Ray Harryhausen: The Legendary Life of an Animation Master

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ray-06Ray Harryhausen: The Legendary Life of an Animation Master

Ray Harryhausen is a legend and to be a legend, in a manner of speaking, usually entails achieving only one thing of greatness in life that stands out amongst a person’s achievements. To be the “Ultimate Legend” of any given subject, however, you must have done many, many extraordinary feats that often look or sound impossible. There are very few people in history that hold the “Ultimate Legend” label and only one that man can truly be called the “Most Famous Stop Motion Animator of All Time”. That person is none other than the great legendary animator Ray Harryhausen. His work is often referred to as “magic” and his visionary take on mythical creatures and aliens has inspired many others in the world to become not just animators, but writers, painters, sculptors, filmmakers, and comic book artists.

Few people today could even attempt his style of animation using film, rear-projection, and surface gauges, all the while bringing life to a foam rubber puppet. Sure, it’s easy in our modern day world of technology to plug our cameras into a computer and then see exactly what we have captured instantly. But Harryhausen never used frame-grabbing computers in his animation. They didn’t exist. Not only that, but in his work he achieved a level of real movement in his animation that is jaw-dropping even against the modern computer-generated movies of contemporary Hollywood.

Several books have been written about and by Ray Harryhausen and many interviews have been conducted with him. Since he has given us so many resources from which to pull inspiration, and all his films are easily accessible through DVDs and the internet, it is most useful to focus on his life and the methods which allowed him to create such an amazing collection of work.

Ray Harryhausen Child

Ray Harryhausen as a child

Ray Harryhausen was born June 29, 1920, in Los Angeles, California. His parents, Martha and Fred Harryhausen, nurtured Ray’s passions and often took him on day trips to museums, movie houses and the ocean. In 1925, Ray’s parents took him to see the film The Lost World.  The stop motion animation of dinosaurs battling and coming to life on the silver screen would leave a lasting impression on him. His parents would help him exercise his imagination by feeding his interest in dinosaurs, taking him to the Los Angeles County Museum (Museum of Natural History as its known today) and the La Brea Tar Pits. There he would gaze upon the old bones of creatures from the distant past and imagine them in real life.

In 1933, Ray was taken to see the original King Kong at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California. The magic of special effects artist Willis O’Brien’s King Kong would forever change the direction of the young Harryhausen. He was very curious as to how the magic he had seen on the silver screen was actually done. But in those days there was almost no information about O’Brien’s stop motion technique.

Ray Harryhausen was so influenced by King Kong that he made marionettes of Kong and the dinosaurs in the movie. He would give performances for his friends and school mates using his marionettes, but was never satisfied with just puppets on strings because it wasn’t close enough to what he had witnessed in the theater.

He did some research into how King Kong was made and found articles about the method of stop motion animation in a few magazines. Some of the information was wrong but he could easily figure this out. But there was very useful information in a few of the articles. At about the same time, the LA County Museum had an exhibit on the films The Lost World and King Kong.  The exhibit allowed Ray to find out for himself how the magic of stop motion animation was really done. This inspired him to start making dioramas and miniature models.

Ray Harryhausen Animating

Ray Harryhausen animating in his garage

Eventually, Ray Harryhausen began experimenting with stop motion by animating dinosaurs with a Victor 16mm movie camera. These first puppets were a brontosuarus, stegosaurus, and a cave bear. Their armatures were made out of wood but weren’t stable enough for realistic animation and the camera lacked the proper single-frame ability to shoot one frame at a time. But this did not deter Ray from venturing further into his animation experimentation.

He eventually set up shop in his parent’s garage, purchased lights and a Kodak Cine II camera which possessed single-frame capability. The stage was set to allow Ray Harryhausen to develop and learn stop motion animation at his own pace and mimic the magic he had witnessed several years earlier.

Ray Bradbury Ray Harryhausen

Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen

Around this time, in the late 1930s, Ray joined a science fiction club and made two life long friends: Forrest J. Ackerman, who later became the creator and editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, and Ray Bradbury, who would become one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. Their mutual love for all things sci-fi would bond them all together in a life-long friendship.

Ray then became increasingly busy with making his film Evolution of the World, which depicted the early evolutionary process of the earth. But after seeing Disney’s Fantasia, he completely abandoned his own film because he felt that Disney had reached the essence of what he was telling in his own film. He was left, however, with a great amount of footage to demonstrate his ability as an animator.

Ray would soon meet Willis O Brien after a classmate encouraged him to contact “Obie” at his studio. A young Ray Harryhausen brought with him a suitcase full of models to show his work and get some guidance from a master of stop motion animation. O’Brien told Ray that he should study more about anatomy and refine his abilities in art. He would go on to study at Los Angeles City College (LACC), and later study film in night classes at the University of Southern California (USC).

In 1938, Harryhausen received his first professional gig working on George Pal’s Puppetoons.  This experience would mark a turning point for the young Ray Harryhausen. He would work very long hours animating using the method of replacement animation where the puppets are static and not easily posed. Then he would replace the puppet with an identical one in a new pose. This type of stop motion animation would prove to be too limiting of animator’s creativity. So after two years Ray would leave Puppetoons and go off to join the Army which was gearing up for war after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Ray Harryhausen Army

Ray Harryhausen in the Army c1940

Before joining the Army, Ray had studied combat photography through classes sponsored by Eastman Kodak and then later made a short film titled How to Bridge a Gorge to demonstrate the usefulness of using animation to train troops.

In 1942, Ray officially enlisted in the Army where he served in the Special Service Division. When the war was over in 1945, Ray returned home and decided to put the thousand feet of out-dated Kodachrome 16mm film he acquired from the Navy to good use by making a series of fairy tales.

He would go on to name the short fairy tales The Mother Goose Stories and shoot four stories in eight weeks (Little Miss Muffet, Humpty Dumpty, Old Mother Hubbard and the Queen of Hearts). During this time period, Ray also worked on a handful of commercials.

Harryhausen Animating Mighty Joe Young

Harryhausen Animating Might Joe Young

In 1945, Ray was hired by Willis O’Brien to work on the feature film Mighty Joe Young. Though initially he would do whatever was asked of him, his eventual role as an animator would prove to be a vital part of the production and help to give the animated gorilla, Joe, the much-needed human characteristics that made the film legendary. Ray would often act out the movement of Mighty Joe and then transfer his ideas directly to the gorilla. This technique proved to make the giant gorilla a standout performer. Many have commented that Mighty Joe Young was a direct reflection of the young kind-hearted Harryhausen.

After  concluding his work on Mighty Joe Young in 1949, Ray spent six months developing a film that was not to be, then returned to his Hobby House to make The Story of Little Red Riding Hood.

In 1950, Ray decided to dive back into his fairy tales and make The Story of Hansel and Gretel, followed soon after by The Story of Rapunzel, which would prove slightly more daunting a task than his previous short films.

Following the completion of Rapunzel, Ray Harryhausen was offered the opportunity to create the visual effects for the science-fiction film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.  This would prove to be the beginning of his split-screen matte technique later called Dynamation. Though matting and compositing of shots had been done for many years, Ray Harryhausen refined the old techniques and made them more affordable for low budget film making.

Because the rear projector, plates, and sets needed to sit apart from each other to achieve a realistic look, Ray was forced to move out of his Hobby House and rent a store in Culver City, California, which was deep enough to accommodate his technique. He would complete the animation after five months and invest some of his own money into completing the effects shots. He did such a great job the producers decided to give Ray a bonus on completing the work when they sold the film to Warner Brothers, whose marketing campaign made the film the second biggest hit for the studio in 1953 after House of Wax.

Beast from 20000 Fathoms

Beast from 20000 Fathoms

Soon after the success of the The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Ray Harryhausen set out to push an idea he had for a feature film called The Elementals in which winged creatures wreaked havoc in modern day France. After a brief spark of interest, the project collapsed and died. So, Harryhausen went back to his studio and started work on another fairy tale. This one would be initially titled The Golden Touch and was modeled after the King Midas fable. Ray eventually called the short film The Story of King Midas.

After completing the The Story of King Midas, Ray started on his next short film The Tortoise and the Hare. He was determined to make this his best piece of animation yet. But after filming roughly four minutes of footage Ray was offered another opportunity to work on a feature film and put his short film on hold.

Ray was introduced to Charles Schneer who would prove to be one of the most important people in Ray Harryhausen’s career. Charles was working at Columbia Pictures on an idea about a giant octopus that destroys San Francisco. With Harryhausen on board, the film was destined for success and was titled It Came From Beneath the Sea.  Due to the fact that the film was on a very small budget, Harryhausen chose to make his octopus with only six arms. By making sure that the Octopus was always below the water-line, he managed to hide this fact and save the film time and money. The film was released in the summer of 1955 to good reviews and became a money maker for Columbia Pictures.

The following year, producer Irwin Allen asked Ray to join Willis O’Brien on his documentary The Animal World. Harryhausen and O’Brien’s sole responsibility on the film was to provide a 10-minute stop motion animated sequence near the beginning of the film depicting the prehistoric world of dinosaurs. O’Brien was the supervising animator and advisor and Harryhausen was the film’s animator. Except for the brief sequence created by Harryhausen and O’Brien in eight weeks, the film was summarily dismissed by both critics and the movie-going public. After more than 50 years, “The Animal World “ and the table-top stop motion animation by Harryhausen and O’Brien is only now available on DVD,

Ray Haurryhausen on the set of Earth Vs the Flying Saucers

Ray Haurryhausen on the set of Earth Vs the Flying Saucers

Ray Harryhausen’s primary focus in 1956 was the stop motion animation for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. For this film he would develop a way for the alien spaceships to look as if they are moving across the sky. To achieve this, he had the notched outer ring of the spacecraft rotate as it traveled throughout the film. Harryhausen also tackled the trick photography needed for the destruction of the Washington Monument, Supreme Court Building, and the Capitol Building. Since the budget didn’t include a high-speed camera to simulate the effects of crumbling buildings, Ray was forced to animate each piece of the collapsing buildings by hand. This was quite a labor intensive process, but would prove to be very convincing visually.

In 1957, Ray would finally realize one of his own film ideas in his next project, 20 Million Miles to Earth. He originally envisioned the main monster character as a Cyclops, but changed it to a lizard-like creature called the Ymir that was snatched from his home on Venus and would grow to an enormous size on Earth. The film would also give Ray the opportunity to travel to Europe, which had been a life-long dream. Once again, he mixed live action shots with stop motion animation, achieving an even higher level of realism than before. But in his monster, the Ymir, he had created a tender, misunderstood creature that only wanted to survive but could never adapt to the harsh world of men. 20 Million Miles to Earth was a very successful film during the summer of 1957 and proved once again that Ray Harryhausen was an expert in the field of visual effects.

Harryhausen dragon 7th voyage of sin bad

Harryhausen animating a dragon on the film 7th Voyage of Sinbad

In 1958, with the release of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Ray Harryhausen created what was to become the first in a series of legendary films. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad would bring the world a new achievement, Dynamation in full color. Ray had previously tried to stay away from doing his visual effects work in color due to the shifting tones and instability of previous color film stocks. But with the advent of better color film and the vibrant colors needed to be displayed when telling the stories of the Arabian Nights, Harryhausen not only successfully used the new film stocks, but mastered their use and brought unforgettable characters to life.

Two scenes in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad stand out as among the most memorable in the history of film making: The first being the Cyclops and his battle with the cave dragon, and the other being the sword fight between the skeleton and Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews). The character design and visually stunning mix between live action actors and their stop motion animated co-stars would set a new standard for VFX artists around the world. Scenes like the 4 armed Snake Woman dancing, and sequences with the two-headed bird called a “Roc” left lasting impressions on viewers.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was released to rave reviews and was one of the most popular films of the 1958 holiday season. It would become the springboard for Harryhausen and Charles Schneer to work on even bigger movies with much larger budgets.

Following the success of Ray’s prior work and the outstanding success of “Sinbad,” Ray and Charles were asked to make the feature film The Three Worlds of Gulliver. This film would involve considerably less model animation, but would have a buffet of visual effects that would keep Harryhausen very busy through the shooting schedule. He would implement forced perspective shots to simulate the varying scale of sets and actors. The film was released in December 1960 and was once again received with warm reviews from the critics.

Harryhausen Mysterious IslandMysterious Island in 1961 offered even more action-packed Dynamation effects with the enlarged animals thrilling the audience with their larger-than-life antics. The film was based on the sequel to Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But Harryhausen and Schneer would have to make some changes to the story to add some eye-popping Dynamation. So, a giant crab, bee, cephalopod, and phorohacos (large bird) brought the magic that Harryhausen was so well known for. When the film was released in 1961 it received good reviews but was less than a hit at the box office.

One of the most memorable films that Harryhausen would ever make would be Jason and the Argonauts in 1963. For many fans, this film would be their favorite in terms of stop motion animation. This would also prove to be one of the most difficult features on which Ray had worked up to that time. He animated a seven headed Hydra which would require total concentration and focus as to not lose track of which head he animated last. The integration of Harpies battling Jason’s crew, seven skeletons engaged in sword fighting with Jason, and the massive statue of Talos that would wreak havoc on the argonauts’ small ship, would all become legendary and historical shots. The skeletons fighting Jason would go on to be an all-time favorite for many of today’s VFX artists.

The film was released to good reviews but was not a box office hit. It would eventually receive cult classic status with countless fans around the world, but that adulation would not come soon enough to prevent Jason and the Argonauts from being dismissed by Columbia Pictures as a financial failure. One more life changing achievement for Harryhausen would be his marriage to Diana Bruce shortly after the completion of principal photography on “Jason” in the fall of 1962.   Diana is the great-great-granddaughter of legendary missionary and explorer David Livingstone. She would greatly influence Ray’s future works by aiding in the preparation of his projects.  Diana and Ray remain happily married and currently reside in London.

Harryhausen First Men in the Moon

Harryhausen with Charles & Frank on First Men in the Moon set.

Though Ray Harryhausen is known more for his fantastic fantasy driven characters and films, his rare adventure into the realm of science fiction was never disappointing. His next film after Jason and the Argonauts was based on the H.G. Wells classic First Men in the Moon. In this film, Ray designed and animated two wonderful creatures, the Moon-Calf and the Selenites. However, there were some new problems with this film. The advent of wide screen cinema had forced Ray to push himself even further toward the edge of technology.  He would need to develop a method that would allow him to apply his Dynamation technique within the new format. He had his rear projector modified and carried out some failed experiments with an anamorphic lens. But in the end, his persistence paid off and his magic was now seen in wide-screen Panavision. The film was released in 1964 to excellent reviews but fell short of success at the box office. Yet, to this very day, the film remains a classic and a favorite of many science fiction fans.

Dinosaurs became the hot new craze in1966 and no film exemplified this more than Hammer Films’ remake of One Million Years, BC.  Although the 1940 version of this story had used only lizards and other living creatures for its dinosaurs, Harryhausen was contracted to create stop motion dinosaurs and other animals for the film. The film was very successful worldwide and prompted Hammer to ask Harryhausen to do the visual effects for their next film, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. When Ray declined Hammer’s request, Harryhausen’s friend Jim Danforth was hired. Ironically, Danforth was nominated for an Oscar for his work, something that continued to elude Harryhausen through his long and creative career.

Ray Harryhausen Gwangi Elephant

Harryhausen animating Gwangi

Not wanting to miss out on a great opportunity to return to his roots and a dinosaur movie, Ray continued to search for a subject that he could really sink his teeth into. Willis O’Brien had once shown him an idea he had for a film about cowboys and dinosaurs. Since both subjects were very popular, Ray decided to pursue the idea of making the O’Brien film, The Valley of Gwangi.   It would, once again, be a stellar performance of Dynamation excellence from Harryhausen. The most memorable scene in the film would be where the cowboys are roping Gwangi (an allosaurus). This would leave many a viewer asking “how’d they do that?” Unfortunately, the film was released at the same time the ownership of Warner Brothers was changing hands and this hurt the promotion of the film. It did poorly in theaters at the time, but is now one of the most respected dinosaur films ever made and maintains a strong fan base.

Disappointed with the box office performance of The Valley of Gwangi, Harryhausen and Schneer returned to the type of story that had proven so successful in their past by resurrecting Sinbad and putting him once again in the face of danger. This new film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, proved once again that Dynamation was supreme when it came to visual effects. Kali, the six-armed statue would battle Sinbad and wow the audience. A cyclopean centaur and a gryphon would battle to the death and show the ever-changing battle between good and evil. The film would be a world-wide smash and droves of theater-goers would come back begging for more.

Ray Harryhausen Animating Tiger

Ray Harryhausen animating Tiger

Since Sinbad was a hot ticket, Charles and Ray decided to do another Sinbad film. This adventure was called Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and contained several wonderful animated characters: A metal minaton, ghouls, a giant walrus, a large wasp, saber-toothed tiger, a baboon, and Trog a one-horned giant. Once again, Ray would pit good against evil with the battle between Trog and the saber-toothed tiger. This film would also be a success for Harryhausen but would not do well with the critics. The Fantasy nature of the film may have blinded the reviewers to the value of the film, but it was definitely a hit with audiences.

Ray Harryhausen’s last feature-length film would prove to be among his most remembered. Clash of the Titans would forever shape the landscape of imagination and fantasy film making. Taken from the elements and stories of Greek legend, Harryhausen would design a Medusa which would stand as the standard look for the legendary Titan even today. He would also design and animate Pegasus the flying horse, Bubo the mechanical owl, the Kraken, a giant vulture, Calibos, Dioskilos, the two-headed dog, and three giant scorpions.

On this film Harryhausen was assisted by the talents of Janet Stevens in the sculpting of the creatures and with Steve Archer and Jim Danforth on animation. Clash of the Titans was released in 1981 and was a box office hit. By the age of 61, Ray had achieved what some have called a “Masters Life Work.” He would spend the next few years developing movies that would, unfortunately,  never see the light of day. When he retired from feature film production it was a well deserved rest. Ray had worked in stop motion animation since he was a teenager and as now looking at spending more time with his family and friends.

Ray Harryhausen Academy Award Oscar

Ray Harryhausen with his Oscar

In 1992, thanks to a campaign by educator and longtime Harryhausen admirer Arnold Kunert along with Science Fiction Legend and Friend Ray Bradbury, Ray Harryhausen was finally given an Oscar statuette for his lifetime achievements in film. Many of the letters calling for the recognition of this achievement were written by visual effects artists like Dennis Muren, Jim Danforth, David Allen, Phil Tippett, and Ken Ralston.  An almost equal number of letters were written by others in the film industry such as film composer Miklos Rozsa, actor Burgess Meredith, producer Charles Schneer, directors John Landis, Joe Dante, and Nathan Juran, screenwriters, and others. At the Ceremony, longtime Harryhausen supporter Ray Bradbury spoke fondly of his dear friend before presenter Tom Hanks. Hanks had been a Harryhausen fan for years and presented him with the Oscar. Earlier in the evening, following a montage of Harryhausen film clips, Hanks had ad-libbed to the audience, “Some say ‘Citizen Kane’ or ‘Casablanca,’ I say ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ is the greatest film ever made.”  At a photo shoot later that evening, Hanks admitted to Harryhausen that he was serious about his comments regarding “Jason and the Argonauts.”

Ray Harryhausen Seamus Walsh Mark Caballero

Harryhausen working with Seamus Walsh and Mark Caballero on Tortoise and the Hare.

In 2001-2002 Ray Harryhausen teamed up with animators Seamus Walsh and Mark Caballero to finish his short fairy tale Tortoise and the Hare which would be finally titled The Story of the Tortoise and Hare.  Though it would mark 50 years in production, the film itself would show that Harryhausen has never missed a step when creating magic.

For years, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce turned down requests from his fans to give Ray Harryhausen a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Although virtually all of the visual effects Oscar nominees and Oscar winners since 1977 have pointed to Harryhausen as their inspiration, the Chamber of Commerce did not consider Harryhausen worthy of their approval. Finally, in late 2002, having raised the required $15,000 for the star from nearly 200 Harryhausen admirers, including George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Tom Hanks, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce agreed to give Harryhausen his star, across the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the very place where a 13-year-old Ray Harryhausen had first seen King Kong. In his acceptance speech on sunny June 10, 2003, Harryhausen looked over his left shoulder and, pointing to the Chinese Theater, said, “Everything for me started at that theater 70 years ago.”

On June 26, 2010 Ray received a special British Academy of Film & Television award for “his unique contribution to cinema.”  Peter Jackson presented the award at the BAFTA Southbank (NFT) special evening to celebrate Ray’s 90th birthday, which Tony Dalton, a friend, co-author and curator of the collection, produced. Others in attendance included John Landis (the host), Dennis Muren, Phil Tippet, Jim Aupperle, Chris Endicott, Nick Park, Ken Ralston, Peter Lord, Sir Christopher Frayling, Rick Baker, Gary Raymond, John Cairney, Caroline Munro and Colin Arthur. Also presented to Ray was a special book compiled by Tony Dalton called “Ray Harryhausen – A Life in Pictures” which has been published by the Foundation to help with the preservation and restoration of models and artwork in the collection.

On June 29, 2010, Ray Harryhausen celebrated his 90th birthday at the London Film Museum to launch a year long exhibition of his work with modern day film legends who wanted to give praise to their idol and hero.

To preserve his work for future generations Harryhausen signed an agreement with the National Medium Museum in England. The Museum will be home to 50,000 pieces of his personal work along with displays of his drawings, armatures, molds, and castings that have survived after so many years.

Ray Harryhausen Beast PuppetRay would have liked to have completed many more scripts and proposals by now, but with so many achievements in one lifetime and to have made an eternal mark on the industry of special effects, his greatest gift to his fans will be his endless imagination and vision. We as individuals and animators sometimes lose track of what our goals may be. With a hero such as Ray Harryhausen shining as a beacon of light in the darkness, we can always look to him to get a bearing on where we all want to be.

If you’d like to help in the preservation of Ray’s collection of quickly crumbling latex puppets along with other works from his past that need to be maintained, you can make a donation to the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation to help. Please go to the RayHarryhausen.com for further details, updates, news, and everything Harryhausen.

This Article of Ray Harryhausen was originally featured in a 2010 Issue of Stop Motion Magazine