Dinosaurs, Dragons, and Monsters: The Legends of Ray Harryhausen

In the age before computer-generated images, special effects in film were rarer and involved a great deal of compromise. Dinosaurs and alien monsters in particular suffered, often being portrayed by humans in rubbery suits or unfortunate lizards with fins glued on their backs. Use of stop-motion animation - the technique of animating models by shooting them in many positions over several frames of film - tended to be very limited because of the massive amount of patience and expense involved.

It would take a true master of animation, a man with both a creative genius and near limitless ingenuity and patience to create convincing creatures with the more limited technology of his time. Enter Ray Harryhausen, a true master of stop-motion who realized dozens of stunning dinosaurs, mutated creatures, and mythical beasts over his decades-long career. Harryhausen’s stop-motion work on science fiction and fantasy films made him a legend among genre fiction fans and film historians alike.

Beastly Beginnings

Harryhausen’s first influence as a young artist was the stop-motion work of Willis O’Brien, the creator of the ape in King Kong. Harryhausen’s filmmaking started while he was still a teenager, creating short films about dinosaurs in the garage of his house. During this time, he managed to secure a meeting with his inspiration O’Brien, who viewed his early work and encouraged him to continue making movies but also to study anatomy to make his creatures’ movements more lifelike. Harryhausen went to study at Los Angeles City College, where he took classes in art and anatomy.

He began work on a project he called Evolution, which he did not finish but which proved helpful to his burgeoning career when he showed it to producer and puppeteer George Pal. In 1940, Pal hired Harryhausen to work on his “Puppetoon” series of shorts. Although Pal’s unjointed wooden puppets were not Harryhausen’s instrument of choice, he performed adequately in his duties animating them until 1942, when he enlisted in the army and began producing propaganda films under the guidance of Colonel Frank Capra. Although Harryhausen was unemployed after the war, his friend and mentor Willis O’Brien would soon ride to the rescue.

In 1947, Willis O’Brien would begin work as supervisor for the stop-motion effects on the RKO film Mighty Joe Young. Remembering the young fan of his work he had met several years ago, O’Brien decided to hire on Harryhausen as an “assistant” for the film. O’Brien had become weary of performing the actual animation duties on his works by this point, and, as a result, Harryhausen ended up animating over 80 percent of the film. Unlike the Puppetoons puppets that Harryhausen had worked on earlier, the Joe models were elaborate and flexible, with numerous ball-and-socket joints in their flexible metal skeletons and foam rubber muscles covered in fur. It would take two years to complete work on the film, which featured elaborate sequences in which Joe interacted with live actors via split-screen and rear projection and a particularly memorable finale in which Joe saved children by climbing up a burning orphanage. The film featured Joe onscreen more extensively than King Kong was in his earlier movie and was an excellent proving ground for Harryhausen and his stop-motion techniques. Although it was not financially successful at the box office, Mighty Joe Young won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1949, granting Harryhausen prestige as an animator and ensuring that studios would be interested in his future projects.

Full-Length Features: Harryhausen’s Creature Extravaganzas

Harryhausen was a major innovator in shifting the science fiction genre into giant monster movies, effectively changing Hollywood’s output from the old Universal Monster series, such as Frankenstein and Dracula, into adventures involving rampaging atomic mutants and aliens. His first giant monster movie was 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, a film about a giant dinosaur awakened by atomic testing that attacks New York City. Harryhausen pitched the film to studios as being based on a short story by his friend Ray Bradbury called “The Fog Horn," found in the collection The Golden Apples of the Sun. He made several changes to it from its source material, changing the Brontosaurus of the short story into a fictional “Rhedosaurus,” making the creature directly aggressive to humans rather than simply drawn to a lighthouse, and introducing a disease into the creature’s blood to give an excuse as to why the army couldn’t simply kill it with heavy artillery. Harryhausen’s film was a major financial success, in no small part due to its memorable Rhedosaurus, which resembled a a tall, athletic crocodile more than a Tyrannosaur and would go on to inspire numerous kaiju films of the 1950s and 1960s, including Godzilla

Harryhausen’s success on Beast, the first film in which he was officially in charge of effects work, would lead to other talent in Hollywood taking notice of him. A friend from his army service days would connect him to producer Charles H. Schneer, who quickly hired him to work on the movie It Came From Beneath the Sea, about a giant octopus attacking San Francisco. In order to keep the budget and production schedule feasible, the octopus model utilized featured only six tentacles, forcing Harryhausen to use imaginative camera tricks and editing to disguise the budgetary limitations. Like Beast before it, Sea was financially successful, cementing a partnership between Schneer and Harryhausen that would last for decades. They would create another giant monster movie together, 1957’s 20 Million Miles to Earth

In the story of a strange bipedal alien brought back by astronauts visiting Venus to Earth, the creature, referred to by Harryhausen as “the Ymir,” was more unique and distinctly characterized than the octopus and Rhedosaur that preceded it. Rather than emerging to attack humans and choosing to be a threat, the Ymir was forced to defend itself and was brought to Earth against its will, its violence simply part of its will to survive rather than any deliberate evil nature. Even its incredible rate of growth in size was a manifestation of it being on a world where it didn’t belong rather than an “evil” monstrous trait. The Ymir and its sympathetic characterization would come to be a hallmark of Harryhausen’s work, as the animator grew more sympathetic towards his creatures who were set against a cruel humanity seeking to destroy them. 

From Out of the Past: Stop-Motion Dinosaurs and Myths 

Harryhausen pioneered the use of stop-motion in color film with 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. He experimented extensively with color film stocks in rear-projecting his stop-motion models into live-action footage to make them appear as seamless with the actors as possible. This process was named “Dynamation” in promotional materials for The 7th Voyage and was prominently mentioned on the film’s many posters. 7th Voyage marked both Harryhausen’s first color film and his first film set in the past, but it was still a film focused on his monsters, who remained the true stars of the movie. The film’s most memorable sequence is its cyclops versus dragon fight, perhaps the most elaborate stop-motion combat sequence Harryhausen had created so far.

Harryhausen’s follow-up film, 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, would go on to even greater success. Originally conceived as “Sinbad in the Age of Muses,” a direct sequel to 7th Voyage where Sinbad and Jason would seek the Golden Fleece together, Harryhausen reworked the initial pitch into a more straightforward adaptation of the Greek myth. Even for a Harryhausen production, the film had a plethora of wonderfully animated monstrosities, ranging from the robotic giant Talos to the shrieking winged Harpies, but is perhaps best remembered today for its amazing skeleton swordfight. This sequence, in which Jason fights several skeletal soldiers raised by the film’s villain, lasts only three minutes but took roughly four months to create. The skeletons have wonderful articulation and seem to interact flawlessly with the human swordfighters, marking a high point in Harryhausen’s Dynamation technique.

During the 1960s, Harryhausen would also work on some films featuring dinosaurs. The first of these was 1966’s One Million Years B.C.  A rare Harryhausen film not produced by Charles H. Schneer, B.C. couldn’t be marketed with the Dynamation term as Schneer owned the brand. The film still benefited from Harryhausen’s wonderful effects work, which realized such scenes as a battle between a triceratops and a Ceratosaurus, an aerial battle between a Pteranodon and a Rhamphorynchus, and an Archelon rising from the sea to attack a caveman tribe. The film’s Ceratosaurus model would later be repurposed into Gwangi for 1969’s The Valley of Gwangi, a story of cowboys that find a surviving Allosaur in the Old West and capture it for a circus act. This film contained numerous scenes that were an influence on the later Jurassic Park series, including a sequence where Gwangi hunts a Gallimimus and a final rampage through town that was referenced in 1997’s The Lost World

Both Harryhausen’s real and mythic creatures leave a strong impression on the viewer. There is a strong sense of motion and weight to even scientifically impossible creatures such as the mechanical Talos, whose creaky noises and jerky motions mark him as a heavy, lumbering mechanoid. Harryhausen was as fond as agile menaces from above as he was of the clumsy Talos; both the Harpies in Jason and the Pteranodon in Gwangi have rapidly flapping wings and raptorial grasping foot claws, like some kind of ancient bird of prey.

Harryhausen’s work preceded the “dinosaur Renaissance” that influenced later work, such as Crichton’s Jurassic Park, but his Gwangi was still an active, agile predator with birdlike motions and a predatory bloodlust. Harryhausen was not intentionally designing his prehistoric beasts for scientific accuracy; he once claimed that he did not make his dinosaur movies for “professors...who probably don’t go to see these kinds of movies anyway.” Indeed, he often embellished the abilities of the actual animals in his stop-motion creatures, creating a Ceratosaurus double the size of the actual dinosaur and Pteranodons that could hover in midair by flapping as frantically as a bat. Yet his dinosaurs have the same elaborate model work, detailed animation, and distinct individual characteristics as his other creations, making them seem like beasts that once walked the Earth rather than mere effects solely created for action scenes. 

End of a Dream: The Last of Harryhausen’s Stop-Motion

Harryhausen’s career began to slow down during the 1970s. His stop-motion techniques required months of post-production on films to implement, meaning that his movies were releasing late in a time when audiences’ tastes were steadily changing. Harryhausen stuck to his old ways, releasing two more Sinbad fantasies, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, but neither had the box office success or lasting popularity of his works from earlier decades. Live action footage for Eye of the Tiger was completed in 1975, but the film’s stop-motion took so long for Harryhausen to complete (roughly 1 ½ years!) that it ended up releasing in 1977 after a much more popular fantasy adventure that would rule the year and go on to influence Hollywood’s future releases - Star Wars. Harryhausen’s time was fading, but he still had one more big film left in him.

His final work as an animator was the 1981 release Clash of the Titans. For this film, he had his largest budget ever - $15 million - and access to top acting talents such as Laurence Olivier and Burgess Meredith. A retelling of the legend of Perseus and Andromeda, Clash was the last collaboration between Charles Schneer and Harryhausen and featured numerous mythic beasts rendered in stop-motion. The live action sequences of the film were completed in 1979, long before the film was actually released, typical of later Harryhausen releases. The extra time was necessary to create fantastic creatures, such as the flying horse Pegasus, gigantic scorpions, the multi-armed sea monster Kraken, and the serpentine Medusa. One of Harryhausen’s most memorable creations, the film’s Medusa, was hideous, with a barely human appearance, dozens of writhing snakes for hair, and ominous glowing eyes. Clash would be a major box office success and proved a worthy send-off for Harryhausen’s career. The following year would see the release of TRON, the first major film release with digital effects, marking the end of Hollywood’s stop-motion age just as Harryhausen’s career had ended. 

Harryhausen’s work in the stop-motion field was peerless. His dinosaurs were stunning compared to the campy costumes and dressed-up lizards his competitors used, seeming as much like living, breathing animals as anything rendered in stop-motion could be. His alien creatures and mutated beasts appeared similarly naturalistic and “alive” as well, full of little motion quirks and characteristics that seemed those of a creature with its own existence and purpose rather than an effect solely designed to shock and frighten the audience. Harryhausen rarely cut corners and was willing to spend months on effects that would appear onscreen for only a few minutes.

After the advent of CGI made movies completely saturated with computer-altered imagery, endless action sequences, and countless motion-captured creatures, today’s audiences may find watching a Harryhausen film to be a slower, more arid experience than the viewers of the past would have. Yet his beasts have a strange weight and eerie life to them that very few of today’s much more rushed special effects have. His ingenious vision will live on in later films that took inspiration from his work, the visual artists who continue to reference his creations even today, and cinephiles who continue to find inspiration in his weird creatures that prowl the dark recesses of our imaginations.