Fame by Frame: SFX celebrates filming legend Ray Harryhausen
By Nick Setchfield
This feature was originally published in the July 2020 issue of SFX Magazine.
“I once had the luxury of choosing eyeballs,” says Vanessa Harryhausen, daughter of special effects genius Ray Harryhausen. “I know that sounds really ghastly, doesn’t it? But he had this little plastic cabinet, with all these wonderful drawers, full of bits and bobs, pieces of armature and dolls’ eyes. One particular time he said, ‘Do you want to see which eyes would go well with which creature?’
“He was always very good with me, if I was at home. I’d sit down on the couch and watch him sketch away or tinker at the table, making some wonderful creation.”
Across his career, Ray Harryhausen scattered indelible screen images like so many Hydra teeth: undead warriors, all swords and bones; lurching bronze giants; angel-winged horses and snarling, tail-lashing prehistoric beasts. Conjured into uncanny life through the painstaking process of stop-motion animation, Harryhausen’s creations seemed to haunt the borderland between celluloid and dream. They were the stuff of legend, reborn for half-term cinema trips or bank holiday TV. Mythology fused with technology in a London workshop – resulting in a private, hand-made magic he called Dynamation.
As Vanessa Harryhausen remembers, the family home in Kensington – where her father quietly and diligently produced his effects, far from the glare of Hollywood – was a bestiary of fantastic creatures (tellingly, he never called them monsters). “They were all over upstairs,” she tells SFX. “All around the landing. When we went up into his office everything was on the walls and in the cabinets that he’d made. It was really wonderful to see it all and have a hands-on experience.”
Once, she recalls, the creatures even invaded the kitchen. “His own kiln had conked out. Mum and I came back from a shopping trip to find he’d used our gas oven instead. He thought it would be a good idea to use mum’s Moulinex, too, to mix the rubber. She wasn’t very happy with that at all. Our food slightly tasted of latex for a few weeks…”
Did she assume everyone’s parents magicked fabulous beasts into existence as part of their day job? “I just thought it was the norm,” she laughs. “I know that sounds really bizarre. I guess when I went to boarding school and brought friends back home I realised it wasn’t quite normal to have all these wonderful creatures around. We used to sit and watch his films, when they came on TV. He used to circle the TV listings, whenever they came up. It was pretty amazing when you thought about it. Just the bare bones of the armatures upstairs, then you’d see the next stage with the rubber going on, and it formed into either a dinosaur or some other wonderful mythical creature, like a griffin. And then you’d see it in the film, and it looks like it’s so big, and you go, ‘Oh my lord, that looks so real!’ It takes your breath away. It does make you want to believe in fantasy and magic.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1920, Ray Harryhausen had clay on his fingers from a young age. In junior high he modelled dioramas of old Californian missions and tar pits, adding the occasional saber-toothed tiger or elephant as his imagination leaked through. When he was 13 he saw King Kong in its opening week at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. He was blown away by what he saw on screen, the Promethean fire of special effects that sparked life in the starlet-snatching ape and the prehistoric inhabitants of Skull Island. Sat there in the dark, as projector light cut through the tobacco haze and Kong batted at biplanes atop the Empire State, Harryhausen knew he had a calling. “Nothing like it had been put on the screen,” he remembered years later. “It haunted me for years. It just left an enormous impression.”
“It just stimulated his imagination,” Vanessa Harryhausen tells SFX. “He wanted everyone to have that wonderful awe and excitement that he had. So he tried to portray it through all his wonderful creatures.”
The aspiring filmmaker began experimenting in his garage, shooting black and white test footage of dinosaurs. Obsessively curious as to the behind-the-scenes secrets of Skull Island – “Information was almost impossible to find,” he later admitted – he sought out Kong’s creator, effects wizard Willis O’Brien.
“One of the recent discoveries in our archive was Ray’s diary from 1939,” says Connor Heaney, collections manager of The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, dedicated to preserving the Dynamation master’s models, illustrations and related ephemera. “He’s a 19-year-old and these are his first steps into making films. And the sense that you get from this diary is just his sheer persistence. Every day he’s working on something that could help him further his stop-motion techniques and his career as an animator.
“This is around the time that he first met Willis O’Brien. Famously, Harryhausen showed him some stop-motion models and O’Brien said, ‘Well, you need to go back to the drawing board, those stegosaurus legs look like sausages – you need to go and study anatomy!’ We have a record of this in Ray’s diary, because he was very grateful for that constructive criticism. He took it to heart and joined night classes for art school.”
Harryhausen also showed his dinosaur tests to producer and animation specialist George Pal, who saw his nascent talent and gave him his first professional work on the Puppetoons series of shorts. After a wartime stint making military training films for the Army Signal Corps, Harryhausen refined his craft on a set of fairytale adaptations, The Mother Goose Stories, making use of a stash of Kodak film he had chanced upon at war’s end. His parents remained supportive, his mother making clothes for the puppets while his father machined the armatures.
Willis O’Brien took on Harryhausen as his assistant on 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, an attempt to rekindle a little Kong magic with another sympathetic simian lead. “It was a thrill to work with him,” Harryhausen recalled later. “I had admired his work so much, and for so long.”
1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms – inspired by old friend and fellow Los Angeles Science Fiction Leaguer Ray Bradbury’s tale “The Fog Horn” — saw Harryhausen dream up his own bespoke prehistoric beast, sprung upon the modern world “from the caverns of the deepest Atlantic.” The first true creature rampage movie, it inspired Japan’s Toho Studios to make 1954’s Godzilla.
Harryhausen spent the ’50s unleashing a great deal of panic on the streets, recasting civilisation’s new-found fear of the atomic bomb as a succession of monstrous, city-slaying intruders. 1955’s It Came From Beneath The Sea saw San Francisco menaced by a giant octopus. “GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE UPROOTED” cried the trailer, for this was the cinema of spectacle, even if a thrifty budget insisted that the supersized cephalopod only packed six tentacles instead of the standard-issue eight. The extraterrestrial craft that terrorise Washington in 1956’s Earth Vs The Flying Saucers radiate sly, malign intelligence for all their featureless exteriors, while the Ymir – the alien threat in 1957’s 20 Million Miles To Earth – has an unforgettable physicality, a human- reptile chimera that grows to nightmarish dimensions as it stalks through Rome, whipping its serpentine tail.
Stop Motion Magician
In 1958, The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad opened a whole new frontier for Harryhausen, who was keen to move on from the spectacle of urban destruction. The Arabian adventure genre provided not only a heightened romantic backdrop – all sand and silks and sorcery, perfect for his dreamlike aesthetic – but also a ready-made menagerie of mythical beasts – even if the Cyclops was borrowed from Greek legend, more fully plundered in 1963’s Jason And The Argonauts. Sinbad became a reliable protagonist for Harryhausen and production partner Charles H Schneer, returning like some turbaned Indiana Jones in 1973’s The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad and 1977’s Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger.
Harryhausen decamped to Britain in 1959, where the yellow sodium backing process, crucial to his craft, was considerably more affordable. In his home workshop he would spend long hours breathing life into his creations, combining incremental, frame-by-frame movement with split screens and rear projection, always chasing that flicker of life that had first wowed him in King Kong. It was a brand of magic that must have required infinite patience, you imagine.
“I think he always wanted things to be better,” says Vanessa Harryhausen. “He was very studious in what he did and seemed to have a lot of patience. I’m sure he did have his days when he was exasperated but he seemed to be quite together when he was doing it. He’d be pretty into it, and quite patient.”
“When he went into a darkroom to do the animation, he’d often miss mealtimes because there were no windows,” says John Walsh, a trustee of The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation and author of Harryhausen: The Lost Movies. “We talk about self-isolation now... Ray was a past master at making sure that he immersed himself.”
For all that he had sought out the secrets of Willis O’Brien’s technique, Harryhausen guarded the finer details of his own craft. “I have been criticised for not blabbing my mouth more,” he once said. “But I’ve always felt that my work is like a magician’s illusion. I knock my brains out trying to create a fantasy, but if I tell everyone how it was done, it would be like a magician giving away his tricks. You would no longer be interested in the magician.” Creative espionage was another very real fear; 1962’s rival production Jack The Giant Killer so aped Harryhausen’s style that Columbia Pictures, who had released 7th Voyage, threatened legal action against its makers.
Harryhausen and Schneer spent the ’60s pinballing between genres: the Eastmancolor whimsy of 1960’s The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver; Jules Verne high adventure in 1961’s Mysterious Island; brass-plated science fiction in 1964’s HG Wells adaptation First Men In The Moon; dinosaurs in 1966’s One Million Years BC and again in 1969’s The Valley Of Gwangi, incongruously but thrillingly pitched against cowboys.
After the two Sinbad adventures of the ’70s, Harryhausen’s last hurrah became 1981’s Clash Of The Titans, which once again raided Greek (and Norse) mythology. “The really bittersweet thing about Clash Of The Titans is that it was his most successful film by every measure,” says John Walsh. “In terms of footfall, in terms of money made, in terms of what he and Charles Schneer got out of it – and yet it was the film that was the death knell to their careers. Neither man would work again.” Harryhausen and Schneer were bruised by the reviews – Walsh believes Clash’s massive budget made it a target for the critics – and suffered a personal fall-out when Schneer secretly set up a new effects shop without Harryhausen’s knowledge. A proposed follow-up, Force Of The Trojans, floundered as MGM hit financial trouble.
However frustrated he may have been with the industry – “You can’t have an explosion every five minutes in Greek mythology, so I felt it was time to retire” – Ray Harryhausen did, at least, come to appreciate that he was a beloved, revered figure. Not just a phenomenally skilled craftsman but one of cinema’s consummate dreamers, lauded by everyone from Spielberg to Jackson to Cameron.
“He was always surprised that people remembered him,” says Walsh, “and pleased when other filmmakers would come to visit him. When Tim Burton was shooting Charlie And The Chocolate Factory he came and visited him in Ilchester Place, where he lived, and Ray said to Vanessa, ‘Oh, he brought this scruffy kid with him that sat on the floor...’. Vanessa said ‘That wasn’t a scruffy kid! That was Johnny Depp!’ Ray had this slightly peripheral vision. He recognised other filmmakers and would focus on them like a laser. If they brought an actor, Ray was never starstruck.”
The centenary of his birth proves that the sorcerer of Kensington is in no danger of being forgotten. Vanessa Harryhausen has marked he anniversary by writing a book about her father, drawing on the vast archive of material curated by the Foundation: “It’s just reminiscing over things, fun times.” A major exhibition is planned post-lockdown.
“His main thing was you mustn’t give up on your imagination, especially for the youngsters,” says Vanessa Harryhausen. “We’ve got some wonderful old puppets that he made when he was a teenager, and obviously back then his imagination was going absolutely riot. They’re very basic but I always say to the youngsters, ‘This is the start of your imagination. You can’t just suddenly produce something and it’s going to be like a Michelangelo, you have to work at it.’ I wanted them to see the progress that Daddy had to go through, and the struggle, to be such an incredible person that he turned out to be.”
Inside the Harryhausen archive
“Ray kept everything,” says Connor Heaney, collections manager of The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. “There are some 50,000 items in the collection, from models to artworks to moulds, tools, Ray’s library, his equipment, 35mm reels... everything. He established the Foundation so that this amazing collection could be kept together as a coherent whole, so that people could still learn from it after his passing. We’re very proactively restoring and where necessary repairing the models, as per Ray’s wishes.”
How does it feel to hold these iconic treasures of cinema? “It’s an otherworldly experience,” Heaney tells SFX. “On a practical level you have to be professional and treat them as museum objects. But there have been so many spine-tingling moments where you realise, ‘I’m holding the skeleton from The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad!’ The skeleton is now over 60 years old and it looks as though it could have just walked away from its fight with Kerwin Mathews. You never lose that feeling of excitement when you’re handling these models. “He thought of them as living creatures, I suppose. He didn’t want to see them locked away in an archive somewhere. He wanted people to be able to see them in person, and to be able to interact with them and learn from them in some way.”