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Surviving Cinema - 'Harryhausen'


I'm working on an article for FEARnet about movie monsters - old and new, from the 30's to today's motion picture creatures.  In preparing for this piece, I asked around to see what movie beasts today's horror fans admire the most.  I assumed a couple of classic stop-motion monsters created by the legendary Ray Harryhausen would be included in the responses.  Stop-motion essentially passed the torch to CGI with the release of Jurassic Park in 1993, so I was surprised by how many Harryhausen creations popped up on fans' lists of favorite monsters.  Young and old fantasy film aficionados are still entranced by the magical and terrifying beasts Mr. Harryhausen brought to the screen - one frame at a time.

Clash Of The Titans (1981) was Harryhausen's biggest film, as well as his last feature film as a stop-motion effects artist.  This was also the first Harryhausen film I ever saw.  So much of the stop motion in Clash Of The Titans is stunning, but perhaps it was nightmarish Medusa that impacted the wide-eyed ten-year-old me the most.   As I grew older and came to appreciate motion pictures more and more, the name Ray Harryhausen in the credits of a film meant I absolutely had to check it out.

Today, Clash Of The Titans is among my favorite Harryhausen movies, a list that also includes One Million Years B.C. (1966), Jason And The Argonauts (1963), The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1958), and Twenty Million Miles To Earth (1957).

Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton are generally credited with the first stop-motion trickery for their film The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1897) - now a "lost film" that no longer exists.  Around the world, stop-motion techniques continued to evolve until The Lost World (1925), directed by Harry O. Hoyt, became the first feature length film to utilize stop-motion.  The pioneering stop-motion magician responsible for the dinosaurs in The Lost World was Willis O'Brien, who would later become a mentor to Ray Harryhausen.

Though The Lost World was a groundbreaking achievement, O'Brien's real claim to fame was King Kong (1933), directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.  This was the movie that truly let stop-motion take root in the landscape of world cinema - where stop-motion stayed firmly planted for the next sixty years.  Willis O'Brien was the animator who brought Kong to life - a deed that essentially launched the career of Ray Harryhausen.  After seeing King Kong at the movies (many times) the extremely impressed and inspired 13-year-old Harryhausen dove into the craft himself.  He eventually met Willis O'Brien, who helped Harryhausen turn his artistic passion into his profession.  Harryhausen's amazing career flourished for three decades, greatly surpassing the accomplishments of his idol, O'Brien.

Harryhausen's first professional gig was working for Paramount on a run of short films called 'Puppetoons', produced by animator George Pal, who later received an honorary Oscar in 1944 for the innovative animation techniques present in the 'Puppetoons' series.  Harryhausen was employed by the Army Motion Picture Unit during World War 2, animating sequences for military training films.  He worked under the command of fellow Army filmmaker Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life).  After the war, Harryhausen was hired by Willis O'Brien as his assistant animator on Mighty Joe Young (1949).  This was Harryhausen's first major film job.  Mighty Joe Young won O'Brien the Oscar for Best Special Effects that year. 

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was Harryhausen's first feature film as the lead stop-motion animator, and it became a major world-wide box-office success.  One of the fantasy genre's most impressive artists was off and running.

Today, computer-generated imagery is used in place of stop-motion, but the artists working on today's genre films routinely cite Ray Harryhausen as a profound influence and inspiration.  Harryhausen is a hero, adored by film artists around the globe, from established pros to up-and-coming movie magicians.  Fantasy films have evolved.  What remains, in the industry and among film fans, is the respect and admiration for the master, Ray Harryhausen.

Thanks for reading.

-Eric Stanze