Oct 28 2011 12:00pm

Ray Harryhausen: The Monster Magician

Halloween and monsters go together like Batman and Gotham, New Orleans and jazz, SFF conventions and cosplay: you can’t have one without the other. In film’s early days, when filmmakers needed special effects their choices were to paint up their actors with heavy makeup, stick a guy in a rubber gorilla suit, or superimpose some stop motion animation and miniature sets. The undisputed genius king of movable model monsters is Ray Harryhausen.

Born June 29, 1920, Raymond Frederick Harryhausen grew up in Los Angeles, CA with his good friend Ray Bradbury. A school project to build a California Mission (a staple of education every Californian fourth grader does to this day), the occasional trip to see puppet shows at the Orpheum, visits to Southland prehistoric sites, and the 1925  fantasy adventure film The Lost World based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story all had their effect on young Ray. But the biggest impact on Harryhausen came the day he saw King Kong at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The 1933 classic starring Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, and Fay Wray was intriguing, but it was Chief Technician Willis O’Brien’s stop motion animated gorilla that rocked Harryhausen’s world. From there it was a hop, skip, and a jump to settling on a career in film.

Harryhausen usually worked alone, creating, molding, drawing storyboards, and even dabbling in second unit directing. It took him years to craft, move, and shoot his monsters, often on a very strict budget. By the 1950s he was a powerhouse of the sci-fi and action/adventure B-movie. Chances are good that if you’ve seen an Atomic Age creature feature, you’ve seen a Harryhausen monster. Contemporary filmmakers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Tim Burton owe in part their careers to Harryhausen: it was his monsters that hooked their imaginations and tailored their creative visions.

If O’Brien is stop motion animation’s Jerry Siegel, Harryhausen is its Jim Steranko (and if you don’t know who either of those men are, it’s time for you to discover the wide world of comics). He pushed the art to a whole new level, particularly with the revolutionary technique he called “dynamation.” Using a process similar to how split screens were done at the time, he was able to put his terrible monsters into the same shot as the actors, allowing the real stars to appear to interact with the fake ones. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms in 1953 was his first attempt at dynamation and he never looked back.

Some of the best examples of the seamlessness of dynamation can be found in the cowboys versus dinosaurs romp The Valley of Gwangi and the epic fantasy adventure Jason and the Argonauts.


There a fantastical sort of charm to Harryhausen’s stop motion animation. Watching the cowboys struggle to capture Gwangi is fascinating and almost miracle-like as a technological feat, and the skeleton fight in Jason is one of the most famous scenes in film history. Sure, you can be a cynic and complain that the dinosaurs look all rubbery and those skeletons are totally fake. Or you could shut the frak up and enjoy the damn movie. When I saw the first Clash of the Titans I bought wholesale into Zeus having a pet kraken since there’s simply so much more suspension of disbelief that what’s one more weird thing to buy into. The 2010 version went for realism, in which case I spent the entire movie being pissed that Greek gods were utilizing Norse sea creatures when they had a perfectly decent Scylla lying around. The difference being that the original is awesome and the remake was trying to convince me that Liam Neeson as Zeus would willingly wear a suit of armor that would make Edward Cullen like, so totally jelly.

At the end of the day, everybody understands that these monsters are just models. Unlike CGI and motion capture technology where everything must look AS REAL AS POSSIBLE, the people making Mighty Joe Young were perfectly content with realistic enough. There’s a higher level of suspension of disbelief required for stop motion animation than CGI, because the former wants to look cool and the latter wants to look real. Sure, there’s a lot of neato things that only CGI can pull off. Without it the world never would have been blessed with the glory that is Michael Bay, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy wouldn’t have been nearly as awesome. But for the most part, CGI strips the magical element out of creature features and leaves them looking hackneyed. Doubt me? Remember how upset you were when Lucas CGI-ed Yoda? Imagine if Jaws was a computer generated shark instead of an animatronic sea puppet. Now, name any creature feature from the last 10 years that doesn’t totally suck. Told you.

Over the course of his long and eventful career, Ray Harryhausen worked on well over 50 films, and that’s not even counting commercials or his acting jobs. To whet your appetite for some movie monster magic, here’s a handy dandy list of some of his best work (click the links for some awesometastic trailerage):

Alex Brown is an archivist by passion, reference librarian by profession, writer by moonlight, and all around geek who watches entirely too much TV. She is prone to collecting out-of-print copies of books by Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, and Douglas Adams, probably knows far too much about pop culture than is healthy, and thinks her rats Hywel and Odd are the cutest things ever to exist in the whole of eternity. You can follow her on Twitter if you dare.

This article is part of Monster Mash on ‹ previous | index | next ›
Douglas Raymond
1. Talos7
Dear Alex,

Your Harryhausen essay is wonderful and very comprehensive. Anyone reading it should also try to find a copy of Arnold Kunert's award-winning 2-disc DVD, "Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection," which contains virtually all of Harryhausen's pre-feature film work (tests, experiments, Fairy Tales, commercials, etc.). Mr. Kunert was responsible for, among many things, getting Harryhausen his Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1992 and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003. The "Early Years" DVD contains four hours of entertainment, so having a snack and beverage nearby while watching it is recommended.
Alex Brown
2. AlexBrown
@Talos7: Thanks! That DVD is really interesting. Harryhausen himself authored 2 books that are also worth checking out: "Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life" and "The Art of Ray Harryhausen". Also floating around the internet is one of Ray's more recent interviews and it's wonderful - it's basically just him hating on the new Clash of the Titans movie.

Side note: The death of Talos in Jason makes me all weepy to this day. I almost used it for the article but just couldn't bring myself to. It's right up there with the death of Gwangi. It's funny how you can care more about a stop motion animated puppet than any of the human characters.
René Walling
3. cybernetic_nomad
One of the things puppets have that CGI doesn't that helps the suspension of disbelief is that they have physical reality. CGI creations have that extra step to overcome. It also causes CGI animators to go overboard when something perfectly reasonable would be just as cool, if not more. I might be in the minority on this, but the oliphaunts in LOTR could have been ordinary elephants and probably would have had just as much impact for me (and be truer to the books)

And a plug: the Saturday Morning Cartoons featured a Ray Harryhausen fairy tale shorts awhile back.
Alex Brown
4. AlexBrown
@cybernetic: I totally agree. CGI, no matter how detailed and intricate, always feels two dimensional next to real things.
Eugene R.
5. Eugene R.
It is also worth noting that Mr. Harryhausen's first solo effort, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, took its title from the working title of a short story by Ray Bradbury (published as "The Fog Horn"). The producers bought the rights to Mr. Bradbury's story after learning of his friendship with Mr. Harryhausen and thus attempting to head off a lawsuit for infringement.

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