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A Tribute To Ray Harryhausen

My Opinion

Ray Harryhausen is without a doubt the greatest stop-motion animator in history, and since stop motion animation has been all but replaced with computer generated effects, his place as the greatest of all time is cemented in film history. Ray almost always worked alone, from the design, to creation, to filming, he did it all. It is his obvious love for what he does and his pioneering spirit that shines through in all of his work. If you like the sci-fi fantasy flicks, then almost anything with Ray’s work is a must see.



Ray Harryhausen (born Raymond Frederick Harryhausen on June 29, 1920 in Los Angeles, California) is an Academy Award-winning American film producer and, most notably, a special effects creator most famous for his brand of stop-motion model animation. Some of his most notable works have included his animation on Mighty Joe Young (with pioneer Willis H. O'Brien, which won the Academy Award for special effects) (1949), The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (his first color film) and Jason and the Argonauts, featuring a famous sword fight against seven skeleton warriors.

Stop motion animation

Before the advent of computers for camera motion control and CGI, movies used a variety of approaches to achieve animated special effects. One approach was stop-motion animation which used realistic miniature models (more accurately called model animation), used for the first time in a feature film in The Lost World (1925), and most famously in King Kong (1933).

The work of pioneer model animator Willis O'Brien in King Kong inspired Harryhausen to work in this unique field, almost single-handedly keeping the technique alive for three decades. O'Brien's career floundered for most of his life, most of his cherished projects were never realized, but Harryhausen was the right person at the right time, and achieved considerable success.

Harryhausen prefers not to compare his work with special effects animation in live action films to the completely animated films of Tim Burton, Nick Park, Ivo Caprino, Ladislav Starevich and many others, which he sees as pure "puppet films", and which are more accurately (and traditionally) called "puppet animation".Model animated characters interact with, and are a part of, the live-action world, with the idea that they will cease to call attention to themselves as "animation", which is different from the more obviously "cartoony" and stylized approach in movies like Chicken Run and The Nightmare Before Christmas, etc.

Springing from O'Brien's groundbreaking work, Harryhausen continued bringing stop-motion into the realm of live action movies, keeping alive and refining the techniques created by O'Brien that he had first developed as early as 1917. Harryhausen's last film was Clash of the Titans, produced in the early 1980s. Currently he is involved in producing colorized DVD versions of three of his classic black and white films (20 Million Miles to Earth, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and It Came from Beneath the Sea) and a film from the producer of the original King Kong.

Professional history

1930s and 1940s

After having seen King Kong for the first of many times in 1933, Harryhausen spent his early years experimenting in the production of animated shorts, inspired by the burgeoning science fiction literary genre of the period. After viewing Harryhausen's first formal demo reel of fighting dinosaurs from an abortive project called Evolution (an homage to a similar project of Willis O'Brien's called Creation (Merian C. Cooper, the producer of "King Kong", saw O'Brien's initial work for Creation and had him reassigned to "King Kong"), Paramount executives awarded him his first job, beginning on George Pál's Puppetoons shorts.

During World War II, Harryhausen was also employed by the Army Motion Picture Unit, animating sequences educating soldiers about the use and deployment of military equipment when that equipment was unavailable for shooting in live action. From this work, he acquired several rolls of unused film from which he made a series of fairy tale-based shorts. After World War II, Ray Harryhausen shot a scene of an alien emerging from a Martian war machine based on H. G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds, part of an unrealized project to adapt the story using Wells' original "octopus" concept for the Martians. Harryhausen also produced a variety of other short animation demos during the post-World War II 40s.

Harryhausen put together a demo reel of his various projects and showed them to Willis O'Brien, who eventually hired him as an assistant animator on what turned out to be Harryhausen's first major film, Mighty Joe Young (1949). O'Brien ended up concentrating on solving the various technical problems of the film, leaving most of the animation up to Harryhausen. Their work won the special effects Oscar Academy Award that year.


King Kong was rereleased in 1952, and started a movie monster craze. Harryhausen was hired to do the special effects for "The Monster from Beneath the Sea", whose story borrowed heavily from King Kong (prehistoric beast ends up creating chaos in New York City). While in production, the filmmakers learned that a long-time friend of Harryhausen's, writer Ray Bradbury, had sold a short story called "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" (later The Fog Horn) to The Saturday Evening Post, about a dinosaur drawn to a lone lighthouse by its foghorn. Because the story for Harryhausen's film featured a similar scene, the film studio bought the rights to Bradbury's story to avoid any potential legal problems. Also, the title was changed to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Under that title, it became Harryhausen's first solo feature film effort, and a major international box-office hit for Warner Brothers Pictures.

It was on The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms that Harryhausen first used a technique that split the background and foreground of pre-shot live action footage into two separate pieces of film. The background would be used as a miniature rear-screen with his models animated in front of it, rephotographed with an animation-capable camera to combine those two elements together, the foreground element matted out to leave a black space. Then the film was rewound, and everything except the foreground element matted out so that the foreground element would now photograph in the previously blacked out area. This created the effect that the animated model was "sandwiched" in between the two live action elements, right into the final live action scene. This was done without resorting to expensive optical printer work and prevented the image from second generation degradation. It saved money and looked better than previous techniques. A few years later, when he adapted this technique for color film to make The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, he called the process DynaMation (modifying it to "SuperDynaMation" and then "DynaRama" for some subsequent films).

While the film's producers organized the film's live action production and hired various directors to develop the film's live action characters, Harryhausen concentrated only on the shots that involved model animation, visiting the sets only to supervise the filming of the live action background elements (called "plates" in the film effects industry) into which he would later add animated creatures.

Throughout most of his career, Harryhausen's work was a sort of family affair. His father did the machining of the metal armatures that were the skeletons for the models while his mother assisted with some skin textures. An occasional assistant, George Lofgren, a taxidermist, assisted Harryhausen with the creation of furred creatures. Other than that, Harryhausen worked entirely alone to produce the animation for all his films, until he hired an assistant, protege model animator and two-time Oscar-nominated Jim Danforth, to assist with animation for Harryhausen's last film Clash of the Titans (1981).

The same year that Beast was released, fledgling film producer Irwin Allen released a live action documentary about life in the oceans titled The Sea Around Us, which won a documentary feature film Oscar for that year. Allen's and Harryhausen's paths would cross three years later, on Allen's sequel to this film.

Harryhausen soon met and began a fruitful partnership with producer Charles H. Schneer, who was working with the Sam Katzman B-picture unit of Columbia Pictures. Their first tandem project was It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) about a giant octopus attacking San Francisco. It was a box-office success, quickly followed by Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), set in Washington D.C.--one of the best of the alien invasion films of the 50s, and also a box office hit.

In 1954, Irwin Allen started work on a second feature-length documentary film, this one about animal life on land called The Animal World (completed in 1956). Needing an opening sequence about dinosaurs, Allen hired premier model animator Willis O'Brien to animate the dinosaurs, but then gave him an impossibly short production schedule. O'Brien again hired Harryhausen to help with animation to complete the 8 minute sequence. It was Harryhausen's and O'Brien's first professional color work. Most viewers agree that the dinosaur sequence of Animal World was the best part of the entire movie (available on the DVD release of the 1957 film, The Black Scorpion.) The Black Scorpion used previously shot special effects footage by Willis H. O'Brien to create a story similar to another sf film of the era, Them!

Harryhausen then returned to Columbia and Charles Schneer to make 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), about an american spaceship returning from Venus that crashes into the ocean near Italy, releasing an on-board alien egg specimen which washes up on shore and soon hatches a creature that, in Earth's atmosphere, rapidly grows to gigantic size and terrifies Rome. Harryhausen refined and improved his already-considerable ability at establishing emotional characterizations in the face of his Venusian Ymir model, creating yet another international box-office hit film.

Schneer was eager to graduate to color films. Reluctant at first, Harryhausen managed to develop the systems necessary to maintain proper color balances for his DynaMation process, resulting in his greatest masterpiece (and biggest hit) of the 50s, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), a major inspiration for Dennis Muren, decades later a long-time multi-Oscar-winning head of George Lucas's ILM special effects company. The top grossing film of that summer, and one of the top grossing films of that year, Schneer and Harryhausen signed another deal with Columbia for four more color films.


After The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and Mysterious Island (1961), both great artistic and technical successes, his next film is considered by film historians and fans as Harryhausen's masterwork, Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Among the film's several celebrated animation sequences is an extended fight between three actors and seven living skeletons, a considerable advance on the single-skeleton fight scene in Sinbad. This amazing stop-motion sequence, never since equaled by a single individual, took over four months to complete, and helped to inspire an entire generation of subsequent filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Tim Burton, and James Cameron, among many others. (When presenting Harryhausen with a special Academy Award, actor Tom Hanks told Harryhausen "Lots of people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time... no way, it's Jason and the Argonauts!")

Harryhausen next made First Men in the Moon (1964), his only Cinemascope anamorphic film, based on the novel by H. G. Wells.

Oddly and inexplicably, Jason and First Men in the Moon were box office disappointments at the time of their original theatrical release. That, plus changes of management at Columbia Pictures, kept "Dynamation" films from being greenlighted. It is possible that Harryhausen's love of the past, setting his stories in ancient fantasy worlds or previous centuries, kept him from keeping pace with changing tastes in the Sixties. Only a handful of Harryhausen's features have been set in then-present time, and none in the future.

Harryhausen was then hired by Hammer Film Productions to animate the dinosaurs for One Million Years B.C., released by 20th Century Fox in 1967. It was a box office smash, helped in part by the presence of shapely Raquel Welch in a cavewoman bikini, in her second film.

Springing from that success, Harryhausen next went on to make another dinosaur film, The Valley of Gwangi. The project had been developed for Columbia, which declined. Independent producer Schneer then made a deal with Warner Bros. instead. It was a personal project of Harryhausen, which he had wanted to do for many years, as it was story-boarded by his original mentor, Willis' O'Brien for a 1939 film, "Gwangi", that was never completed. Scripted by William Bast, "The Valley of Gwangi" is set in 1912 Mexico, in a parallel Kong story; cowboys capture a living Allosaurus and bring him to the nearest city for exhibition. Sabotage by a rival releases the creature on opening day and the creature wreaks havoc on the town until it's cornered and destroyed inside a burning cathedral. The film features a roping scene reminiscent of 1949's Mighty Joe Young and is the technical highlight of the film. The film was released in 1969 but was not a financial success. It was said not to fit in with the counter-culture audiences of that era, but another explanation is that Warner Brothers released the film as a double-bill with a biker film and it thus missed more youthful audiences; supposedly this decision was made after Kenneth Hyman of Seven Arts (which had purchased into the Warners studio at the time and was involved with "One Million Years B.C.") was released from the studio.

1970s - present

After a few lean years, Harryhausen re-teamed with Schneer, who talked Columbia Pictures into reviving the Sinbad character, resulting in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), both box office successes.

Schneer and Harryhausen finally were allowed by MGM to produce a big budget film with name actors and an expanded effects budget. The film started out smaller but then MGM increased the budget to hire stars such as Laurence Olivier. It became the last feature film to showcase his effects work, Clash of the Titans (1981), for which he was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Special Effects. Harryhausen fans will readily discern that the armed-and-finned kraken (a name oddly borrowed from medieval Scandinavian folklore) he invented for Clash of the Titans has similar facial qualities to the Venusian Ymir he created twenty-five years earlier for 20 Million Miles to Earth.

Oddly, perhaps due to his hermetic production style and the fact that he produced half of his films outside of Hollywood (living in London since 1960), none of Harryhausen's films were ever nominated for a special effects Oscar.

In spite of the modest box office success of "Clash", more sophisticated technology developed by ILM and others eclipsed Harryhausen's techniques, and MGM and other studios passed on making his follow-up story, Force of the Trojans, forcing Harryhausen and Schneer to retire from active filmmaking.

Harryhausen then concentrated his efforts on authoring a book, Film Fantasy Scrapbook (produced in three editions as his last three films were released) and supervising the restoration and release of (eventually all) his films to video, laserdisc, and later, DVD. A second book followed, An Animated Life, detailing his techniques and history, and then "The Art of Ray Harryhausen", featuring sketches and drawings for his many projects, some of them unrealized.

Harryhausen continues his life-long friendship with Ray Bradbury and another close friend, book and magazine writer and super Sci-Fi fan Forrest J. Ackerman, who loaned Harryhausen his photos of King Kong in 1933, right after Harryhausen had seen the film for the first time. Harryhausen also maintains his friendship with his long-time producer, Charles H. Schneer, who lives next door to him in a suburb of London, and model animation protege, Jim Danforth, still living in the Los Angeles area.

Harryhausen and Terry Moore appeared in small comedic cameo roles in the 1998 remake of Mighty Joe Young, and he has also provided the voice of a polar bear cub in the Will Ferrell film Elf. He also appears as a bar patron in Beverly Hills Cop III, and as a doctor in Spies Like Us.


During the 1980s and early 90s, Harryhausen's growing legion of fans who had graduated into the professional film industry started lobbying the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to acknowledge Harryhausen's contribution to the film industry and he was finally awarded a Gordon E. Sawyer lifetime achievement award in 1992, making Harryhausen an international celebrity. A long series of appearances at film festivals, colleges, and film seminars around the world soon followed as Harryhausen met the millions of people who had grown up enjoying his work.

The work of Ray Harryhausen was celebrated in an exhibition at London's Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) in 1990. Near the turn of the 21st century, Harryhausen was also honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Inducted to the Monster Kid Hall Of Fame at The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards

Harryhausen today

In 2002, young animators Seamus Walsh and Mark Caballero helped Harryhausen complete "The Story of the Tortoise & the Hare". This was the sixth and final installment of the Harryhausen fairy tales. The film was started in 1952 and completed in 2002, 50 years later. Caballero and Walsh refurbished the original puppets and, under Harryhausen's guidance, completed the film. The film went on to win the 2003 Annie award for best short film and gained world wide attention. Walsh and Caballero have since moved on to form their own stop motion company, Screen Novelties which is based in Los Angeles, CA.

In 2005, Harryhausen released a 2-DVD set of a complete collection of all his non-feature film work, including all his tests, demos, military work, a re-edit of all the biographical material that had been released in the mid-90s to VHS video under the title Aliens, Dragons, Monsters, and Me, and his entire set of fairy tales, including "The Story of the Tortoise & the Hare". The second disc profiles a making of documentary, behind the scenes and interviews with Harryhausen, Walsh, Caballero and narrator, Gary Owens. During this time he also provided commentary for the DVD releases of King Kong and Mighty Joe Young, and was extensively interviewed for documentaries included in the DVD release. He was at the New York Premiere of the 2005 remake of King Kong and was disappointed that some scenes from the original didn't make it into the final film. He was happy again when the Deluxe Extended Edition was revealed.

Currently he is preparing a third book for release, and he and a producing partner, Arnold R. Kunert are working on a series of animated shorts based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, the first of which was "The Pit and the Pendulum" in 2006. He is also working with Legend Films to reissue some of his early feature films on DVD in a series of colorized versions using an improved colorization process. According to Legend Films president Barry Sandrew, the filmmaker told him that his original vision was to do them in color, but both limited budgets and limited color film stocks back then made it hard for him to do backgrounds and keep them color-balanced the way that was needed to maintain the films' realism.

Harryhausen was also involved in the process of colorizing She, produced by Merian C. Cooper, who had originally intended to shoot the film in color, but at the last minute the budget was cut by RKO, forcing Cooper to shoot in black and white. As a tribute to Cooper, Harryhausen color designed the film in a manner in which he feels Cooper would have wanted it exhibited. The colorized DVD includes an audio commentary by Harryhausen and Merian C. Cooper expert Mark Vaz who discuss the film and color choices. The colorized trailer for She premiered at the 2006 Comic-Con. Harryhausen also helped design the color on two further Legend Films releases, Things to Come and The Most Dangerous Game.

In July 2006, it was announced that Harryhausen has licenced Bluewater Productions to create six comic book follow-ups to some of his most famous movies. The first three are "Sinbad: Rogue Of Mars", "20 Million Miles More" and "Wrath Of The Titans", and are scheduled for release in May 2007 followed by a further three: "Jason And The Argonauts: The Kingdom of Hades", "Back to Mysterious Island" and 10th Muse. Harryhausen will furnish new artwork, but not scripts. All will be five-issue miniseries. A one-shot, "10th Muse/ Shi crossover", is said to be released later.

From Wikipedia


How to Bridge a Gorge (1942) (producer)
Tulips Shall Grow (1942) (chief animator)
Mother Goose Stories (1946) (producer)
The Story of Little Red Riding Hood (1949) (producer, animator)
Mighty Joe Young (1949) (first technician)
Rapunzel (1951) (producer)
Hansel and Gretel (1951) (producer)
The Story of King Midas (1953) (producer)
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1954) (visual effects)
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) (visual effects)
The Animal World (1956) (effects technician)
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) (special photographic, animation effects)
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) (visual effects)
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) (associate producer, visual effects)
The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960) (visual effects)
Mysterious Island (1961) (special visual effects)
Jason and the Argonauts (1963) (associate producer, visual effects)
First Men in the Moon (1964) (associate producer, visual effects)
One Million Years B.C. (1966) (special visual effects)
The Valley of Gwangi (1969) (associate producer, visual effects)
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) (producer, visual effects)
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (producer, visual effects)
Clash of the Titans (1981) (producer, visual effects)
The Story of the Tortoise & the Hare (2003) (director, co-producer, animator)
Ray Harryhausen Presents: The Pit and the Pendulum (2007) (executive producer)

My Reviews

Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)- Classic tale of a giant lizard awakened by nuclear tests. Disbelief leads to fear and military action as ships are sunk and cities are endangered. Sound familiar? After raking in the jack in Japan, Toho would make Godzilla, which was damn near a remake of this Ray Bradbury story based flick. This has it all the sci-fi 50s lovers crave (monster-movie-wise, no aliens though) so if you fall in that mold and haven’t seen this check it out, otherwise it is worth a view if only as an influential curiosity. A+

It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955)- Very typical entrant into the 50s giant monster sci-fi sub genre. A giant octopus is threatening ships at sea and heading toward San Francisco. The Navy and a couple of scientists are on the hunt and love triangle ensues, sort of. Not great stuff even for those that love this stuff like me, still, if you are into these flicks you need to see it for Harryhausen’s octopus (with 6 arms) destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge. C-

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956)- Ray Harryhausen’s effects are the star in this one. Sure it’s old school stop motion animation but taking everything in context the look of this one is great. The plot? The US is launching satellites into orbit and each one is failing and crashing and all evidence points to them being shot down. The flying saucers show up, destroy the launch facility (after being attacked by ‘shoot first ask questions later’ soldiers), and kidnap the general. After contacting the lead scientist (who is married to the general’s daughter), and telling him they basically mean to take over the earth, all efforts are made to develop a weapon that will interfere with the magnetic drive on the saucers. The aliens realize what is up and make an all out attack on Washington DC with some of the most famous special effects sequences ever filmed. Sure this one is a dated 50s sci-fi flick with typical ‘The Commies' are coming background, but it still has everything for the lover of such flilms. If you dig this stuff this is a must see, if you don’t you’ll be rolling your eyes throughout. I happen to dig it. A.

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)- Classic Harryhausen effects fill out this flick about an egg brought back from Venus by tough guy know-it-all 1950s style macho astronauts. The egg hatches and earth’s atmosphere the lizard like creature grows big rapidly. Scientists try and save the creature but in the end it becomes too big and powerful and the military shows up. Yeah, this is typical 50s sci-fi fodder but it probably one of the better films because of Harryhausen’s creature. I dug this one quite a bit for what it is. B+

Mysterious Island (1961)- this is a great setup for a Jules Verne ride, complete with Harryhausen effects. During the Civil War some Union POWs escape in a balloon, which is great except they really don’t know how to fly it so they fly and fly and fly and wind up crashing somewhere in the Pacific on an island inhabited by some heinous giant critters. Some women show up after a shipwreck (convenient) and we are off on an adventure complete with Captain Nemo. If you like these sci-fi flicks (like the Sinbad movies, Jason and the Argonauts etc) you’ll like this one too. I’ll give it a B+, some of the acting is over the top, but sit back and just enjoy.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)- Those of you used to modern adventure/fantasy flicks like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ will likely find this ‘quaint’ at best and tedious at worst! It does run slow and features the old school stop-motion animation made famous by the original ‘King Kong’ movie. The plot? Jason’s family (including his king father) are killed by an invading, and very greedy king. 20 years later Jason is determined to get his revenge, with a little help from Hera, Queen of the Gods, he makes his way to get the Golden Fleece to restore the morale of his people and overthrow the king that killed his family. Of course getting the Golden Fleece ain’t gonna be easy! Lots of monsters, double crossings, and mayhem follow him along the way. Not my favorite amongst the Harryhausen flicks but still it stands up really well, and I love the monsters he creates from the giant bronze statue to the winged demon like things that torture the old blind man (can’t remember what they’re called) and everything in between. He obviously loved his work! Typical wooden acting bogs it down at times but like I often say, if you dig these old fantasy flicks, this is a must see, if you don’t, you will hate this! I’ll give it a B+, not quite as good as the Sinbad flicks, but getting there.

HG Wells’ First Men on the Moon (1964)- This is an old school sci-fi flick with some good stop motion from Ray Harryhausan. It is about a UN expedition to the moon which everyone believes to be man’s first, until the expedition discovers a letter and a British flag near the landing site, and maybe the ranting about being on the moon of a senile old man aren’t so crazy after all. His story is told in flashback and it takes awhile to get going as we head into some campy almost ‘Nutty Professor’ type of bit. Once on the moon though Ray’s insect aliens take over (most of the insect aliens are actually people in bad costumes but the animated ones are pretty cool). If you like Ray’s work or like goofy sci-fi fluff then this is probably a must see, but if you aren’t into either of those you won’t be missing much. I’ll give it a really strong C+, less nutty professor, more stop motion insect moon people would’ve been better.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)- I dig these old fantasy flicks and while there are better ones, this one is still pretty cool. Sinbad has to save the prince, who has been turned into a baboon by a witch who wants her son to be caliphate. Sinbad is in love with the prince’s sister, has to find a Greek magician to help, then has to go to the ends of the earth to reverse the spell, with the witch in hot pursuit. Maybe not too original as fantasy adventure goes, and the acting leaves quite a bit to be desired, but really, this is about the monsters and there are some classics here, from the fire demon things to the brass Minotaur Harryhausen was having some fun and it shows through. For ‘claymation’ lovers only. A-

Earth vs...