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Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen, born on June 29, 1920 in Los Angeles, California, is an Producer and special effects creator. Check out the official Ray Harryhausen website

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. A friend arranged a meeting with Harryhausen’s idol, Willis O’Brien, animator of ‘King Kong’  O’Brien critiqued Harryhausen’s early models and inspired him to take classes in graphic arts and sculpture to hone his skills. Harryhausen became friends with an aspiring writer, Ray Bradbury, with similar enthusiasms. Bradbury and Harryhausen joined a Los Angeles-area science fiction club formed by Forrest J. Ackerman in 1939, and the three became lifelong friends.

Paramount executives gave Harryhausen his first job, on the ‘Puppetoons’ shorts, based on viewing his first formal demo reel of fighting dinosaurs from an abortive project called Evolution. H also produced a variety of other short animation demos during the post-World War II 1940s. He 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 O’Brien the Academy Award for Best Special Effects that year.

Harryhausen was hired to do the special effects for The Monster from Beneath the Sea. While in production, the filmmakers learned that a long-time friend of Harryhausen, writer Ray Bradbury, had sold a short story called “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” 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.

He followed that movie with minor hits, ‘It Came From Beneath The Sea’ (1955), ‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ (1956) and ’20 Million Miles to Earth’ (1956) before his greatest masterpiece (and biggest hit) of the 50s, ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’ (1958).

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 such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi and James Cameron, among many others.

Harryhausen was then hired by Hammer Film Productions to animate the dinosaurs for ‘One Million Years B.C.’ (1967). It was a box office smash, helped in part by the presence of shapely Raquel Welch in a cavewoman bikini. Harryhausen next went on to make another dinosaur film, ‘The Valley of Gwangi’ (1969); the movie 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 is cornered and destroyed inside a burning cathedral.

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’, often remembered for the sword fight involving a statue of the six-armed goddess Kali. It was first released in Los Angeles in the Christmas season of 1973, but garnered its main audience in the spring and summer of 1974. It was followed by ‘Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger’ (1977), which disappointed some fans because of its tongue-in-cheek approach. Both films were, however, box office successes. The latter was my first cinematic experience of Harryhausens work; I’d been a fan as a little kid watching his movies on saturday matinees but seeing his effects on the big screen blew me away.

The last feature film to showcase his effects work was the ‘Clash of the Titans’ (1981), for which he was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Special Effects. It featured an amazing set-piece with a Kraken, however despite of the relatively successful box office returns of “Clash of the Titans”, more sophisticated technology developed by ILM and others began to eclipse Harryhausen’s production techniques.

Amazingly, none of Harryhausen’s films were ever nominated for a special effects Oscar. Harryhausen’s contribution to the film industry and he was finally awarded a Gordon E. Swayer Award for “technological contributions [which] have brought credit to the industry” in 1992, with Tom Hanks as the Master of Ceremonies and Bradbury, a friend from when they were both just out of high school, presenting the award. This recognition made Harryhausen an international celebrity. A long series of appearances at film festivals, colleges, and film seminars around the world soon followed as Harryhausen met many of the millions of people who had grown up enjoying his work. On one of these tours he visited the Disney studio in Sydney where I was lucky enough to meet him and score an autographed copy of ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ DVD… it’s still my favourite piece of memorabilia.

9 responses

  1. Excellent writeup!

    June 30, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    • Thanks. I grew up watching these movies… and I still love them.

      June 30, 2011 at 5:27 pm

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