Ray Harryhausen | The grandfather of stop-frame animation

Ahead of our blockbuster exhibition Ray Harryhausen | Titan of Cinema  in the summer of 2020, we look at the profound influence that Harryhausen had on generations of visionary film-makers.

If you were to make a film of the origin story of Ray Harryhausen, it would undoubtedly open with a shot of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. The year is 1933 and a thirteen-year-old Ray Harryhausen is being taken by his mother and aunt to see the latest blockbuster movie.

Grauman’s Theatre was one of the most prestigious movie theatres in Hollywood and going to see a film there was an event. The foyer that night was dressed like a jungle with ferns and tropical plants, there were even live flamingos strolling around. And then there was the giant, life-size, moving bust of the film’s star: Kong. After a live show with dancers and acrobats, the lights were dimmed, the projector burst into light and life, and young Ray Harryhausen’s life was changed forever.

King Kong Trailer (1933)

Directed by Merian C. Cooper, RKO Radio Pictures

Harryhausen had seen films before, but nothing affected him like that first screening of King Kong (1933). From that moment on, he knew that he wanted to make films. King Kong was the complete package, it had the thrills and excitement of other films of the era, but it had one thing in particular that set it apart. It had Kong, not a man in a suit but something other. Kong moved differently, had a life of his own and a personality, and the man who imbued Kong with that personality was Willis O’Brien.

O’Brien was a specialist in stop-motion animation who had previously brought the prehistoric creatures of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World (1925) to life on the screen. He would become Harryhausen’s mentor, and provided the fledgling animator with his entry into feature films, hiring him to work on another ape movie, Mighty Joe Young (1949).

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) Trailer

Directed by Nathan Juran, Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.

It is fitting that Harryhausen’s career should begin with the transformative cinematic experience of seeing King Kong. For the next five decades, Harryhausen would go on to make films that would have the same effect on generations of film-makers. He effectively handed on the baton that O'Brien had handed to him.

It is impossible to imagine the science-fiction and fantasy cinema of the last 50 years without visionary directors such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, Tim Burton or Guillermo del Toro. All of these film-makers have cited Harryhausen as a formative influence or even as the reason they became film-makers in the first place

Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro on the influence of Ray Harryhausen

Interview footage from the 2011 documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan. Directed by Gilles Penso (Frenetic Arts)

Peter Jackson, whose debt to Harryhausen goes back to his earliest forays into film-making, shared his idol’s love of King Kong. As a solitary child in New Zealand, Jackson dreamed of becoming Ray Harryhausen’s apprentice, just as Harryhausen had been the apprentice of Willis O’Brien. And in a way, Jackson served that apprenticeship, albeit at a distance over 6500 miles. While his school-mates were indulging in teenage pursuits, Jackson was at home making his own stop-motion films. It was time well spent and would eventually lead to Jackson making his own version of King Kong (2005) and adapting Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings in three critically acclaimed films (2001–2003).

Jackson is by no means alone in owing Harryhausen a debt. Harryhausen’s films are viewed with such affection that homages and references to his films can be found in countless films. When Tim Burton made his Martian invasion movie Mars Attacks (1996), Harryhausen was his inspiration. Burton’s Martians gleefully destroy the Washington Monument in a direct reference to Harryhausen’s early black and white movie Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956).

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), directed by Fred F. Sears
Mars Attacks (1996), directed by Tim Burton

Other references to Harryhausen abound. In Pixar’s Monsters Inc (2001), the top restaurant in town is named Harryhausen’s. The Army of Darkness that gives Sam Raimi’s third Evil Dead movie its title is a loving homage to the iconic fighting skeletons in Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

Indeed, Harryhausen’s skeletons alone would be enough to ensure his place as a cinematic legend. An animated skeleton first made its appearance in Harryhausen’s first colour film The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). This was a pivotal movie for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, both of whom saw it at an early age and would go on to define fantasy film-making for the next generation with films such as the Star Wars series, Jaws, E.T. and of course Jurassic Park.

Steven Spielberg and James Cameron on the influence of Ray Harryhausen

Interview footage from the 2011 documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan. Directed by Gilles Penso (Frenetic Arts)

Harryhausen was not just a film-maker and an animator, he also designed and built his own models, seeing the process through from beginning to end, from sketch to screen in a way that is almost inconceivable today. Because of this, his legend is perhaps strongest among the special effects artists and technicians of motion pictures as well as in the world of animation.

Ray Harryhausen animating the dragon (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 1958), © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation
Ray Harryhausen studying decapitated Medusa (Clash of the Titans, 1981), © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

To that earlier list of admiring film-makers we could add the many artists and technicians at the great animation studios of Pixar and Aardman Animation, or the great special effects studios of ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) or Weta Digital. To those in the know, the names Dennis Murren, Phil Tippett and Rick Baker are as iconic as Lucas or Spielberg, but few special effects artists have achieved the fame and recognition of Ray Harryhausen.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) Trailer

Directed by Don Chaffey, Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.

Harryhausen’s influence on cinema is vast, his films are iconic and have a special place in the hearts of so many who were thrilled, terrified and enchanted by them as children. Not everyone who saw them at an impressionable age went on to become visionary film-makers, but enough of them did to ensure that even if you have never seen a Ray Harryhausen film, you will have felt their influence. It could be a loving homage, a jokey reference or the way a fantastical creature walks or the swish of a tail, but it is there.

In the summer of 2020, we will tell Ray Harryhausen’s story at Modern Two. You’ll see the models, the process, the films, the influence and so much more. And who knows, maybe a few of the visionary film-makers of the future will walk away inspired by what they have seen.

In partnership with

The Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation

For more information on the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, visit www.rayharryhausen.com

25 June 2019