Whether you knew it or not, you’ve seen Ray Harryhausen around the cinematic block. Stop motion animator extraordinaire, Harryhausen was a pioneer in movie special effects and left behind a legacy of movies spanning six decades. His influence is palpable, from the latest Clash of the Titans remake1 to many a Pixar homage2. Known best for his “dynamation” techniques, Harryhausen found a better way to animate scenes fusing live action actors and stop-motion models.
What dynamation most often achieved was bringing dinosaurs and city-smashing monsters to life. Big fans of the growing science fiction literary scene, Harryhausen and friend and author Ray Bradbury made a pact which Bradbury described as, “We said: 'We’re going to grow old but never grow up.’” But more importantly, “'We’re going to stay 18 years old and we’re going to love dinosaurs forever.’” Just skimming his filmography will tell you he did a pretty good job. His titles are filled with tales of epic adventures, monsters, and prehistoric beasts. Drawing from science fiction books and a hodge-podge of mythology, Harryhausen often adapted stories like Jason and the Golden Fleece and Gulliver’s Travels.
Harryhausen worked, for the most part, independently. He sketched and sculpted his monster models, and then spent months manipulating the parts in filming. In Jason and the Argonauts’ famed rising of the dead scene, for example, Harryhausen brought seven individual skeleton models to life at once. Each skeleton required five move adjustments per frame, or 35 moves for each frame total. Because of the tediousness of this task, Harryhausen was only averaging about 13 frames a day – not even a full second of film. It ended up taking four and a half months to complete the walking dead scene alone.
But that’s what makes Harryhausen Harryhausen. He’s dedicated. He would storyboard to a degree of insanity, making around 400 detailed pictures for each script six months ahead of time. When other animators of the time would skirt around the problem of trying to show direct, destructive action, Harryhausen’s aliens were right there in front of you, smashing into buildings. This meant that for each frame-by-frame shot, he had to set up a separate wire for each brick that would fall from a national monument. When working on the animations for Mighty Joe Young, he would crouch and pound the floor with his fist, just to feel what it was like in the body before planning out the ape model’s movements. He took up a vegetarian diet to feel like more like his protagonist, and yes, the ape was the protagonist. Such characterization is true for most of Harryhausen’s movies.
He finds a way to make every monster sympathetic. This could be his way of paying tribute the movie got him interested in animation, King Kong, but there’s more to it than that. George Lucas has said that Harryhausen movies were so moving because they had more than just field depth. The models and monsters reacted like real beings with fears and motivations. And there they were, affecting the fates of real, live action people. James and the Giant Peach director Henry Selick said of Harryhausen movies, “I absolutely believed in the reality of the worlds he created, the marriage of the live and stop-motion.” This believability wasn’t merely born out of Harryhausen’s technical prowess (though, it certainly played a part). The very real characterization of Harryhausen’s beasts blurred the line between puppet and person, since the monsters seemed to react to things other than just pulled strings.
The illusion was fully completed with Harryhausen’s Dynamation techniques. Originally, stop motion animation movies like King Kong were created simply by photographing slight changes in the models on a miniature set one frame at a time. The sets, however, were often very expensive and time-consuming to construct, and it was even more difficult to combine live action in the same frame. What Harryhausen devised was a system of filming, glass panes, and projections to create a low budget way of combining live action and stop motion. Dynamation uses a split screen with rear projection. First, the background image would be filmed using a real location. This footage would be loaded into the projector in studio and projected onto a screen behind a table with the model figures. In front of the models, a pane of glass was placed before a motion picture camera that would capture the frame-by-frame images. The pane of glass in front of the projection screen and models would have portions painted black to block out certain levels of the foreground or background. By switching the pane of glass out with another piece blackened for the opposite field of depth (and rewinding the footage and shooting everything over again), Harryhausen could manipulate scenes where models moved among reality with various fields of depth. Yeah, sure, compared to today’s CGI creatures and their liquid movement, Harryhausen models created from pieces of his mom’s fur coat are hardly convincing, but Harryhausen was never going for full-on realism.
Harryhausen has said, “Fantasy is essentially a dream world, an imaginative world and I don’t think you want it quite real. You want an interpretation. And stop motion to me, gives that added value of a dream world that you can’t catch if you try to make it too real. And that’s the essence of fantasy, isn’t it? Transforming reality into the imagination.” For over sixty years, Ray Harryhausen transformed the realities of some of the greatest imaginations in the 21st century. The first egg of an idea that would eventually hatch into Jurassic Park came after Steven Spielberg watched his first Harryhausen dinosaur film. After seeing Jason and the Argonauts at age 7, James Cameron would eventually resurrect his own breed of walking dead in the Terminator. And Harryhausen’s breed of sympathetic and misunderstood monster would prompt a fascination in Tim Burton3 that would shape his entire filmography. Although he has released the inspiration for many a dino, beast, or kraken, there’s only one Ray Harryhausen. Thank God he saw King Kong.
Ray Harryhausen official webpage
Ray Harryhausen IMDB
Interview with Ray Harryhausen by The Telegraph
Ray Harryhausen Commentary, Interview, and Review by Lionel Ivan Orozco
The UnMuseum How-To of Dynamation
1 As the Creator of Special Visual Effects for the original, 1981 Clash of the Titans¸ Harryhausen was the first to release the Kraken.
2 In Monsters, Inc., Billy Crystal’s Cyclops character Mike takes his girlfriend to a restaurant called Harryhausen’s. The octopus tending bar there is missing two tentacles. A foolish mistake on the part of Pixar? Never! In It Came From Beneath the Sea, Harryhausen’s Golden Gate Bridge crushing Octopus only had six tentacles.
3 Speaking of homages, Burton’s Mars Attacks! is his sci-fi tribune to Harryhausen, including a scene where alien flying saucers crash into the Washington Monument – just like Harryhausen’s Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Burton also snuck in a piano labeled “Harryhausen” in Corpse Bride.
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.