Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema Book Extract

Through our exhibition Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema, we have been celebrating the life, legacy and centenary of Ray Harryhausen, the filmmaking legend who changed the face of modern cinema.

Titan of Cinema was an immersive exploration of the life, talent and impact of the man whose movie masterpieces like Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) inspired millions of childhoods and a whole generation of today’s greatest filmmakers. 

To accompany the exhibition, Ray’s daughter Vanessa Harryhausen has produced a landmark book which examines 100 creatures, mementoes and objects that mean the most to her, selected from Harryhausen’s incredible archive. The publication is packed with Vanessa’s personal stories that have never previously been heard or published before, from a life watching her father make his world-famous films. Some fascinating contributions also feature in the book, telling of working with Ray and his innovative techniques, from many of those who were inspired by him, including the film director John Landis, special effects legend Rick Baker and the actress Caroline Munro.

In this feature, we share two extracts from Vanessa’s publication. One from Vanessa herself, on the Gwangi model from The Valley of Gwangi (1969), which also includes a contribution from model conservator Alan Friswell, and another from filmmaker John Landis on what The 7th Voyage of Sinbad means to him…

Vanessa Harryhausen, Ray Harryhausen's daughter, with numerous models created by Ray Harryhausen. © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419). Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)

Vanessa Harryhausen on the Gwangi model from The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

"This was my favourite childhood toy, Gwangi from The Valley of Gwangi (1969). As a five-year-old, I actually felt sorry for him, because in the film he was taken out of his world to be used as entertainment for humans. As I’ve grown older, I realise that the roping sequence from this film is a wonderful technical achievement. I have since become a horse-rider myself, and so am impressed with the skill of the actors and stuntmen who performed on the backs of horses, lassoing a metal boom in place of the dinosaur which Dad would later animate.

I used to play with Gwangi and bring him everywhere with me. On a shopping trip to Harrods with Mum, I remember two elderly ladies asking to see my dolly as we waited in a queue at the fish counter. They leant forward and pulled back the covers on my buggy, only to be greeted by a snarling Gwangi! They recoiled, and then gave my poor Mum a telling-off, warning her that I should have a proper dolly and that I wouldn’t grow up to be a normal adult with such a horrific plaything. I didn’t have dolls as a child – I had dinosaurs". 

Alan Friswell on the Gwangi roping sequence

“To create the roping sequence for Gwangi, Ray had a Jeep specially modified with a tall pole attached which would stand in for the dinosaur during live-action photography. The actors rode around the jeep and lassoed the pole, which was rigged to hook the lassos and provide a contact point that Ray could later refer to when animating the dinosaur. The Jeep was removed from the shots by blocking out that portion of the shot with a split screen (to black out a section of the shot, into which another image will be introduced through a double exposure while filming, or during post-production). Once complete, the shots appeared to show the cowboys throwing their lassos at an invisible target. 

Back in the studio, Ray positioned the Gwangi model in front of the footage of the actors, which was projected on a screen behind the model. Ray then placed miniature lassos around Gwangi’s neck, which he matched in the camera with the ropes held by the projected actors. In today’s world of video feeds and monitors, which can provide exact references to whatever the camera sees, it’s amazing that Ray had to rely on looking directly though the camera viewfinder and using line of sight to align the ends of the lassos around Gwangi’s neck with the ropes on the projection screen, while simultaneously keeping track of the animation of the head, legs and tail.”

Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) animating a skeleton model from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 1958 © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419)

Vanessa Harryhausen on the Skeleton model from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

“Of all Dad’s creations, it is the skeletons which are most frequently remembered by film fans. Even though The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) was before my time, the fight scene between Sinbad and the skeleton on a spiral staircase is particularly special to me.

The choreography for this sequence was incredible. I have been lucky enough to practise some basic swordplay with Scottish battle re-enactors in the past, and so appreciate the level of concentration and timing required by the actor Kerwin Mathews in this scene. Mathews would spend hours and hours rehearsing his movements with the stuntman Enzo Musumeci Greco; then, when it came to shooting the live-action sequences, Mathews would be alone, fighting his invisible foe. Of course, Dad then animated the skeleton model to match with Mathews’ movements, and the end sequence was brought to life by Bernard Herrmann’s score.

This sequence was so successful that Dad decided to use skeletons in his 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. This original skeleton was reused, as well as six additional models. For many years, Dad claimed that he had forgotten which of his skeletons the original from 1958 was. However, as we prepared for our exhibition at the Oklahoma Science Museum, our conservator Alan Friswell realised that this particular model was the original, after some close examination. We decided that he should be reunited with his 1958 sword and shield, just in time for the film’s sixtieth anniversary”.

Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) with John Landis (b. 1950) and a skeleton model from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 1958 © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419) Photography by Mark Mawston

Director John Landis on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

"A Hollywood producer once said: ‘Those who make movies are in the transportation business.’ That exactly describes my first encounter with the work of Ray Harryhausen — I was transported!

The eight-year-old me was no longer sitting in my seat at the Crest Theater in Westwood, LA: I was on the beach of the island of Colossa, and as awe-struck and fearful as Sinbad and his crew when the first Cyclops made his appearance.

I was spellbound by Sinbad’s adventures, and marvelled at the Cyclops, the two-headed Roc, the fire-breathing dragon and the skeleton brought to life by the evil magician Sokurah. Only later did I learn that these extraordinary beasts were really brought to life by the magician Ray Harryhausen. 

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was a truly life-changing experience for me. Thrilled by the movie, I went home and asked my mother: ‘Who does that? Who makes the movie?’ 

She replied: ‘Well, a lot of people, honey, but I guess the right answer is the director.’ 

And that was that: I would be a director when I grew up. All of my energy went into that goal, and I read everything about film that I could get my hands on."

The publication Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema by Vanessa Harryhausen is on sale now and can be purchased online here.

4 January 2021