Ray Harryhausen
June 29, 1920 - May 7, 2013

I reblogged a short post about his passing yesterday, but wanted to do my own write up on the life of Ray Harryhausen and in the impact he’s had on the Film and Animation Industry alike.

Ray Harryhausen wasn’t the first to use stop-motion animation as a technique in film, nor would he be the last (obviously). But more often than not, his name has become synonymous with the technique. Where Willis O’Brien is considered the grandfather of stop-motion animation; Harryhausen is the father.

I can remember often seeing films like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans as a kid and always thinking to myself, “How in the world did they do that?” And it’s a good thing for us that Ray asked himself the same question after he saw King Kong for the first time.

Not only did his parents take him to see The Lost World when he was only five years old; but when he was thirteen they took him to see the newly released King Kong. And that was the film that would not only inspire him; but it would change his life forever! Ray left the theater asking himself over and over again, “How was King Kong made?” Like a mad scientist he would go home and experiment and try to figure how to create these monstrous figures that could come to life.

Ray began by creating marionettes. One of his first was a King Kong puppet, as well as a T-Rex, a Stegosaurus, a Brontosaurus and a Pterodactyl; which were all obviously inspired by The Lost World.

Ray would use the marionettes to put on puppet shows, but he knew that that wasn’t enough. King Kong, after all, was not a marionette - Ray still needed to understand how they got the creature to move. He would try to find any resources he could on how the creatures of King Kong and The Lost World were animated, however, he always came up short in his discoveries. It wasn’t until he visited an exhibition at the L.A. County Museum, which featured actual sculptures from The Lost World and King Kong, that he finally discovered how the creatures came to life on film. Ray recalls:

As I continued to study and learn how the effects for Kong were achieved, I realized this was something I really wanted to try for myself and perhaps even be part of, so I began to construct my own miniature dioramas and crude models, which eventually led me to take the step in making larger movable figures.

Ray would continue to experiment and moved on to making dioramas, large scale models, as well as wooden armatures that he could animate on film using the stop-motion technique.

At the age of eighteen Ray started his most ambitious project yet, a project he called The Evolution of the World. Ray envisioned it as a film that would begin with the dawn of the planet and end with the destruction of the dinosaurs. He created many models and sets for the film and had even begun to film it on his own Kodak Cine II camera.

The Evolution of the World proved to be a little too ambitious for Ray and, after seeing the Rites of Spring sequence in Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, he officially ended the one man project. But it was while working on The Evolution of the World that Ray’s career in animation and film finally took motion.

While working on The Evolution of the World he was fortunate enough to meet his childhood hero and greatest inspiration Willis O’Brien. O’Brien created and animated the armatures for both King Kong and The Lost World. Ray called O’Brien at MGM Studios and arranged a time they could meet. During their first meeting at the studios Ray brought a long a few of his early dinosaur models.

Here Ray talks about the first time he walked into the studio, which at the time was working on a project called War Eagles:

I walked in and my jaw just dropped. The walls were completely covered with paintings and drawings for the project. They were magnificent. Some were by Obie (Willis O’Brien), some by Byron Crabbe, Mario Larrinaga and Duncan Gleason. It was breathtaking!

Here Ray discusses showing Willis O’Brien his work for the first time:

[After handing O’Brien his stegosaurus armature] I held my breath. Obie looked at it for a few minutes and then said, ‘The legs look like wrinkled sausages. You’ve got to put more character into it and study anatomy to learn where the muscles connect to the bone. I realised he was right. 

Ray would take O’Brien’s advice and enrolled into Los Angeles City College and also took night classes at the University of Southern California where he studied art direction, photography, film, and editing. He continued to experiment with armatures and slowly learned how to animate them, and became better at adding character and personality to his creations. His work also benefited from taking frequent trips to the zoo and observing animals - how they stood, how they moved, and how they generally reacted in their environments.

After studying for a short period of time, Ray found his first job animating on a series of short films for German director George Pal called Madcap Models, or Puppetoons. It was on Puppetoons that Ray would professionally work with Willis O’Brien for the first time.

The models on Puppetoons were created out of wood, and except for the arms, didn’t have any characteristics of the typical armature. This didn’t leave a whole lot of room for creativity for the animators working on the shorts. Ray and O’Brien would both eventually leave the production due to the lack of creativity involved in animating the shorts. Ray was reluctant to leave because he got along so well with the productions director, George Pal, but he knew he could do better as an animator.

Shortly after this, just like most young men in the early 1940’s, Ray was called into to military service. In 1942 Ray was assigned to Army’s Signal Corps but after showing a film he made to American director Frank Capra, he was transferred to the Special Service Division - which Capra commanded. Together they worked on US propaganda films like Why We Fight. Working in the Special Service Division also allowed Ray to make his second animated short film, Guadalcanal. In 1946 Ray was honorably discharged from the Army. His discharged papers stated that Ray “Served with the signal corps, in the capacity of a cameraman, making films for the Army Navy Screen Magazine and for orientation motion pictures. Did some work with 3 dimensional and animations used on maps in orientation films. Directed the activities of 4 assistants.”

After Ray’s military service, along with the help of his mother and father, Ray would independently produce Mother Goose Stories. Ray’s father Fred created the ball and socket armatures for the film based on Ray’s designs. Ray’s mother Martha created the costumes for the production. Each armature they made had a series of replaceable heads, each one with a different expression or reaction. Every frame a different head with a different expression would be put on in order to create a fluid animation. The same thing is still done today when creating stop-motion animations.

Shortly after Mother Goose Stories, Ray was contacted by Willis O’Brien to work on the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young. Ray worked mostly on preproduction art for the film with O’Brien and animated roughly 90% of the film himself! Mighty Joe Young would go on to win an Academy Award for Best Special Effects. Willis O’Brien would be the main recipient of the award, however, he would accept it with Ray and the rest of the production crew proudly by his side.

After Mighty Joe Young Ray would go on to work on numerous films but it wasn’t until The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963), that people would come to really appreciate the genius of Ray Harryhausen.

During the production of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Ray coined the term Dynamation. Dynamation was something that had been used successfully in films like King Kong and Mighty Joe Young, but it was really the work of Ray Harryhausen which gave it true recognition.

Dynamation: The process was simple but very effective. He projected a live action image onto a rear screen in front of which was placed the animation table with the model. He would then place a glass sheet in front of both. When the live action plate had been shot Ray would establish where he wanted to make his matte line and so by looking through the camera viewfinder he would re-establish that line and with a wax pencil on the end of a stick, follow that line by drawing it on the glass. When he was satisfied that the line was accurate he would then paint out, with black matt paint, the lower section, below the line. He would then photograph the animation of the model reacting to the live action on the plate. Afterwards he would then create a second pass in the camera to reinstate the lower previously matted out section so creating a combined image of the creature seemingly as part of the live action. Source: rayharryhausen.com

The 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts has always been considered Ray’s greatest film achievement. At the time of it’s release it was considered a box office failure, however, over time it has become a fantasy cult classic. It took Ray over four months to animate the fighting skeleton sequence. Ray estimated that he personally animated over 184,000 movements for the four minute fight sequence between Jason and the skeletons.

Ray would work on a numerous amount of films after Jason and the Argonauts, none of them as successful or critically acclaimed. The last film he worked on was the 1981 cult classic, Clash of the Titans.

Clash of the Titans might not have been your average Oscar Winning film, or box office smash; and it’s a film that obviously benefited from the presence of Sir Laurence Olivier and Madame Maggie Smith; but it’s truly the work of Ray Harryhausen that stands out in Clash of the Titans. Science Fiction author Ray Bradbury stated that Harryhausen’s Medusa, “…was the best thing Ray ever photographed!”

That is a horrifying image - an image that will stand the test of time and be referenced upon and will continue to draw influence more so than any computer generated screen shot that the remake has to offer.

Unfortunately most of the armatures that Ray built through out his career have deteriorated because the latex models erodes over time. A lot of his work has been lost to film, but will never be forgotten. And even a few pieces were saved by Ray himself, who cast them them into miniature bronze sculptures - which can be seen in The Art of Ray Harryhausen.

You don’t have to look far in order to find the influence that Ray’s had on the industry. He’s inspired the likes of Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg  James Cameron, Stan Winston, Sam Raimi, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro, and the list goes on and on and on.

Tim Burton was asked what influenced his films as an animator and here’s what he had to say:

Mainly it had to do with Ray Harryhausen. He was the guy. If I saw his name, no actor meant anything but his name certainly meant something. I think that’s where the love of this animation comes from because you could see an artist at work. His monsters had more personality than most of the actors in the movies. Even if the monster was just a monster, their death scene was always so beautiful and tragic. The final twist of the tail or whatever or the one final breath, he brought such passion into the work. To me he was the guy that not only inspired me but inspired almost any animator.

In fact, several months ago Johnny [Depp], Helena [Bonham Carter] and I went to his house in London. We met him for the first time and he is just such an amazing man and so generous with his time and his enthusiasm and all. Then he went to the set of ’Corpse Bride’ and production kind of ground to a halt that day cause everyone was like, ‘Uhhh…’ I think he not only inspired stop motion animators but any animator.

Ray Harryhausen has left a mark in the industry that is only left every so often. Not many can be compared to or leave the kind of impact that Ray did on the Film and Animation Industry. The work he did was basically the cornerstone of what’s now known as the Stop-motion Animation Industry. You can’t take a single animation class, film class, or animation history class without the name of Ray Harryhausen being dropped.

It’s really a sad day that Ray Harryhausen has passed. But fortunately for us his work will live on and we can always go back and appreciate his masterful skill on film and in animation. And fortunately enough for Ray, he’ll live on in his work - which will truly stand the test of time.

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