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Ray Harryhausen Inhabited the Body and Soul of Monsters

Without the incredible contributions of the legendary Ray Harryhausen, the glorious cinema of monsters would look very different.
The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad Screenshot
By  · Published on July 2nd, 2020

The Immortal Craft is our new column in which we celebrate the epic lives that shaped cinema. They may no longer travel on our plane of reality, but they continue to impact the world with the art they left behind. Here is our opportunity to thank them.

One hundred years ago this week, Ray Harryhausen appeared on this Earth. He entered through the portal of Los Angeles, and his earliest memories concerned an obsession with Tinseltown’s most lucrative export, the movies. He saw The Lost World, the 1925 adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s dino-mad novel of the same name when he was five years old, and it forever changed him.

The creatures were as wonderous as they were terrifying, and the mixture of emotions they stirred within suggested an invitation. Join us, Ray. Be our friends and gather the like-minded around you.

Harryhausen’s parents accepted their strange child, encouraging him to disappear into his dioramas and other crude replicas of those visions that burned off the movie screen. They placed more books in his hands and took him to more and more cinematic monster mashes. In 1933, he encountered King Kong, and another electric thought sparked in his mind. The 8th Wonder of the World did not appear out of thin air; he was made by a man.

Willis O’Brien was not only responsible for the great ape; he was the guy who brought the thunder lizards to rip-roaring life in The Lost World as well. At the time, the technique used to animate these magnificent beasts was not widely known by the public. Could Kong hide a man beneath his rubber skin? The question is laughable today, but several seriously considered the possibility.

Stop-motion animation requires not a man below, but a puppet or a poseable metal armature. King Kong was eighteen inches tall in reality and crammed onto a set made to scale with a movie camera in front of him locked into a singular position. As each frame of film was exposed, O’Brien would manipulate the puppet’s limbs ever so slightly. Playing the film at twenty-four frames per second offered the illusion of movement and life.

Suddenly, Harryhausen had a creator to emulate, and an art form to master. With his father’s help, the young kid boosted his diorama game and started experimenting with stop-motion animation. His models were crude, but they were good enough to imply a future.

Armed with a Ciné-Kodak II 16 mm camera, Harryhausen erected a studio in his parent’s garage. There he would shoot his first dinosaur films, and as a teenager, Harryhausen dared to capture the creation of everything for his short Evolution of the World. When a cave bear was required, he raided his mother’s closet, and with her permission, he sacrificed an old fur coat for the animal’s hide. The world was there to contribute to his stories.

During this era of rapid inspiration and growth, Harryhausen would strike lasting friendships with other young dino-crazed geeks, primarily Forrest J. Ackerman and Ray Bradbury. Together they encouraged each other, and if any one of them had succumbed to doubt or faded into obscurity, there’s no telling how altered the current pop culture landscape would be. We would most certainly be the lesser for it.

Eventually, Harryhausen worked up the courage and reached out to O’Brien. They met in the production offices of War Eagles (a never made lost land saga featuring Viking raiders piloting giant birds), where Harryhausen presented several of his sketches and models to the master. O’Brien was impressed by what he saw, but he also encouraged Harryhausen to hit the books. If he wanted to excel in the field of monsters, Harryhausen needed a deeper understanding of biology, anatomy, and art history.

Not one to ignore the advice of an idol, Harryhausen immediately enrolled in several night classes at Los Angeles City College, and he would eventually brush up on his art direction and photography at the University of Southern California. Upon graduation, Harryhausen landed his first commercial gig on George Pal‘s Puppetoons. Working for $16 a week, a sum not to be sneezed at in 1940, Harryhausen assisted in the animation of several wooden puppets.

World War II became quite the distraction as Harryhausen served under Frank Capra as a clapper boy, gofer, and camera assistant inside the Army Special Services Division. While applying and honing his craft for the purposes of propaganda, he also became acquaintances with his fellow enlisted, cats like composer Dimitri Tiomkin (High Noon) and Ted Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss). As the conflict ended, and everyone sought victorious normalcy, Harryhausen scrounged the department for discarded 16mm film and used what he found for a series of stop-motion fairy tale shorts called The Mother Goose Stories.

In 1947, the Ray Harryhausen we worship today began to take form fully on the set of Mighty Joe Young. O’Brien oversaw the stop-motion effects as supervisor, but he found his time mostly consumed with solving various technical problems, and he hired Harryhausen as an assistant. As a result, most of the animation seen in Mighty Joe Young is the direct result of Harryhausen, plus Pete Peterson and Marcel Delgado (the man who built Kong’s body).

Watching King Kong and Mighty Joe Young back-to-back is to experience an AWEsome technological leap in a matter of mere hours. One of the many sequences in the original King Kong that inspired Harryhausen as a child was the moment Kong diddled the dead T-Rex’s jaw, effectively playing with his food, and revealing the curious mind within. Harryhausen wanted to instill every action of Joe with that same sense of energy.

The big moments were highlighted on the poster and drew in the crowds, but the subtle and minuscule motions of its star are what elevated Mighty Joe Young into legend. Not to be mean or besmirch his co-stars, but in many cases, there was more vibrancy and believability in the gorilla armature than the supporting players. Harryhausen was a proud poppa, and the film gave him the credit to springboard a proper career.

Four years later, Harryhausen took a sea monster story by his buddy Ray Bradbury and dropped it on the desks of Warner Bros. producers Jack Dietz and Hal E. Chester. The sci-fi author was starting to gain quite a reputation in Hollywood, and many were itching to work with him. Dietz and Chester jumped at the chance, and based on the success of Mighty Joe Young, they were happy to hand over the job of the technical supervisor to Harryhausen.

Giant monster movies began with King Kong but reached perfection in The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms. Without its influence, one could easily argue there would be no Godzilla. To pull off many of the film’s most thrilling scenes where actors and monsters interacted together, Harryhausen concocted the craft of “Dynamation.”

Background and foreground images were shot live-action and projected on a screen behind the models. In front of both, a camera locked into place. The projected image and the model were shot one frame at a time, and it would appear as if the two planes were in conversation with each other. Terror was no longer reserved for cutaway screaming actors, as they finally got physical with their titanic opponents.

The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms would define Harryhausen’s Hollywood strategy. He refused to let others regard him solely as a technician. He was a filmmaker. He often brought the projects to producers, guiding the stories while also designing the creatures in the very earliest conceptual stages.

As he had done as a teenager in his parents’ garage, he spent most of the 1950s experimenting on his craft, inching it closer and closer to perfection. The decade was incredibly fruitful, assembling a batch of iconic cinema: It Came From Beneath the Sea, Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. In an era of sci-fi dreck consisting mostly of shoddy atomic cringers, Harryhausen’s films stood out as bonafide, revelatory masterpieces. Stories that were once only conceivable in print or imprisoned inside your imagination, now strutted defiantly on screen.

Jason and the Argonauts, released in 1963, probably represents the apex of his talents, but the films that followed always delivered in the areas that count, and you could never do wrong with renting, or blind-buying a Harryhausen production. From his labor came Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, John Landis, Peter Jackson, and countless others. Once educated, it’s impossible to watch a modern science fiction or fantasy endeavor and not see Ray Harryhausen’s fingerprints all over it.

The trick today is to return the special back to special effects. The wonderment Harryhausen inspired is in danger of becoming commonplace, but as he would tell you himself, it was never about building a better monster. What Harryhausen achieved was character in the unimaginable. He chased the psychology of King Kong as much as his biology. When filmmakers follow a similar path, they add to Harryhausen’s legacy.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)