The Slow Genius of Ray Harryhausen

By  · Published on May 13th, 2013

by Shannon Shea

Faster is not always better. Those words are probably considered sinful in a society that seems obsessed with 4G networks, high-speed digital processors, fast cars, and television shows where contestants are given arbitrary time limits to create gourmet meals. However, there is truth behind the cliché “slow and steady wins the race.” Ray Harryhausen’s work took time. He, nearly single-handed, affected motion picture visual effects and created iconic creatures that would haunt the imaginations of generations of some of the most creative, successful motion picture artists today.

If you are reading this article, you probably are well aware of Mr. Harryhausen’s exploits and for those of you who are not – just Google/Netflix him and educate yourselves. His life’s contributions are too many and too important to condense down into a few sentences. What needs to be recognized is that he is a symbol of something that speaks to anyone who is possessed of following their dreams; he decided at a relatively young age what he wanted to do, then did it with such skill that he has transcended motion picture technology to become a legend.

In America, the undisputed father of stop-motion animation was Willis O’Brien. O’Brien led the team who created the dinosaurs and the titular gorilla in 1933’s King Kong,and it was this film that fueled Harryhausen’s passion to become a stop-motion animator. O’Brien and his team created lush, intricate miniature sets and used simple matting techniques, and rear projection to combine human characters with the puppets that were animated by moving them a fraction of an inch, exposing one frame of film, them moving the puppet again. The series of still frames when projected at 24 frames per second, gave the illusion of movement and captured the imagination of motion picture fans all over the world.

Ray Harryhausen, in an effort to improve the concert of live-action and animation, reversed the process and created a technique that was called “dynamation.” Instead of matting the humans into an artificial reality, he matted the artificial creature into reality using a combination of rear-screen projection and a front, hold-out matte. The result pushed stop-motion animation to new heights, but what it didn’t do was create an over-saturated market of “like” films produced with the same level of precision.

There were knock-offs to be sure, but what prevented a flood of stop-motion creature movies, was that it took time for Ray to make his films and in Hollywood (like elsewhere), time = money. His films were an enigma – too expensive to be copied quickly, but too inexpensive to receive big-budget releases unlike other high end family fantasy films of the time like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Ray, under the protection of his producer Charles Schneer, worked in a certain amount of obscurity, quietly producing mere frames of animation per day for complicated sequences. And much of the time he was working either alone or with limited help.

That is the genius of Ray Harryhausen.

Try convincing any producer, today, that a fantasy motion picture is going to be made featuring creatures of varying scales from a tiny winged “Homonculus” (as in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) to a colossal multi-armed Kraken (as seen in Clash of the Titans). Tell them that the crew will be fewer than 10 people and watch the reaction. Ray did that. And he did it in a time with no video assist, no computer-aided compositing software. He did it old school using a film camera, unable to see the result of his efforts until the footage had been sent and returned from a processing lab.

Ray developed his own “acting” style no differently than Orson Welles or Marlon Brando did, but with key exception. Ray’s characterizations were translated through his fingers to the positioning of his ball-and-socket puppets. Watch the cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, or the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth; they are each their own characters, but like any good actor, you can still see Ray in them. When you watch a Harryhausen film, you are enjoying his performances as part of their magic.

But Ray was also an excellent designer. His creatures had a particular look even if sculpted by other artists. He managed to maintain control over the appearance of his puppets. Just research the artwork that Ray produced to sell the movies that he and Schneer made during their very successful collaboration. He was a very skilled draftsman, and an expert not only in texture, light and shadow, but in drama. His black-and-white drawings were what sold their movies to distribution companies and investors, not the scripts or the actors attached to the projects. Even actor Laurence Olivier appeared in a Ray Harryhausen movie; it wasn’t “Ray Harryhausen producing effects for a Laurence Olivier film.” How many lone, visual effects artist reach and maintain that level of renown?

For all that, Ray was a careful technician as well. For his dynamation process to work, the puppets had to be lit carefully in a way to match the lighting of the live-action sequences that were filmed months before. And before you smirk, recall that not only was he matching sun light, but also moon light, the diffused light of the North Pole, and notoriously fickle fire light. To do this so well and so consistently is the work of a master. One of the best examples of this is The Valley of Gwangi. Watch that film and take note of the exceptional lengths Ray went to in order to make it appear like a renegade Allosaurus was loose in a Mexican town. It is nothing short of incredible.

However, it was what Ray Harryhausen managed to do off-screen that truly sets him above so many. He influenced generation after generation of animators, special effects artists, visual effects artists, writers, directors and actors. When Ray received his special Oscar, it was presented by Tom Hanks who confessed that he had lobbied for the opportunity to present it and shake hands with the man who had so mystified him as a child. When Ray received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the ceremony was attended not only by effects wizards like Denis Muren and Stan Winston, but by writer/director Frank Darabont who is a huge Ray Harryhausen fan as well.

Everett Burrell, VFX Supervisor for Prometheus, and A Good Day to Die Hard expressed it like this: “Ray saw it all. From rear-projection and miniatures, to process screens and optical effects, to contemporary digital effects. Within his lifespan, he witnessed the evolution of Visual Effects. Ray’s work may be considered old by some, but the Mona Lisa is old, and it is still a masterpiece. Ray was an artist and his work was masterful.”

About the time that Disney’s Dragonslayer opened (the same year as Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans – which was his last feature film), a magazine published a story entitled “Is Stop-Motion Dead?” In the story, it outlined how new technologies were encroaching on the territories in motion pictures normally ear-marked for dimensional animation. History has proven that although CGI has all but replaced stop-motion animated creatures in motion pictures, there remains a new generation of Ray’s children. Stop-motion animation has developed into a successful sub-genre, producing films like A Nightmare Before Christmas, Frankenweenie, and Paranorman by new artists and enthusiasts all over the world. Computer software and digital cameras have aided the discipline by encouraging new generations of stop-motion artists into exploring an ever-growing motion picture expression.

Whether future generations know who Ray Harryhausen was, it doesn’t matter. Just like genuine ancestors, their names and deeds may not be known by their descendants, but their lasting influence continues to guide like an unseen hand. In this case, the unseen, expert hand of the world’s greatest stop-motion animator moving all of us a few millimeters at a time.

Shannon Shea, a native New Orleanian educated at The California Institute of the Arts, has enjoyed a 28-year tenure designing, constructing, and performing animatronic creatures and characters for Motion Pictures and Television. He has had the pleasure of contributing to such diverse films as Predator, Dances With Wolves, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Spy Kids, The Chronicles of Narnia, Drag Me To Hell and Men In Black 3.

Not limited to the confines of Motion Pictures, he paints (having been shown in New York, North Carolina, and Los Angeles), sculpts, writes and authors a new blog about his motion picture experiences called Monster History 101. Recently, he was tapped by the Stan Winston School of Character Design to be one of their instructors for a lecture series entitled Garage Monsters. When not participating on Hollywood projects, he enjoys producing, writing, and directing his own short films including Hotel Superman, Blind Passion, and his current Internet project Phantom Harbor. Shannon lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tracy, an Operatic Soprano and their daughter, Molly, who attends the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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