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Ray Harryhausen's Stop-Motion Animation: How He Made The Films We Loved

Entertainment | June 29, 2020

Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) animating Skeleton model (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 1958) © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation (Charity No. SC001419)

With Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, One Million B.C., and three Sinbad movies, stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen created fantasy worlds that enchanted young moviegoers in the pre-CGI age. Before the advent of complex digital effects, the monsters and magic of cinema had to be created physically, and no one was better at realizing our fantasies like Ray Harryhausen. One of the few (if not only) household names when it comes to special effects and fantasy films in the groovy era, Harryhausen made some of the most beloved films of the 20th century. 

Ray Harryhausen worked near single handedly to make his most fantastic creations. He designed, sculpted, painted, and filmed a skeletal army, a massive cyclops, and the fearsome Medusa, and along the way he changed cinema forever.

Harryhausen found inspiration in ‘King Kong’

Harryhausen's Medusa. Source: National Galleries of Scotland

Born in Los Angeles, California, Ray Harryhausen was obsessed with monster and special effects from an early age. After seeing King Kong in 1933, Harryhausen started experimenting by animating short science fiction stories that he was reading in literary journals at the time. After a brief meeting with model animator Willis O'Brien, Harryhausen was inspired to take classes in graphic arts and sculpture to round out his skills.

Rather than take the traditional route of going to college and seeking an internship, Harryhausen joined Forrest J. Ackerman’s Los Angeles-area Science Fiction League along with his friend Ray Bradbury. Shortly afterward, he enlisted in the military during World War II, where he served under director Frank Capra as a camera assistant. During the war he was able to use the military’s equipment to animate some of his earliest works. 

Harryhausen didn't make stop motion, he made "Dynamotion"

source: black gate magazine

Harryhausen perfected stop motion animation, but for much of his career the process was referred to as “Dynamotion,” a term coined by his producing partner Charles H. Scanner. Even though Harryhausen is mostly credited as an associate producer, producer, and effects person on his films he was paramount in the process of filming whatever he was working on.

When Harryhausen was hired onto a film he was there from pre-production to the final editing of the films, essentially he was a co-director on many of his most important movies even if he never received the credit.

As heavily involved in the making of his films as Harryhausen was, he didn’t do all of the “Dynamotion” work by himself. His father worked with him to create the metal armatures for the models and his mother helped create many of the costumes for the miniatures. Working with such a small crew, it could take months for Harryhausen to complete his effects. The production of One Million B.C. took Harryhausen nine months, and even while farming out the molding and modeling work it took him two years to complete work on Jason and the Argonauts. Harryhausen described the long, lonely hours of stop motion animation:

It is a lonely profession, at least it was when I worked on my pictures. But the loneliness, accompanied by much frustration and pain, was always outweighed by the excitement of seeing my creatures move in the same 'reality' as humans.

The skeleton army is his greatest creation

source: Columbia Pictures

One of the most impressive effects created by Harryhausen is the group of seven sword wielding skeletons from Jason and The Argonauts. The stop motion magician had already given audiences one animated skeleton in The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, but creating a full army was a whole other process. After defeating the Hydra, the creature’s teeth fall to the ground and turn into skeletons.

The sequence that follows is one of the most technically marvelous scenes of Harryhausen’s career, with each skeleton featuring multiple components and a variety of moves in order to make the creatures look life like. The scene is all the more majestic when you realize that Harryhausen basically had to do the whole thing without being able to check his work. He had to shoot the scene, frame by frame, and wait for the film to return before he knew if he nailed it. According to Harryhausen, the work was so labor intensive that some days he only shot one second of screen time, he explained:

Each of the model skeletons was about eight to 10 inches high, and six of the seven were made for the sequence. The remaining one was a veteran from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, slightly repainted to match the new members of the family. When all the skeletons have manifested themselves to Jason and his men, they are commanded by Acetes to ‘Kill, kill, kill them all,’ and we hear an unearthly scream. What follows is a sequence of which I am very proud. I had three men fighting seven skeletons, and each skeleton had five appendages to move in each separate frame of film. This meant at least 35 animation movements, each synchronized to the actors' movements. Some days I was producing less than one second of screen time; in the end the whole sequence took a record four and a half months.

Harryhausen’s Medusa changed the way we think about this mythical creature

source: MGM

Prior to the serpentine Medusa that’s found in Clash of the Titans, this mythical gorgon was only seen as a beautiful woman in a flowing gown with snakes for hair. Rather than portray the character similarly to how she was shown in the 1964 Hammer film The Gorgon, Harryhausen wanted to make her into more a frightening creature.

Even though Medusa only has five minutes of onscreen time in the film, she was necessary to MGM green lighting the film. In 1978, Harryhausen created a wax model showing a naked Perseus strangling Medusa while using his shield as a mirror. It’s such a power visual that the distribution company gave him the go ahead to start work on Clash.

Kali dances and fights like you've never seen before

source: Columbia Pictures

One of the coolest creations that Harryhausen put together is Kali, the dancing, six armed statue from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. In the scene, Sinbad watches as the statue dances for him before it brandishes a sword in every hand and duels multiple adversaries. Watching it now, even after the advent of digital effects, it’s amazing to see this statue come to life.

The scene shows just how accomplished Harryhausen was with mixing animation and live action, and it showcases his ability for making stop motion seem lie a fluid, real life movement. Where many pieces of stop motion animation look jittery, Kali stands out as a creature that could just as well exist in the real world.

Harryhausen completely changed the concept of the Cyclops

source: Columbia Pictures

One of the most well known creatures from Greek mythology, the Cyclops makes its appearance in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad as a gigantic creature that Harryhausen changed from a simple one-eyed creature to a pointed ear, wart-covered creature with three clawed hands and satyr legs on top of the single eye and the horn on top of its head. Harryhausen explained his concept of the character, saying, “We tried to give him a proportion so that people would find him rather awesome.”

Talos suffers a fantastic death

source: Columbia Pictures

As much as Harryhausen pulled from mythology to create his awesome stop motion monsters, he had no problem making as many changes as he needed to affix the inventions to his personal vision. In Jason and the Argonauts, Hercules and Hylas do battle with Talos, a massive bronze statue, after they make off with a bunch of treasure.

In Greek mythology Talos was a large, bronze automaton who could only be defeated by removing a piece of “skin” from his ankle, thus leaking out his life force. In order to create a giant colossus Harryhausen had to make multiple versions of Talos, one small model and one giant foot. He explained in his autobiography:

Like all good stories, hope is at hand when Hera tells Jason that Talos's weak point is his heel. He has to remove a cover to allow the giant's ichor (the life blood of the gods) to drain out. To enable Todd Armstrong to attack Talos's heel, we had a full-size plaster foot and ankle built in Italy. After much experimentation, the props department came up with a concoction for the ichor consisting of oatmeal and colored water. As the ichor drains away, Talos totters, then falls towards the camera and on to the beach. I didn't use the main model for this, but a fibreglass one that I cut into cracked sections, filling the cracks with clay. During the animation, I shot a frame and gouged out a little of the clay, then shot another frame, slowly creating the appearance of cracks opening up on the body.

Tags: Animation | Clash Of The Titans | Ray Harryhausen

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.