History & Film: Creature Feature: The Historical Fantasy of Ray Harryhausen
WRITTEN BY BETHANY LATHAM
I share with Ray Harryhausen a fascination with creatures, especially dinosaurs, and a birthday – 29 June 2020 would have been his 100th (no, we don’t share a birth year). Harryhausen passed away in 2013, but the legacy he left, including the modern filmmakers he inspired and influenced, continues. For those unfamiliar, Harryhausen was best known as a visual effects artist, a master of stop-motion animation. He wasn’t the first to pioneer this art form; he was a successor to Willis O’Brien, the animator behind 1925’s The Lost World and the iconic 1933 King Kong. O’Brien acted as mentor to Harryhausen when they worked together on Mighty Joe Young (1949), another ape picture which won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
Stop-motion animation is a simple technique that requires few resources – with the exception of obsessive attention to detail and a boatload of patience. Given that the method has been around for over a century and digital animation has exploded into a billion-dollar industry since the 1990s, one might think that stop motion is a relic of the past. A 2019 article opined, “Let’s face it, stop motion should be dead. It’s a crude, time-consuming, labour-intensive form of animation that has been trumped by the jaw-dropping, smooth, and lifelike qualities of CGI.”1 I take exception to the word “crude”; just because something is simple doesn’t mean it’s crude, and CGI is so commonplace that jaw-dropping has long ceased to describe it. I could also write an entire piece on the uncanny valley of CGI’s “lifelike qualities.” Yet the interesting thing is that this article and others of similar ilk are forced into statements against interest, admitting that stop motion thrives as they try to figure out exactly why it’s still around. I think creativity and charm go a long way (eg, my hands-down favorite, Aardman features such as Wallace & Gromit). I would posit that stop motion affects viewers in a way that soulless, homogenous CGI extravaganzas do not and perhaps never will. Massive moneymakers such as the LEGO movie franchise have even gone to great lengths to use digital methods in attempts to emulate the look of stop motion.
Perhaps I’m overly harsh to CGI. I simply love stop-motion animation. There is something tangible about it that modern computer generated imagery, no matter how technically impressive, lacks. A rare, 3-D depth in a field dominated by 2-D computer images that employ all kinds of technical wizardry to give the illusion that they aren’t what they are: artificial and intangible. Perhaps, as the article above theorizes, stop motion’s appeal lies in the desire for a return of the artisanal, a feeling of craftsmanship, a counter-reaction to the modern mass-production that results in so much facile, formulaic rubbish. In a world where almost every product is mass-produced in the fastest way to appeal to the widest possible audience, stop motion is handmade, slowly and carefully. It is unique. And a great deal of labor goes into it.
It is also nostalgic in that it hearkens back to a time when it was the only way to create certain effects. Which returns us to Harryhausen. His models consisted of a metal armature (usually made by his father, an engineer) covered in latex rubber and hand-painted by Harryhausen. Costumes to dress the models were sewn by Harryhausen’s mother. With simple stop motion, one places the model on a scaled set, shoots a single frame, makes a tiny adjustment to the model, shoots another frame, repeat ad infinitum. When the film is screened at 24 frames per second, the model has the illusion of motion, much like the flipbooks we drew as children. For movies where the models needed to appear to interact with real actors, Harryhausen would shoot live-action backgrounds, animate the models in front of the rear-projected background while matted for the foreground, and with the perspective controlled, the models appear to be living, breathing, and having their being (and usually rampaging) in a real-world environment. The final step is to have the foreground footage with the actors added, so all appear to be existing in the same space. He called his technique Dynamation (sometimes later called SuperDynamation or Dynarama).
Harryhausen is best known for films that are categorized as science fiction (essentially, monster movies) in his early career, and historical fantasy adventure in his later career. Since history is our wheelhouse, we’ll focus on the latter. Harryhausen’s first foray and a turning point in his work came in the form of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). Captain Sinbad (Kerwyn Mathews) is blown off course at sea, and ends up on the island of Colossa, where Harryhausen’s creatures are front and center. The first encountered is a cloven-hoofed, enormous cyclops; later there’s a half-woman/half-snake dancer, a sword-wielding skeleton, a giant two-headed Roc bird, and a fire-breathing dragon which engages in a battle royale with the cyclops. This full-color, swashbuckling historical adventure had an enormous impact on a number of future filmmakers; Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, George Lucas, Tim Burton and more have cited it as inspiration for their work.
Harryhausen usually worked by himself, and that led the film’s producer, Charles Schneer, to insure Harryhausen’s hands for a million dollars. Schneer considered Harryhausen a genius, and they would work together over the next 25 years to create a number of films. Harryhausen was much more than an animator; he has been called an auteur by many. For 7th Voyage, Harryhausen began with a simple desire: he wanted to animate a skeleton. His skeleton needed an adversary to fight, so Harryhausen chose Sinbad as “the personification of adventure,” but also because he thought audiences would accept this historical fantasy environment if it incorporated elements from the Arabian Nights. He wanted to show “just how exciting legends could become if the audience could actually see the fantasy creatures.”2
This melding of a fantastical, historical setting with stop-motion creatures is a mainstay of Harryhausen’s later works, as is its exploration of (and riffing on) mythology. He was not above mixing his idioms, as is readily apparent by the fact that a character from Arabian Nights does battle with a cyclops lifted directly from Greek mythology. The cyclops in 7th Voyage is an exemplar of what made Harryhausen such a great animator: the cyclops doesn’t simply attack people and roar. He clearly emotes, from evincing pain and anger to delight at the thought of munching on Sinbad and his men (he licks his lips in anticipation). Harryhausen was able to use his abilities to make his creatures relatable – he never called them “monsters” and preferred others didn’t either.
7th Voyage was the first of a trilogy of Sinbad movies that Harryhausen and Schneer would partner to create, with The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger following in 1973 and 1977, respectively. The 7th Voyage was so influential that in 2008 the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry – films that are deemed culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. The later two films were not as well received, yet The Golden Voyage especially contains some astounding creations, most notably a ship’s figurehead that comes to life, and a living, sword-wielding statue of Kali, the many-armed Hindu goddess. These creations showcase another penchant of Harryhausen’s – bringing statues to life – that he would fully indulge in his Greek mythology movies.
Harryhausen admitted that, in school, Greek mythology wasn’t his favorite: “But as I grew older I began to appreciate the legends and to realise that they contained a vivid world of adventure with wonderful heroes, villains and, most importantly, lots of fantastic creatures.”3 His last film, Clash of the Titans (1981), would be in this genre, and in addition to its creatures, it featured some legendary personalities of the silver screen, Sir Laurence Olivier and Dame Maggie Smith amongst them. While its creatures are impressive (Medusa, scorpions, a Kraken, a mechanical owl), it’s not among my favorite Harryhausen films, especially in the mythology genre. It’s almost as if the weightiness of the actors overwhelms it. The majority of Harryhausen movies feature less than prominent actors; it allowed Harryhausen a measure of creative control and direction that seem lacking in Clash of the Titans which, frankly, I find ponderous rather than adventurous. Thus, I’d rather examine his first foray into Greek mythology, rather than his last.
In the early 1960s, Harryhausen and Schneer took a look at many sources when they first began considering a mythic Greek adventure movie, and finally settled on Jason’s search for the Golden Fleece. The resulting film, Jason and the Argonauts, would become Harryhausen’s favorite. “Of all the films that I have been connected with, it continues to please me most.”4 I first saw it as a child, and to say it pleased me, too, would be an understatement.
The film has multiple iconic scenes. Most remember it for the fighting skeletons (more on that in a moment), which I also loved, but my personal favorite is a Harryhausen statue classic, the Dynamation sequence featuring Talos. Jason (Todd Armstrong) has set out in search of the Golden Fleece on his ship the Argo, accompanied by a contingent of the bravest men, Hercules (Nigel Green) among them. On the Isle of Bronze, there are various vaults with enormous statues atop them; one of these statues is Talos, guardian of the island. Jason has been warned to remove nothing but food and water. But Hercules has a mind of his own, ignores the warnings, and helps himself to a brooch pin from Talos’s vault, which is large enough for him to use as a javelin. The first time I saw this film, I sat there, jaw agape, as the bronze statue of Talos slowly turned its head, sightless eyeholes staring at the thief, then raising itself to its full 100-foot height before pursuing the Argonauts with murderous intent, the creaking of metal on metal accompanying its every step. Harryhausen noted that Talos presented an ironic challenge: “For most of my career, I have been trying to perfect smooth and lifelike animation action, but for Talos it was necessary to create a deliberately stiff and mechanical movement in keeping with a bronze statue sprung to life.”5 Harryhausen consulted images from period Greek vases as the basis for his design. The result is both terrifying and fascinating.
Jason and the Argonauts also features flying Harpies, a seven-headed Hydra (another transposition; Harryhausen borrowed it from the Hercules legend), and the famous “children of the Hydra’s teeth” – the fighting skeletons. For those who’ve seen 7th Voyage, one of the skeletons may look familiar; it’s the same model used in that film. The seven models were approximately 8 inches high, each with five appendages that would have to be moved in every frame of a battle which was synchronized with three actors in the live-action film. That’s 35 animation movements in each frame of film. Harryhausen often worked all day to accomplish less than a second of screen time. The entire sequence would take almost five months of constant labor from the man who took a fencing course in order to make sure his animated swordplay would be correct.
And that is, perhaps, the takeaway – the painstaking labor and attention to detail that went into every aspect of Harryhausen’s craftsmanship in his attempts at realism. He did this because he loved the work, and in his million-dollar hands, it became an art form. Watching Dynamation on the screen, there is no sense of the cold, impersonal and mass-produced artificiality of many current special effects. Harryhausen sequences present creatures that one understands are tangible. As Dennis Murren, creative director of special effects giant Industrial Light & Magic points out, “You can look at them, and you may not know how they are moving, but you know that you could touch them.”6
About the contributor: Bethany Latham is a professor, librarian, and HNR‘s Managing Editor. She is a regular contributor to NoveList and a regular reviewer for Booklist.
- Kim Taylor-Foster. “Breaking the Mold: Why Stop Motion Is Thriving in a CGI World.” Fandom. 8 February 2019. https://www.fandom.com/articles/breaking-the-mold-stop-motionl
- David Weiner. “The Wonder and Dynamation of Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.” It Came From… Blog. 24 December 2018. https://itcamefromblog.com/2018/12/24/the-wonder-and-dynamation-of-ray-harryhausens-the-7th-voyage-of-sinbad/
- Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton. Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life. Billboard Books, 2004.
- Geoff Boucher. “‘We Lost a Legend’: Abrams, del Toro, Rodriguez Remember Harryhausen.” Entertainment Weekly. 7 May 2013. https://ew.com/article/2013/05/07/jj-abrams-damon-lindelof-guillermo-del-toro-ray-harryhausen/
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 93 (August 2020)