for US $1 million. The next Sinbad films did not come until the 1970s with The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).

In the 15 years between the first and second Sinbad films, Harryhausen’s success was varied.  In 1959, he worked on The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, based loosely on Gulliver’s Travels; 1960 saw the more successful Mysterious Island, an adaptation of the Jules Verne story; and 1963 saw what many consider to be Harryhausen’s finest technical work and one of the greatest of all fantasy films, Jason and the Argonauts.  Directed by Don Chaffey, with Harryhausen as associate producer and co-writer, Jason and the Argonauts is loose retelling of the classic Greek legend.   The film was an epic production, the final 4 minute 37 second skeleton scene alone taking four The Argonauts flee from Telos in Jason and the Argonautsand a half months to animate (see below for a video of the entire scene). Despite the epic scale of the production, the film was made with a modest US $1 million budget (the average film budget in 1961 was $2 million. Compare this to Cleopatra, made for US $44 million released in the same year as Jason and the Argonauts).  Despite its later celebration, Jason and the Argonauts was a miserable box office failure.

In 1964, Harryhausen experimented with the new Panavision technology with the film adaptation of HG Wells’ First Men in the Moon.  Working as co-writer and associate producer, this was the first and only of Harryhausen’s films to use the widescreen format.

In 1966, Harryhausen joined with the celebrated Hammer film company to work on One Million Years BC.  Directed by Jason and the Argonauts’ Chaffey, and starring Rachel Welch, the film’s prehistoric human vs. dinosaur battles were Harryhausen’s first and last attempts to use live animals in his visual effects.  Despite the somewhat unsuccessful effect, the film’s live creatures have since become iconic movie monsters.

Harryhausen’s next film was also a dinosaur piece, returning the use of animated models rather than live reptiles.  The Valley of Gwangi (1969) is the story of a cowboy who sets out to capture an Allosaurus for a Mexican circus.  The film was first developed in 1942 with Willis O’Brien, though O’Brien is not credited in the final release.  The commercial failure of The Valley of Gwangi lead Harryhausen back into the more certain profits of the Sinbad franchise. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) were both box office hits.

Following the success of Sinbad films, Harryhausen returned to legendary tales, producing Clash of the Titans (1981), based on the adventures of Greek hero Perseus.  A star cast including Maggie Smith, Lawrence Olivier and Claire Bloom, secured the success of the film. It was the final film for Charles H. Schneer and Harryhausen’s last feature film before his official retirement in 1984.  During the 1980s and through to the 2000s, Harryhausen continued to dabble with animation on numerous projects, although he never made another film. In 1991 he was awarded the prestigious Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and in 1993 he was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Of the many films surveyed in this article, you’re unlikely to see any of them listed on lists of The Greatest Films Ever Made.  While the films themselves, for the most part B-List exploitation pieces, aren’t going to be compared to the likes of Citizen Kane, Ray Harryhausen is the Orson Welles of speculative cinema.  Our modern sensibilities may let us chuckle at spiders and iguana space monsters, or flying saucers after we watch the likes of Independence Day or Avatar, but without Harryhausen’s pioneering work, special effects would arguably not have been realised to the extent they are today.  Ray Harryhausen, a film magician and the Godfather of speculative cinema.

The Skeleton Scene from Jason and the Argonauts


Updated May 8, 2013

Ray Harryhausen died Tuesday, May 7th in London, aged 92.  Without Harryhausen’s passion and genius, his lifetime of efforts to make the imaginary real, our movies today would be far different beasts.
Much respect. ~ KK


Kate Krake

Kate Krake (aka Kate Murphy) is a writer with a long established passion for all realms of popular culture. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. Find out more on Kate's Blog.