Claudia Massie

The genius of stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen

Few artists of the 20th century can compete with Harryhausen's illusive brilliance or reach

The genius of stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen
Few artists of the 20th century can compete with Harryhausen’s brilliance and reach: skeleton models from Jason and the Argonauts, c. 1962. Credit: © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)
Text settings

Modern Two in Edinburgh reopens this week, and what more fitting subject for a show in a time of global catastrophe than Ray Harryhausen, titan of cinema, creator of beasts, destroyer of cities, king of adventure?

If you were near a screen at any point during the Cold War, you almost certainly watched Harryhausen movies. The tentacled Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, so realistic it was awarded an X certificate upon arrival in Britain; the mythical marvels of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad; and the vicious skeletons of Jason and the Argonauts captivated generations of viewers. These indelible creations, all handmade by one man, the animator, special-effects pioneer and producer Ray Harry-hausen, have become a magical fixture in our collective imagination.

If the mark of quality is an ability to transport us into another world, then there are very few artists of the 20th century who can compete with Harryhausen in terms of either illusive brilliance or reach.

He was, of course, a tremendous artist in the traditional sense too. His concept drawings — joyously cinematic, richly graphic and characterised by a determined use of line that recalls Käthe Kollwitz or Honoré Daumier — would merit an exhibition of their own. It is easy to see in these fantastical drawings, which lay out the inner workings of the Harryhausen mind, the influence of the prolific French illustrator Gustave Doré and the strange, melodramatic Northumbrian fantasy landscape painter John Martin. There’s a theme here of entertainment, escape and spectacle.

It’s unsurprising that one of Harryhausen’s favourite paintings was Joseph Gandy’s mythic cityscape ‘Jupiter Pluvius’, a work considered, when it was painted in 1819, obscenely close to the low-brow entertainments of the magic-lantern show.

Harryhausen frequently cited these influences, acquiring Gandy’s painting and describing Doré as ‘the original art director for films’. But just as significant to his development were King Kong and his creator Willis O’Brien. In a teenage diary, Harryhausen records his 13th visit to see King Kong. No wonder he found that he ‘hadn’t been the same since’. He started making his own figures, beginning with — what else? — a clumsy little Kong puppet, and before long he was turning his mother’s fur coat into an animated cave bear in his garage studio. The adventure had begun.

Harryhausen’s big break came in 1949 when he secured a job working with his hero and mentor Willis O’Brien on a gorilla flick, Mighty Joe Young. He seized the chance to impose his own ideas and we can see in the sympathetic gorilla a subtlety of movement and nuanced range of expression that signal the arrival of the trademark Harryhausen style. His creatures were never monsters, and never caricatures. Instead, by giving space to emotional gestures that other animators would see as superfluous, such as the cyclops in Sinbad possessively cradling the genie’s lamp or creaky Talos shifting his sword from one hand to the other as he ponders how best to destroy the Argonauts, Harryhausen invests his creatures with an inner life that elevates them above the B-movie status they are often ascribed.

The Harryhausen magic was rooted in the still-astounding complexity of his model designs, coupled with a visionary approach to the animation filming process. While stop motion had been around since the dawn of cinema, it was Harryhausen who made it a cinematic artform. He developed a new method, known, for no reason other than that it sounded good, as ‘Dynamation’. This enabled him to create effects using a three-plane technique whereby the metal and latex models, just a few inches in size, performed on a stage between live-action projections in the background and superimposed foreground mattes. This positioned the creatures in the centre of the field of action, enabling an unprecedented depth of realism and choreographed intricacy.

This system, which is laid out alongside the original metal and latex models in the Scottish National Gallery of Art, sets the stage for an animation process of quite baffling complexity. A scene such as the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts would take several months to record, with as little as half a second of footage secured in a day’s work. On top of the time it took to reposition each model, frame by frame, Harryhausen also had to maintain a mental log of movements. Animating a hydra, for instance, or Medusa, meant keeping track of the different trajectories of multiple snakes at the same time without the aid of any visual record. Later animators had the assistance of frame grabbers that would show them what the previous shots had recorded. For Harryhausen, the only frame grabber was his own extraordinary brain.

Little wonder, then, that these films should have had such an impact upon the children who grew up seduced and menaced by them. The filmmakers who claim Harryhausen as a major influences include Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Tim Burton, James Cameron, Nick Park, Peter Jackson… the list goes on. From Terminator to The Lord of the Rings, the legacy of Harryhausen is abundant and obvious. Keen-eyed fans can spot direct tributes in films such as Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Mars Attacks! and, of course, the Pixar cartoon Monsters, Inc., where the top restaurant in town is called Harryhausen’s.

The irony is that the generation of animators and special-effects experts spawned by Harryhausen were also the ones who brought about his eventual obsolescence. His final and most expensive film, Clash of the Titans, came out in 1981, four years after Star Wars had reset expectations of what fantasy cinema could do. It couldn’t compete. George Lucas’s effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, was just that: industrial, with teams of artists and technicians working with a spectacular array of new technology. It was a long way from Harryhausen, the one-man band knocking out his personal vision of dinosaurs and mythical beasts.

Audiences suddenly expected a different brand of effects, and with appetites increasingly turning towards futuristic tales and away from Harryhausen’s menagerie, cinema’s greatest animator recognised that fashion was against him. At the age of 61, he hung up his beloved mechanical creatures for good.

His legacy endures though, and in his centenary year, more than seven decades since his first feature, Harryhausen continues to captivate. I watched Jason and the Argonauts with my nine-year-old son, a seasoned connoisseur of modern CGI-driven fantasy, sci-fi and superhero films. Like so many children before him, he was completely mesmerised by the cinematic majesty and mind-bending visual trickery of Talos, the Hydra and the sword-wielding skeletons. We’re going to watch The Valley of Gwangi next. It’s cowboys vs dinosaurs, made by Ray Harryhausen. What’s not to like?

Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two) until 5 September 2021.