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Ray Harryhausen Essay, Research Paper
Harryhausen (1920- ), a master special effects artist, innovated a host
of techniques using model-animation and composite cinematography. His trademark
Dynamation method made possible a whole genre of science fiction and fantasy
filmmaking. Often drawing from Greek and Roman legends, Harryhausen created
unprecedented visions of imaginary worlds. By the time he retired in 1981,
Dynamation had been surpassed by computer-assisted animation techniques
like Go-Motion, and more recently, computer-generated digital animation.
Still, there is no denying Harryhausen’s profound influence on motion pictures.
With films like Mighty Joe Young (1949); Jason and the Argonauts
(1963); and Clash of the Titans (1981), he sparked the imaginations
of millions, and influenced a new generation of filmmakers.
Lost Worlds and King Kong: The
Ray Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles on June 29, 1920. From the time
he could grasp a pencil, young Ray loved to draw and play with modeling
clay. His parents, Martha and Fred, encouraged his inclinations, and championed
his artistic endeavors all their lives.
When Ray was about five, his parents took him to see The Lost World
(1925), a fantastic tale about living dinosaurs in the jungles of South
America. The film featured the pioneering stop-motion animation of Willis
O’Brien, Ray’s future mentor.
Beginning with experimental shorts for the Edison Company in 1914, O’Brien,
a former newspaper cartoonist, transformed stop-motion animation from
a curiosity into an art form. The Lost World was the first feature
film to use stop-motion animation with 3-D figurines
Ray became obsessed by dinosaurs, and spent many happy hours conjuring
prehistoric creatures with his pencil. Then in 1933 he saw a film that
would quite literally change his life. King Kong was Willis O’Brien’s
special effects masterpiece. Though the film was made on a modest budget,
it enthralled audiences around the world, and saved RKO Pictures from
Soon after seeing King Kong, Harryhausen read a Look magazine
article detailing the film’s secrets of stop-motion animation. Borrowing
his father’s Victor 16mm camera, he made a crude stop-motion epic about
a boy and his dog who are attacked by a marauding bear. The "bear"
was fashioned from his mother’s fur coat and a wooden armature. Ray ingeniously
matted out a section of the frame while animating the bear. Later he rewound
the negative, cut a countermatte, and filmed himself and his dog cowering
from the fantastic creature. Although primitive, this technique was at
the core of even the most sophisticated visual effects he produced in
Harryhausen continued making films throughout adolescence, casting them
with clay dinosaurs and imaginary beasts from outer space. In 1938 his
model of a stegosaurus won a competition for young artists sponsored by
the Los Angeles Museum of Art. An admiring friend urged him to contact
Willis O’Brien at M.G.M. With considerable trepidation Harryhausen called
his childhood idol. He was pleasantly surprised to find O’Brien friendly
and approachable. The animator seemed flattered that anyone took such
a passionate interest in his work, and invited Ray to visit his office.
Packing his prized dinosaurs in a suitcase, Harryhausen went off for
his first meeting with the great man. O’Brien praised Ray’s efforts, but
was also constructively critical.
"You’ve got to put more character into it," he said of Ray’s
stegosaurus. "The legs look too much like sausages." Harryhausen
recalled the criticism over forty years later in an interview with Cinefex.
It marked the beginning of a long friendship with O’Brien.
Humbled by his mentor’s advice, Harryhausen studied musculature and bone
structure in anatomy courses at Los Angeles City College. He was fascinated
by the subtle interplay between muscle and bone that determined the way
an animal moved. In drama classes at U.S.C. he learned how to imbue his
creations with a full range of emotion and expression. He also studied
film editing and art direction.
In 1942 Harryhausen landed his first professional job at Paramount working
on George Pal’s Pupetoons puppet-cartoon series (a project O’Brien also
worked on). The schedule was grueling, and the work was tedious and unrewarding.
He spent many late nights at the studio, doing little more than changing
wooden puppet heads. Harryhausen was grateful for the training in later
years, acknowledging it taught him the importance of meeting deadlines.
Enrolling in the Army, Harryhausen was placed in director Frank Capra’s
legendary documentary film unit. Here he put his modeling skills to use
on animated instructional films. He also sculpted models of the army’s
most beloved bungler, the cartoon character Private Snafu.
The more he learned about filmmaking, the more anxious he was to again
make his own movies. When the war ended in 1945, Harryhausen eagerly sought
his discharge. Using the last of his army pay, he purchased some outdated
Kodacolor film stock, and set up an animation studio in his parent’s garage.
The subsequent Mother Goose Stories became classics of children’s
Harryhausen achieved remarkable results on a shoe-string budget. The
film was truly a family enterprise. His father, a machinist by trade,
built armatures for the models, and his mother made costumes and papier
mache heads. The charming collection of fairy tales was crafted with sophisticated
artistry. Complex tracking and crane shots seamlessly combined with in-camera
mattes, endowing the animations with extraordinary realism.
The young animator marketed and distributed his film to schools, churches,
and libraries across the United States. Over fifty years later it has
been translated into numerous languages and is still seen by children
around the world.
Mighty Joe Young
Willis O’Brien was greatly impressed by the Mother Goose Stories.
He saw that Harryhausen’s youthful promise had evolved into an awesome
talent. In 1946 O’Brien asked him to be his assistant on a project called
Mr. Joseph Young Out of Africa, later shortened to Mighty Joe
Young. At the time, Harryhausen was busy with a new series of fairy
tales. But he dropped everything for the chance to work alongside the
acknowledged master of stop-motion animation.
Mighty Joe Young (1949) was perhaps the most ambitious film O’Brien
ever conceived. Bringing into play all of the special effects techniques
he developed over a lifetime, it also promised to be the most costly film
he ever made. O’Brien was soon entangled in production and budgeting headaches.
Several times the project halted, and it seemed doubtful the film would
ever be completed.
An exhausted O’Brien entrusted more and more of the animation work to
Harryhausen. By the time production wrapped, Harryhausen had animated
85 percent of the movie by himself, or with Pete Peterson’s occasional
Mighty Joe Young is a Kong-like tale of a giant ape run
amuck in civilization. Harryhausen studied three live gorillas before
attempting models of Joe. His intricately machined armatures, based on
actual gorilla anatomy, provided Joe with a fantastic range of motion
and expression. Harryhausen worked with four models of different sizes,
each one illustrating an aspect of Joe’s "character."
Some of the animation sequences were so involved it took as long as three
days to shoot fifteen seconds of footage. One segment, in which Joe attacks
a lion’s cage, combined rear-screen projection, tracking cameras, and
stop-motion animation. It took a month to film.
Mighty Joe Young cost a staggering $2,450,000 million dollars
to produce. Yet its box-office performance was comparatively nominal.
Film studios, already wary of television’s growing threat, were drastically
slashing budgets. It was unlikely they would fund special-effects films
of this scale for decades to come. Despite the wide recognition Harryhausen’s
work garnered, it appeared his career might be over before it had really
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms
After Mighty Joe Young, Harryhausen returned to his fairy tale
series, completing short films like Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel
and Gretel, Rapunzel, and King Midas. In 1952 producers
Hal Chester and Jack Dietz asked him to do animation and miniature sets
for a low budget feature called The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.
Based on a short story by Harryhausen’s friend Ray Bradbury, the film
tells the tale of a giant dinosaur that rises out of the East River and
Harryhausen was budgeted only $7,000 dollars to produce all of the film’s
effects. One of his most daunting tasks was finding a way to blend images
of his stop-action monster with footage of terrified pedestrians running
down the streets. He solved this problem by creating the split-screen
technique, a cheap and effective way to make optical composites in-camera.
Using the process projector from Mighty Joe Young, he rear projected
a live-action frame on a screen. Placing the monster on a platform in
front of this, he carefully positioned it with the background. Next, he
used mattes and countermattes to mask off the platform. As the monster
was photographed one frame at a time, the rear projection was correspondingly
advanced. After completing the stop-motion sequence, Harryhausen rewound
the negative and rear-screen footage. Previously unexposed areas, such
as those masked by the shapes of cars and buildings, were now exposed.
In the final composite it appeared as if the monster darted behind and
in front of skyscrapers, buses, and people.
Released in 1953, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms cost Warner Brothers
$650,000 dollars to produce. It was one of the year’s few blockbusters
and reaped the studio millions. Furthermore, it firmly established Ray
Harryhausen as a low-budget special effects wizard.
It Came From Beneath the Sea
Hoping to round out his fairy-tale series with a sixth and final film,
Harryhausen drew up ambitious plans for a telling of The Tortoise and
the Hare. Just as he was about to begin filming, he was introduced
to Charles Schneer, an ambitious young producer who wanted to make a film
about a giant octopus that invades San Francisco. Harryhausen was captivated
by the image of a creature ensnaring the Golden Gate Bridge in its tentacles,
and agreed to make the film despite its minuscule $150,000 dollar budget.
Money was so tight that Harryhausen created a six-tentacled octopus because
it was cheaper to animate! Despite the limitations, It Came From Beneath
the Sea (1955) marked the beginning of a partnership that spanned
seventeen years and over a dozen films.
Over the next two years Harryhausen and Schneer churned out low budget
fodder for the drive-ins. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956),
a shoe-string science fiction epic, was redeemed only by Harryhausen’s
remarkable opticals of force fields and alien spacecraft. Twenty Million
Miles to Earth (1957), featured the Ymir, a giant monster from Venus
that obliterates the Roman Coliseum. During this time Harryhausen also
worked on Animal World (1956), an animated semi-documentary about
dinosaurs. It was his last collaboration with Willis O’Brien.
The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad
The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) contains some of Harryhausen’s
best work. The relatively large-budget film was shot in color, and featured
an original orchestral score by Bernard Herrmann. The Arabian Nights
inspired tale marked a turning point in the animator’s artistry. The film
is populated with fantastic mythic beasts, including the nightmarish Cyclops;
a multi-limbed snake-woman; and a sword-fighting skeleton. While he still
relied on his trademark split-screen technique, Harryhausen also used
blue-screen backdrops and made composite shots with an optical printer.
As part of the film’s publicity push, producer Schneer officially dubbed
Harryhausen’s split-screen, stop-motion process Dynamation. The label
remained forever synonymous with Harryhausen’s work.
Mysterious Island: Harryhausen
Moves to England
Although Sinbad generated high box-office revenues, Harryhausen
and Schneer still had trouble funding their projects. It was becoming
prohibitively costly to make the sort of films they envisioned in Hollywood.
No longer satisfied to make cut-rate B-movies, in 1959 they moved their
operation to London, where costs were cheaper.
Harryhausen quickly adopted the new sodium-backing process, a traveling
matte technique developed by the British. The process used sodium (yellow)
backgrounds and split-beam cameras to create mattes in one exposure. The
different elements were then easily combined in a beam-splitter optical
printer. By contrast, the old blue backing technique required as many
as ten steps to make one matte. The new method lent superb realism to
The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), an adaptation of Jonathan
Swift’s classic satire.
Mysterious Island (1961), based on a Jules Verne novel, pits
an intrepid band of explorers against an island populated by giant crabs,
bees, and birds. As in Gulliver, Harryhausen used every trick at
his disposal, including old-fashioned in-camera composites to multiply
his single monster bee into a swarm.
Harryhausen’s work of this period culminated in Jason and the Argonauts
(1963), which recounts the myth of Jason’s search for the Golden Fleece.
The animator considers Jason among his best work, and even his
staunchest critics agree. Nearly two years in production, the film was
his most expensive to date.
Jason boasted a host of eye-popping Dynamation sequences, including
a seven-headed hydra rising from the sea; a nest of vicious harpies; Talos
the giant Man of Bronze; and the sea god Triton angrily awakened from
his aquatic slumber.
Most impressive, perhaps, was the battle between three argonauts and
a band of warrior skeletons. Harryhausen labored four and a half months
to animate the seven sword-wielding skeletons.
Apart from its outstanding effects, Jason benefited from good
acting, a well-written script, and another score from Bernard Herrmann.
Although the film did well in Great Britain, it fell flat in America.
Audiences were weary from an onslaught of cheap Italian films based on
Cowboys and Dinosaurs
Harryhausen continued producing excellent effects work during the 1960s,
but the overall quality of the projects he chose was uneven. In H.G. Well’s
tale, First Men in the Moon (1964), his Dynamation sequences don’t
translate well to the film’s Panavision format. One Million Years B.C.
(1966), a remake of Hal Roach’s 1940 romp, pitted loin-clothed
cave dwellers against fierce dinosaurs. Apart from the film’s irreconcilable
departures from reality, Harryhausen’s animation is fetching. The dinosaur
battles were beautifully choreographed, and offered new levels of technical
Gwangi (1969), Harryhausen’s last film of the decade, spelled
the end monster film’s box-office supremacy. Based on an unfinished project
by Willis O’Brien, Gwanji is another "lost-world" piece,
pitting cowboys against dinosaurs. Spectacular animation that might have
captivated many viewers only a few years earlier, was met largely with
indifference. Harryhausen’s core audience was growing up and away from
his innocent epics.
The animator did not return to production until 1973 when he began work
on The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), sequel to The 7th Voyage
of Sinbad. Although it profited from Harryhausen’s masterful Dynamation
sequences (including Sinbad’s memorable spar with Kali, the six-armed
goddess of destruction), it suffered from poor direction and mediocre
acting. Nevertheless it did well at the box-office.
A final Sinbad sequel appeared in 1977 with Sinbad and the
Eye of the Tiger. The least appealing of the trilogy, it was addled
by poor casting and misdirection. While Harryhausen’s animation was beyond
reproach, his methods were beginning to seem anachronistic.
Go-Motion and the Twilight of
In 1977, a young director named George Lucas released a monumental science-fantasy
film called Star Wars. John Dykstra, leader of Lucas’s special
effects unit, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), developed a revolutionary
stop-motion technique called Go-Motion.
Even the most painstakingly conceived stop-motion sequences seem choppy
and stilted compared to live action footage. That’s because when an object
passes in front of a motion picture camera, its movement is slightly blurred
in each frame. When projected, this motion looks fluid and natural. Animators
were long aware of this problem, but lacked the tools to solve it.
For Star Wars, Dykstra and his ILM team programmed a computer to control
the movement of their models. Every time they exposed a single frame, the computer
moved the model slightly, causing it to blur on film. When audiences saw an
X-Wing Fighter soar across the screen, its movement was sweeping and smooth.
The difference was revolutionary and the public instinctively embraced it. Star
Wars became the largest grossing film of its time. By contrast, Eye of
the Tiger disappeared after a short run.
Clash of the Titans
Although Harryhausen praised Star Wars for its swashbuckling action
and broad mythological themes, he resisted Go-Motion technology. In a
1981 interview with Cinefex he criticized the impulse among filmmakers
to make animation more lifelike. "Our pictures are more of a surrealistic
experience, rather than an excursion into technical perfection,"
Harryhausen’s last feature film, Clash of the Titans (1981), reflects
the limitations of this sensibility. The tale of Perseus’s slaying of
the Medusa was lavished with a $15 million-dollar budget. Most of this
money was expended on stiff performances from Sir Laurence Olivier, Dame
Maggie Smith, and other luminaries. Harryhausen’s Dynamation sequences
sometimes dipped beneath his own high standards. The animator complained
he simply no longer had the energy to achieve the standards of his earlier
years. A notable exception is the terrifying Medusa and her crown of slithering
snakes. Although he was proud of his work on the film, he felt it was
time to let younger hands take over.
A Legacy of Make-believe
"It’s all an accumulation," Harryhausen said of the creative
process. "Everyone builds their lives on what others have built before
them. That’s what keeps the snowball rolling."
In 1992 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized Harryhausen’s
accomplishments with the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for Technical Achievement.
Filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, whose fantasy epics have
enthralled millions, acknowledge a great debt to Harryhausen. As children,
he enthralled them with cinematic magic and slight of hand. As adults,
his legacy of low-budget special effects, taught them that with a little
imagination, miracles are always possible.
Harryhausen, Ray, Film Fantasy Scrapbook, New York:
A.S. Barnes & Co., 1972.
Dunn, Linwood G., and Turner, George, eds., The ASC
Treasury of Visual Effects, Hollywood: American Society of Cinematographers,
Cox, Vic, "Ray Harryhausen: Acting Without the Lumps,"
Cinefex 5, July 1981.
Mandell, Paul, "Harryhausen Animates Annual Sci-Tech
Awards," American Cinematographer, May 1992.
Mandell, Paul, "Of Genies and Dragons: The Career
of Ray Harryhausen," American Cinematographer, December 1992.
Shay, Don, "Clash of the Foot-Tall Titans," Cinefex 5, July
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