Few people today are familiar with such movies as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, One Million Years B.C., Jason and the Argonauts, or Valley of the Gwangi. These films were made in the 1950s and 1960s and barely broke into the mainstream even then. But people generally are familiar with Jurassic Park, Avatar, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings. What they may not realize is that the creators of these modern blockbusters all were inspired by the same man, the industrious innovator who created those earlier films, among many others, and in doing so pioneered a whole new way of making movies. That man was visual effects artist-turned-movie producer Ray Harryhausen.
Born in 1920, the only son of Martha and Frederick Harryhausen, Ray Harryhausen enjoyed visiting museums as a child. He developed a keen interest in dinosaurs, which may have led to nothing had it not been for two films that impacted him enormously during his childhood: The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933).1 The former brought the dinosaurs he loved to life in a way never before achieved, and the latter stunned him by taking viewers away from the gloom of Depression-era America to a wondrous world. “I went to see it again and again,” he said. “I was a King Kong addict! I loved the way the film took you from the mundane world into the surreal.”2
Harryhausen became fascinated with the way the creators of these movies brought such impossible scenes to life using clay models animated frame by frame, a process known as stop-motion. In his own words, “[King Kong] haunted me so—I felt that was what I wanted to do. It took time over the years, but I found out how it was made with stop-motion animation, and I began experimenting in the garage.”3
He made clay models of dinosaurs and learned to animate them. The process was painstaking, as he had to move the models, by hand, between each frame, in the right direction, and by just the right amount to produce the illusion of fluid motion when the film was played back. His family supported his new passion, and his father helped him by making armatures, the internal metal framework with working joints around which the models were built. Those early experiments in his garage grew into his first homemade short film in 1938. By 1941, at the age of twenty-one, he had landed a job working on George Pal’s Puppertoons with his hero, The Lost World and King Kong animator Willis O’Brien. After a stint working in an army film unit during World War II, he was hired by O’Brien in 1946 for the job that would launch him into a high-profile career: animating another giant gorilla movie, Mighty Joe Young.
As much as King Kong had captivated the young Harryhausen, he’d been aware of imperfections in the animation and thought that Kong’s movements didn’t quite look like those of a real animal. For Mighty Joe Young, Harryhausen took the initiative to do in-person research, visiting zoos and studying how gorillas really move. He then built his miniatures using specially designed armatures at the joints, so he could move each limb authentically. This dedication to quality in his work would become a defining feature of Harryhausen’s animation, and it won Mighty Joe Young an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects in 1950.
In the following years, Harryhausen worked on a number of disaster movies, including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1952), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1954), and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). These films created the blueprint for the monster rampage genre as we know it today. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (based on a story by his close friend, Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury) was a direct influence on the creators of Godzilla.4 He created some of his most iconic creatures and sequences for these films. But he grew weary of the repetitiveness of making movies about monsters or aliens attacking humanity and destroying various cities and landmarks. In 2009, he remarked, “I destroyed New York with the beast, I destroyed San Francisco with the octopus, I destroyed Rome with the Ymir, and I destroyed Washington with the flying saucers, and that got rather tedious.”5
Looking for a more interesting story in which to employ his stop-motion animation, Harryhausen decided to make a film based on the legend of Sinbad. He had a difficult time convincing any studio to make the film, but eventually Columbia Pictures agreed to make what became The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Harryhausen joined Charles H. Schneer (producer of It Came from Beneath the Sea) to coproduce 7th Voyage, his first formal production role. This marked his growing involvement in other aspects of filmmaking besides visual effects, and he continued to immerse himself in multiple aspects of filmmaking in his later work.6 It also marked the beginning of Harryhausen’s collaborations with composer Bernard Herrmann, whose triumphant orchestral scores lend a sense of grandeur and adventure to Harryhausen’s visuals.
Keen to distinguish his art from “animation,” which at the time carried a strong association with Disney cartoons and children’s entertainment, Harryhausen coined the term “dynamation,” a portmanteau of “dynamic animation,” to refer to his process. Columbia used the word in its marketing for 7th Voyage, touting Harryhausen’s visual effects as a core selling point of the film. It took him eleven months of painstaking effort, working alone, to produce the effects sequences in 7th Voyage.7
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was the start of Harryhausen’s foray into movies based on historic legends, but his finest and most enduring work came after he turned his eye to the legends of ancient Greece.
Released in 1963, Jason and the Argonauts brought 3rd-century B.C. Greek author Apollonius of Rhodes’s story, The Argonautica, to life in a way never seen before. The film tells the heroic story of Jason’s harrowing voyage to obtain a golden fleece that would empower him to get revenge on a tyrant who murdered his father. This kind of heroic story arc became a staple of Harryhausen’s later films.
In one scene, Hercules and Hylas steal a spear from a treasure trove hidden in the base of a two-hundred-foot-tall bronze statue of Talos. As they leave, the titanic figure creaks to life, turning its head toward them with a metallic groan that’s enough to stand your hairs on end. The statue then climbs down and slowly chases them. The gigantic Talos lumbers onto a beach, then stands across the entrance to the bay as Jason’s crew tries to sail out to sea between the titan’s legs. Harryhausen’s dynamation in Argonauts stands up stunningly well after fifty-eight years.
Toward the end of the film, Jason battles a seven-headed hydra. For this scene, Harryhausen had to animate each head and neck individually. This required moving all seven heads between each frame to preserve the illusion of lifelike motion, and Harryhausen later joked that any jumps in the animation were the result of him losing track of which head was supposed to be moving in which direction at a given moment.
It was not the hydra sequence that brought Harryhausen the most acclaim, however, but the climactic battle where the remaining Argonauts get into a sword fight with an army of skeletons brought to life. To achieve this breathtaking sequence, Harryhausen played the live-action footage, in which the actors fight against thin air, frame by frame on a screen, while animating the skeletons in front of it. Harryhausen had to animate half a dozen skeletons, swords and all, at once, coordinating their movements with what the actors had done on location. But still he found time for artistic indulgence, even building a special rig so one skeleton could jump over a defeated argonaut while running to fight another.
Working on the skeleton fight scene, Harryhausen was able to animate thirteen to fifteen frames a day. At this rate, it took him four months, working singlehanded, to create the animation for a sequence, the live action portion of which was shot in only two weeks. He innovated to make possible the dozens of effects sequences in the film, using mirrors, glass screens, model backdrops, and multiple layers of film superimposed on top of each other to achieve effects that would leave the viewer asking, “How did he do that?”
Jason and the Argonauts is far more than just a technical marvel. It was the point that spectacular Greek legends went from being words on a page to lifelike immersive experiences viewers could enjoy on the big screen. In bringing the story to life, Harryhausen made it appealing to a whole new generation, refreshing the ancient tale with what were, at the time, cutting-edge visual effects. The various creatures Jason encounters along the way serve both as obstacles for him to overcome and as introductions to Greek myths for the viewer. “People called our films special effects films,” he later said, “but they were not. We used every effect at the time in order to put the fantasy subject on the screen.”
Harryhausen was credited as associate producer for Jason and the Argonauts, reflecting his role as a key creative force behind the movie’s story, design, and execution.
Later in the 1960s, Harryhausen decided to relocate from the United States to England, and he turned his eye to other genres. First Men “In” The Moon (1964) paid homage to the pioneering space exploration movie Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902). One Million Years B.C. (1966) took him back to his childhood passion for dinosaurs, this time remaking the 1940 film of the same name. The older film had achieved its “dinosaur” effects by grafting spikes and fins onto real lizards and letting them walk across a model landscape, whereas Harryhausen prided himself on inserting believable, if not entirely accurate, dinosaurs into his film via dynamation. Finally, Valley of the Gwangi (1969) inserted dinosaurs into the then-popular Western genre.
Although various directors and actors worked on these films, Harryhausen’s driving role in making them caused them to be identified with him, rather than their directors or stars. As Guardian journalist Phelim O’Neill noted,
Ownership of films is usually the preserve of directors and actors. You will hear of the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie, or the new Tom Cruise vehicle. But such films as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981) are Ray Harryhausen films, regardless of who directed and acted in them.
The 1970s brought a changing movie landscape. The industry was in steep decline, with cinemas closing and audiences shrinking. Nevertheless, Harryhausen turned out two more Sinbad movies, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Although these were every bit as technically impressive as their predecessors, the stop-motion effects looked dated compared to contemporary films. Visual effects took an abrupt turn in the late 1970s with the release of a string of blockbusters that revolutionized moviemaking and revived the ailing industry. Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Alien (1979) blew audiences away with fantastic visuals that heralded a new era of cinema. Even so, Harryhausen managed one more masterpiece before retiring: Clash of the Titans (1981) was a welcome return to the world of Greek legend, albeit with a Kraken borrowed from Norse mythology. The nail-biting sequence where Perseus battles with the snake-haired Medusa, who blinks, hisses, and fires arrows while every one of the dozens of snakes on her head twists and twirls, was a perfect last hurrah for Harryhausen’s intricately crafted art.
It wasn’t the change in visual effects that led Harryhausen to retire, but rather a change in the storytelling of newer films that clashed with his idea of heroism:
The thing that finally persuaded me to quit was that I saw that the nature of the hero was changing. When I was growing up we had heroes such as Cary Grant, Ronald Colman and David Niven, real gentlemen on the screen. Now, all you have is Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and all those people who solve problems with their fists. It’s a different world and I sometimes feel I’m not part of it. Say what you like about Hollywood in my time, but they were in the business of happy endings, of escapism. Now, you have to sit through two hours of people dying, you know. Today, everything’s so graphic it’s rather unnerving. . . .
The cinema was made for fantasy, rather than normal types of stories, mundane stories. It gives you a feeling of wonder, for one thing, it gives you stimulation of the imagination, and I think adults like fantasy as well as children. Most people feel it’s rather childish to have an imagination. I don’t agree with that. I think you should go through life and imagine the very best.8
Ray Harryhausen was a visionary artist who worked tirelessly to bring his imaginations to life. Not only did he achieve incredible feats of stop-motion animation through resolute focus on his work and meticulous attention to detail; he also inspired many of those who came after him. Jurassic Park director Steven Spielberg, along with the film’s lead animators Stan Winston and Dennis Murren, named Harryhausen a prime influence on their work. Nick Park, creator of Wallace & Gromit, a series of films that continues Harryhausen’s legacy of innovating in stop-motion clay model animation, called him “the grandfather of animation.” Chief among his devotees, however, is Lord of the Rings and King Kong (2004) director Peter Jackson. Sci-fi director Vincenzo Natali noted, “Without The 7th Voyage of Sinbad you would never have Lord of the Rings.”9 Peter Jackson paid homage to Harryhausen’s work in the Lord of the Rings films:
In fact, sitting right in the middle of the first of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, is my “Harryhausen scene”—the fight with the cave troll in Balin’s tomb. I wanted that monster fight to contain all the gags and moments I enjoyed seeing in Ray’s films: people dodging the monster, throwing rocks and spears at it, the climactic moment when the hero jumps on its back, it’s all there in that scene. I was finally fulfilling a childhood dream. I never got to become Ray’s apprentice—not in the literal sense—but his passion for fantastical storytelling, for taking a wondrous journey into the reaches of the imagination, fuelled me as I made The Lord of the Rings.10
Jackson presented Ray Harryhausen with a special BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Award in 2010 for his achievements in visual effects.11 Harryhausen also received the Gordon E. Sawyer Academy Award in 1992.12 Of his influence on the history of cinema, his biographer Mike Hankin noted, “He has not only created some of the most memorable images ever to grace the screen, but in doing so almost single-handedly kept the fantasy film alive throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s when most of the motion picture industry had turned its back on the genre.”13
Harryhausen’s relentless passion for his art continued after his retirement, and later in life he and his wife founded the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation “to look after his extensive collection, to protect his name and to further the art of model stop-motion animation.”14 Harryhausen was a maverick, path-breaking movie maker. He gave new life to old legends, created legends of his own, and inspired the legends of the next generation. It is in large part thanks to him that we have movies such as Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Indiana Jones today. Next time you watch those, or any of the countless other modern classics he inspired, remember his contributions. And consider making your next movie night a chance to become familiar with Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
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Acknowledgment: Rowan J. Coleman’s excellent video tribute to Harryhausen inspired me to write this article.
1. Roy P. Webber, The Dinosaur Films of Ray Harryhausen (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004), 5.
2. Webber, Dinosaur Films of Ray Harryhausen, 19.
4. Patrick Galvan, “5 Films That Owe Ray Harryhausen a Krazen-Sized Debt on His 100th Birthday,” Syfy Wire, June 9, 2020, https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/ray-harryhausen-effects-influence-godzilla-star-wars-jurassic-park.
5. Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2011), Frenetic Arts, Gilles Penso.
6. Mike Hankin, Ray Harryhausen: Master of the Majicks, Volume 2: The American Films (Tomball, TX: Archive Editions LLC, 2008), 11. Hankin notes that Harryhausen was seen as a technician inside Hollywood but a filmmaker outside.
7. Kyle Rupprecht, “Ray Harryhausen: The Golden Voyage,” MovieMaker, May 15, 2013, https://www.moviemaker.com/the-golden-voyage-of-ray-harryhausen-2/.
9. Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan.
10. “Peter Jackson on Ray Harryhausen,” Tate, June 26, 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/tate-etc/peter-jackson-on-ray-harryhausen.
11. “A Tribute to Ray Harryhausen,” British Academy of Film and Television Arts, June 30, 2010, https://www.bafta.org/heritage/features/a-tribute-to-ray-harryhausen.
13. Hankin, Ray Harryhausen, 7.