How Ray Harryhausen made a difference to filmmaking

We pay tribute to the remarkable work of the late Ray Harryhausen. Here's why his stop motion work was so important to artists everywhere...

When you really think about it, there’s something quite innocent and childlike about the process of filmmaking. Actors put on funny costumes and makeup. Writers dream up make-believe dramas and arguments and fights. Set-builders construct pretend shops and houses for the characters to walk around in.

Perhaps this is why so many filmmakers have always been inspired by the movies they saw as youngsters; those images etch themselves on their young minds, and although they’ll come up with startling ideas of their own in their later careers, they’ll always be informed by the things they saw as children.

Ray Harryhausen was about 13 years old when he saw the original King Kong in 1933. He loved it so much that he went back and saw it again and again, and became fascinated by the process of stop motion animation. He began experimenting with the process himself, building his own dinosaurs and creatures and capturing their movements, one painstaking frame at a time, on 16mm film. One of his earliest surviving projects was a short called Cavebear, made sometime around 1935 or 1936, in which an animated bear attacked Ray’s pet dog, Kong. 

Ray’s enthusiasm for the medium soon paid off. In 1938, he met Willis O’Brien, the animator behind King Kong and The Lost World (1925), who became a mentor to the young animator. After World War II, Harryhausen was working alongside O’Brien on a new giant ape picture, 1949’s Mighty Joe Young – surely a dream come true for any budding animator at the time.

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Harryhausen’s career would soon flourish in its own right. Through the 50s and 60s, he was responsible for a string of stop-motion hits: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was a landmark monster movie, with its rhedosaurus emerging from the ocean to bring panic and destruction to New York City. Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956) featured the most exciting and explosive alien invasion attacks of its era, with UFOs pummelling American landmarks with death rays. 

On and on the films came, each more startling than the next. The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1958) featured a snake woman and a huge two-headed bird. Jason And The Argonauts (1963) mesmerised audiences with its towering statue of Talos, its Harpies and its impeccably choreographed and animated sword fight between actors and stop motion skeletons. 

Just as he was astonished by O’Brien’s King Kong and The Lost World, so youngsters drank in the remarkable scenes that came from Harryhausen’s workshop. And just as King Kong inspired Harryhausen to become an animator, so his work inspired another generation to get into filmmaking.

The documentary Special Effects Titan, which came out on disc earlier this year, makes the full magnitude of Harryhausen’s influence clear: his work made an impact on animators, directors, writers and makeup artists. John Landis, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Terry Gilliam, Phil Tippett and Steven Spielberg are but a few of the famous names who paid tribute to Harryhausen’s work in that film.

Harryhausen passed away on the 7th May, aged 92. It’s a cliche to say that his work will live on long after his death, but in Harryhausen’s case, this is absolutely true. There remains a timeless, dreamlike quality to his animation: a fluidity, a physical sense of weight to his extraordinary creatures, whether they happened to be gigantic moon calves (1964’s First Men In The Moon) or ancient dinosaurs fighting elephants in Valley Of Gwangi (1969). 

Stop motion is seldom used in mainstream effects movies these days, with the task of bringing giant creatures to life now in the hands of computer animators. But Harryhausen’s influence continues to stretch beyond the bounds of the medium he perfected, with animators, artists and monster designers still watching his work, combing each frame for clues: how did he achieve that sense of weight? How did he make these little sculptures of metal and rubber move with such character and vitality?

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The secret of Harryhausen’s genius, perhaps, is that he never lost the love he had for animation – that sense of awe he felt when he first saw King Kong. From his earliest work to his last feature, Clash Of The Titans (1981), you can sense the sensitivity and passion he put into every frame.

This is why Ray Harryhausen made such a lasting and important difference to filmmaking, I think. He was more than just a master draftsman, technician and artist – although he was undoubtedly all of these. He brought a sense of curiosity and discovery to his work, a sense of magic, and playful creativity as well as craftsmanship. This is something that all artists should aspire to bring to their own work, and the reason why Harryhausen will continue to inspire audiences and budding filmmakers for many, many years to come.

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