Friday, 15 February 2013

A Tribute to Ray Harryhausen

At the back of his parents’ milk bar in Melbourne Australia, a young boy in the early 1960s watched TV with bulging eyes and open mouth. He was watching the film, Jason and the Argonauts at the point where the giant bronze statue, Talos was just coming to life to punish Jason and his crewmates for violating the treasure storehouse at the foot of Talos’ statue. It was the genius of the American master of visual effects, Ray Harryhausen and his brand of stop-motion model animation known as "Dynamation" that produced such an effect as described above in audiences of films that featured his ground-breaking special effects. By the way, that young boy was me. 

Raymond Frederick "Ray" Harryhausen was born on June 29, 1920 and it seemed as if a path was being laid out for him that would lead him to the creation of his own unique imaginative world via the medium of film. A part of this world was being shared with that young boy in Melbourne years afterward, who would in turn remember as an adult that magic moment on TV nearly 50 years later. 

This path Ray was to take was marked with the following signposts; 

  • His lifelong passion for dinosaurs and anything to do with fantasy. 
  • His parents’ encouragement of him to pursue whatever he wanted to. 
  • Opportunity offered to him at Grammar school to learn how to make model miniature set pieces of Californian Missions. This in turn led him to begin making three dimensional figures and sets. From that he would eventually make his own versions of prehistoric creatures. 
  • Inspiration derived from the LA County Museum where Ray gazed in wonder at the murals of prehistoric creatures created by Charles R. Knight. Ray also saw the film, The Lost World in 1925, at five years of age. His eyes feasted on a world populated with what seemed to be living dinosaurs such as an allosaurus fighting with and pushing a brontosaurus off the edge of a plateau. And then of course there was King Kong in 1933. 
  • His natural thirst for knowledge in which Ray wanted to know about the creatures he saw on the screen and how they seemed to have been brought to life. What was this thing called “stop-motion animation?” 
  • Trial and error: Ray Experimented in the production of animated shorts. 
  • Mentors such as Willis O'Brien who was the animator of King Kong. O'Brien assessed Ray's models and inspired him to aim for a more fluid animation and to construct creatures that were more anatomically correct.
  • Education being a life-long process to build upon and increase one’s skills. Ray took classes in graphic arts and sculpture and enrolled in art and anatomy night classes at the Los Angeles City College (LACC). He also attended night classes at the University of Southern California where he studied art direction, editing and photography. 

From such influences we can better understand how Ray Harryhausen was able to reach a point where he was able to almost magically inject life into his characters and give them character and personality. 

Ray Harryhausen’s Career 

  • Harryhausen’s first commercial job was on George Pal's Puppetoons shorts. 
  • During World War Two, Ray designed and photographed a short film called How to Bridge a Gorge in 1941 to show how stop-motion animation could be used in propaganda films. He also worked on US propaganda films such as the Why We Fight series for the US War Office 
  • In 1947 Harryhausen worked as an assistant animator on his first major film, Mighty Joe Young in 1949 which happily for him used the same people who had made King Kong. In this film, Ray animated most of the scenes.
  • Ray Harryhausen was later to form a partnership with producer Charles H. Schneer. Their first project was It Came from Beneath the Sea in 1955, followed by Earth vs. the Flying Saucers in 1956. 

The films listed below that Ray Harryhausen worked on consist only of those that will be featured in this blog. 


This was the first film that used the technique later known as Dynamation. This involved using a split screen technique to insert models into the live-action. It was a method of seamlessly integrating the live-action with the models. The film was Harryhausen's first solo feature film effort, and a major international box-office hit for Warner Brothers Pictures. 

It is worth noting that Ray was able to develop and execute most of the miniature set work himself, thereby saving money and more importantly maintaining his full technical and creative control in order to achieve the desired special effects in his films. 


In the film the model of the octopus had only six tentacles due to budget constraints. To overcome this marine physical handicap, the model was always partially in the water at any one time. Don’t believe me? Check it out! 


The design of the saucers had an animated section added into the top and underside. Flutes were also incorporated into the design so that audiences could see that the saucer was moving. Ray simply used old recording wire on which to suspend the saucers to give the illusion of flying. The Capitol and the Supreme Court buildings which were miniature sets cost a mere (by today’s blockbuster standards) $1500 each. The Washington Monument came in at a bargain price of $500. Ray’s dad made the saucers from aluminium which was then anodised to give them a matt finish so they wouldn’t reflect light. 

Harryhausen always involved himself in the pre-production film's story concept & script development as well as art-direction, design, storyboarding and other aspects of his films.

In this film, an American spaceship returns from Venus and crashes into the ocean near Italy, releasing an alien egg which washes up on shore. This egg hatches a creature that rapidly grows to enormous size and terrifies the entire populace of Rome. I dare you to try and not feel empathy for Harryhausen’s Venusian “Ymir” model. This would be due largely to Ray’s ability to make his model convey emotional states through their expressions, stance and movements, combined with other features used in the film to illicit emotional response. Ray insisted that the film should be shot in black and white using Kodak 35mm film stock that eliminated the problem of grain when the rear projection image is re-photographed. 20 Million Miles to Earth was the last picture that Ray made in black and white. It would have been Ray's tribute to Willis O'Brien and King Kong, mentioned above.  


This was Ray’s first feature in colour and it was he who came up with the idea for the title, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad due to the mystical significance of the number 7. It was for this film that the name “Dynamation.” was coined for Ray’s dimensional animation. 

1963: Jason and the Argonauts 

So, how did Ray Harryhausen achieve that effect of open-mouthed wonder in a young boy of about 7 or 8 years of age sitting in front of a black and white TV set? With the statue, Talos coming to life, Ray based the movement of Talos’ head turning to the camera on a Japanese film in which a woman’s head turns to the camera. Talos’ movements are very laboured and slow in order to convey a sense of the height of the bronze statue. Quite a feat with a model which is only about sixteen inches high! 

And so, nearly 50 years later I still enjoy watching that and other films that feature the magic of the master, Ray Harryhausen. 

Thank you for the magic, Ray…..

Raymond Frederick "Ray" Harryhausen 

(June 29, 1920 – May 7, 2013)

©Chris Christopoulos 2013