King Kong and the Early Years

Includes English, French and Italian subtitles.

King Kong

When a 13-year-old Ray Harryhausen entered Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to see King Kong in 1933 his life changed forever. The film became the inspiration for his career and set him on a path of experimentation with stop-motion animation. 

King Kong was produced by one of the major Hollywood studios, RKO Radio Pictures. The chief technician on the film was Willis O’Brien (1886-1962), a specialist in stop-motion animation. What set King Kong apart was that the creature was not a person in a suit, but a character which had personality, and the ability to convey emotion. Harryhausen made repeated visits to see the film, noting in his diary from 1939 that he saw it 31 times. At weekends he regularly asked his father to drive him to Culver City, to the old Pathé studio film lot, to see the Skull Island gate which could be seen towering above other derelict movie sets. Harryhausen contacted Willis O’Brien at MGM studios whilst at high school and visited him with a suitcase of models for O’Brien to critique. Following O’Brien’s advice, Harryhausen took classes in art and anatomy. 

Stop-motion animation is a film-making technique where small consecutive changes to a model between frames, can create the illusion of movement when the frames are run at speed. Film is made up of lots of individual static frames, the average frame rate being 24 per second. As the human eye cannot perceive the individual frames at this speed, it creates the illusion of one continuous moving image.

Willis O’Brien, or 'Obie’ as he was known to his friends, had been inspired by the work of French artist Gustave Doré (1832-1883) whose book illustrations had received great acclaim. Doré had a huge impact on cinema. His dramatic compositions focused light into the centre of the image. For King Kong, O’Brien built miniature jungle sets inspired by Doré. Sheets of painted glass were layered behind one another to create a sense of depth. Rear projection was being used in Hollywood at the time to merge pre-recorded footage with actors on set. O’Brien and his team were able to rear project the actors into the miniature tabletop environments. The animation took 55 weeks to complete with many obstacles to overcome along the way, but the film was hailed as one of the greatest achievements in special effects of its time.

The story of King Kong has been retold in cinema on many occasions. The original 1933 version included problematic representations of race and gender. The humanised portrayal of the ape King Kong evoked racist stereotypes of Blackness, and it has been argued that it is an allegory for attitudes towards interracial relationships. This was denied by the filmmakers at the time, who said the film was the ‘story of the primitive doomed by modern civilisation’. The film has also been read as an anti-colonialist narrative, with Kong’s escape from captivity a rejection of white, colonial greed. The ambivalent depictions of race in this film are still debated today. 

The Early Years

As a child Harryhausen was taken to see puppet shows and later, at high school, he began making string marionettes. After seeing King Kong, he made marionettes of the characters so that he could recreate the film, performing highlights from it at school. Ray's first experiments in animation were made at home, where his father helped him build a garage studio.

He was fascinated by prehistoric animals and dinosaurs, an unusual interest at the time. American artist Charles Robert Knight (1874-1953) became an important influence. Knight’s interpretations of prehistoric creatures were developed in collaboration with palaeontologists. Harryhausen encountered his work at the LA County Museum (later known as the Museum of Natural History), in particular his mural of a prehistoric scene at the La Brea tar pits.

Harryhausen’s first attempt at making a model for animation was a cave bear when he was in his early teens. It was constructed using a wooden frame with ball and socket joints made from beads. It had a moving tongue, claws and eyes. Its fur was made using one of his mother’s old coats - with her blessing!

In 1938 Harryhausen began developing his first feature-length film, Evolution of the World, about the extinction of the dinosaurs. The project came to a halt however when he saw Disney’s Fantasia (1940) which featured a sequence about the same subject. He realised his project was too ambitious for one person to achieve.

Excerpts from Harryhausen’s early film-making experiments including Cave Bear, (1935) and Evolution of the World, (1938) © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

Mighty Joe Young

Following his service in the army (1942-1945), Harryhausen’s dream of working with his great mentor Willis O’Brien came true. In late 1945 O’Brien asked Harryhausen to assist him in animating the feature film Mighty Joe Young, released in 1949. The film was produced by the same team that had created King Kong and used many of the same techniques. The scale of the production meant that O’Brien delegated most of the animation to others, and in the end, it is estimated that Harryhausen was responsible for around 90% of the film’s stop-motion animation.

Continue your adventure

Continue your adventure

Bringing Imagination to Life

Stop-motion animators, and Harryhausen collaborators, Seamus Walsh and Mark Caballero take you through Harryhausen's creative process from sketch to finished model.

Dynamation: Making Movie Miracles

Oscar-winning special visual effects artist Randy Cook takes a look at some of Harryhausen's first feature films and the Dynamation process that brought his marvellous creations to life on the screen.

Creatures of Legend

Explore Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans and the Sinbad films. Hear contributions from film-makers, fans and the people who worked with Harryhausen on these iconic movies.

A Life in Objects

Ray Harryhausen's daughter Vanessa takes us through some of the personal objects that relate to her father's life in film and beyond.

Ray Harryhausen Shop

Ray Harryhausen Shop

Gifts on the theme of film special effects and modern movie making