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

By | June 24, 2020

test article image
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’

test article image
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.