The Miracle of Ray Harryhausen

From Harryhausen's "A Century of Stop Motion Animation" (Watson-Guptill Publications)

Learning of Ray Harryhausen’s death has left me feeling a bit hollowed out, and of course very sad. I love his stop-motion work, and certain of his films have become landmarks in my mind, so much so that, in the usual selfish way, I can hardly think about his passing without thinking about some part of me passing as well. I’ve had a proprietary attitude about Ray’s work for most of my life—mine, mine, mine!—but of course that’s ridiculous, since I know he has inspired many and has cast a long, long shadow.

My condolences to Mr. Harryhausen’s family, friends, and colleagues on their personal loss, more important than my own selfish love for the man’s films. May his memory live and grow, and his work be studied and appreciated by new generations. May the warmth, good humor, and sheer joy that always peeks out of that work be remembered too, and valued.

Ah, the Cyclops and Dragon (photo from chud.com)

To me, Harryhausen is no less than a culture hero. Certainly he was one of the cinema’s great visual artists, one of the effects field’s huge, magnetic influences, and the creator of a charming and eerie menagerie of on-screen beasts unmatched for their eccentric liveliness: “the creatures of legend” indeed, remade for the movies.

What follows was written not today but the better part of eight years ago, on the occasion of Warner’s home DVD release (2005) of the original King Kong (1933), the film that sparked Harryhausen’s love of stop-motion and so profoundly shaped his life. The commentaries by Harryhausen on that DVD set reminded me, yet again, of my awe for his own work. I have not much edited what follows; I just wanted to get it online again by way of tribute, right away:

The film that blew Ray's mind

The King Kong of 1933 inspired Ray Harryhausen’s long, fruitful career, indeed was the template for many of his films. Its lost-island, Lost World premise recurred in Harryhausen’s many mysterious islands, remote valleys, and bygone kingdoms; its ape-ripped-from-his-element motif inspired his set pieces about ancient or otherworldly critters let loose on modern human settlements: the dinosaur standoffs in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The Valley of Gwangi, the Ymir’s assault on Rome in 20 Million Miles to Earth. The familiar spectacle of monsters stomping cities – a trope launched with The Lost World (1925) and Kong, then amped up with Godzilla, Them!, and all their post-nuclear kin – gave Harryhausen his way in to feature filmmaking in the 1950s.

The quintessential Ray Harryhausen film

Yet the movie that heralded Harryhausen’s arrival as a film artist of stature was a return to the lost island theme without the added gimmick of the monster let loose on the metropolis, and without the fashionable paranoia of 50s sci-fi: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Harryhausen’s first feature in Technicolor and a straight plunge into storybook fantasy. 7th Voyage, an Arabian Nights fairy tale directed by Nathan Juran, channeled Douglas Fairbanks’s and Alexander Korda et al.’s Thief of Bagdad films just as clearly as it referenced the Alf Layla, Gallimand, and Burton. Swashbuckling high fantasy with nary a touch of historical verism, it offered actors Kerwin Matthews and Kathryn Grant as achingly Anglo incarnations of, respectively, Sinbad and his expected princess-in-distress, accompanied by a bald and sinister Torin Thatcher as the scheming wizard whose treachery propels the plot. What was new in 7th Voyage was also what was wonderful about it: its knitting together of Thief of Bagdad-style spectacle (Korda’s Thief, released in 1940 when Harryhausen was about twenty, was one of the most sumptuous Technicolor fantasies of its time) with Harryhausen’s preposterously vital stop-motion creatures, a flock of beasts such as never before seen in a live-action film: a gigantic Roc, a cloven-hoofed Cyclops, a sword-fighting skeleton, a woman transformed into a serpent, a dragon on a leash. Here was a film that, in the sheer extent and variety of its animated characters, and in its vaulting enthusiasm for fantastic set pieces, far surpassed any previous Harryhausen effort.

7th Voyage, the signature Harryhausen movie, established a blueprint that he clung to for most of his remaining films: an exotic plot plundering ancient myth and/or nineteenth-century fantasy (sometimes nineteenth-century visions of past or future) and always populated with several fantastic creatures. These creatures were far enough from humankind to be mysterious and technically dazzling (apparently Harryhausen felt cheated whenever viewers assumed that his creations were mere actors in suits, à la Godzilla), yet were imbued with a convincing animal vigor, and, at their best, with decidedly human qualities: pride, self-satisfaction, puzzlement, anger, pain, anguish, stoic strength. An animator, puppeteer and storyteller of great gifts, Harryhausen used these painstakingly sculpted toy creatures, his tabletop proxies, to pantomime emotion with the fierce theatricality of silent film acting, telegraphing feeling and gesture with the clarity of a master exaggerator.

Poor Talos! (screen shot from monstermovies.wikia.com)

Skeleton GIF courtesy of bavatuesdays.com and Jim Groom

Eerie! (from swordsandals.blogspot.com)

While some of his features – I think here of The Three Worlds of Gulliver, First Men in the Moon, and what may be his best overall film on narrative terms, Mysterious Island – offered relatively few opportunities for such dramatic stop-motion acting, it is the films in which the creatures seem most human that today leave the strongest impression, if not for their overall excellence then for the sheer liveliness of their menageries. Above all, these are Harryhausen’s trademark movies: 7th Voyage, Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and the later, more cynically contemporary but still happily childlike Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974). The overflowing variety of stop-motion puppeteering in these films remains breathtaking.

Looking back at 7th Voyage, I can see all the qualities that distinguished Harryhausen as an animator and filmmaker, and the several ways he boosted the technical and dramatic vocabulary of fantasy cinema. For one thing, he developed new and suppler ways of intermixing stop-motion and live elements, that is, of optically layering animation and live action. 7th Voyage was a supreme test of his capabilities in this area, for it took what had been a black-and-white idiom and imported it into vivid color (thus posing additional technical difficulties in terms of color matching and consistency of film grain). Harryhausen, after all, was not simply a sensitive puppeteer and an animator of Sisyphean patience, but also, like his mentor Willis (Kong) O’Brien, an all-around effects wizard, using various optical and mechanical tricks to blend live and animated characters as seamlessly as possible.

I love this guy! (image from theconduitspeaks.com)

Secondly, Harryhausen extended the thematic reach of the fantasy film, making “monster” movies that went beyond routine city-smashing to conjure up mythic settings and (damn, almost always on shoestring budgets) a sense of epic scope. This reliance on the mythic and folkloric helped to justify his most bizarre animated excursions: he understood that creatures and set pieces that would seem absurd in a modern setting could play out beautifully in a faraway, storybook world. The Greek-mythological riffing in Jason and the Argonauts, for example, was something new in live-action film fantasy: a classically inspired quest peopled with a peculiar horde of imaginary beasts.

Thirdly – and this is the quality of his films that endures most strongly, even though his other qualities have, arguably, been surpassed or rendered commonplace by more recent FX technology – he instilled his best creations with so much personality as to make even the most frightening of them almost comic in their vividness. To put it bluntly, while Harryhausen’s efforts at reality have long since been trumped by CGI and digital compositing, his best stop-motion sequences remain, in effect, oddly charming puppet films, bristling with peculiarity and energy – with life.

Ray at work on the Kraken (image from hollywood.com, originally from the Everett Collection)

Perhaps the most obvious miracle of Harryhausen’s films, post 7th Voyage, was the fact that they got made at all, for logistically (and thus economically) they were difficult affairs that practically redefined the relationship between production and postproduction. Much of what made the films work was completed by Harryhausen, at times almost single-handedly, months after the principal live-action photography was completed; what’s more, the live-action shoots had to anticipate, in fact defer to, the complex animated setups that were to come later. Blocking on set and on location – in essence, choreography – was part of what Harryhausen did to enable his delicate postproduction work; basically, the “live” elements were treated as raw material for the more complex compositions and sequences that would gradually emerge from his delicate tabletop manipulations. Harryhausen became the editor, the de facto director, of the creature sequences; for him, “postproduction” was a crucial stage of production. He effectively anticipated the practice of today’s digital filmmakers who spend long months manipulating live-action shoots in postproduction, sometimes relying on postproduction to create the entire look of a film. Harryhausen did something similar in his lengthy Dynamation shoots, but with a medium much less malleable than computer imaging: actual film footage. He layered stop-motion characters, miniature sets, live-action footage and various optical process shots to create intricate images, sometimes whole environments and sequences. The process was unforgiving in its demands for precision and stamina.

Ray Harryhausen and Charles Schneer, circa 1977? (photo from philosophyofscienceportal.blogspot.com)

So, besides marveling at Harryhausen’s concentration and technical efficiency, and appreciating the undiluted expression of his sensibility in so many films, we ought to nod in thanks to Harryhausen’s logistical partner in all of his feature films, producer Charles H. Schneer. Presumably, Schneer’s job included not only co-planning each film with Harryhausen but also smoothing the way so that Harryhausen could pursue, without interruption or argument, his highly individualistic, shall we say eccentric, production method (which, while involving every stage of the process, put special strain on postproduction). Schneer, in short, helped guarantee Harryhausen’s authorship of every film: his decisive input into story, design, and even principal photography, as well as the final patient, grueling months of animation and effects work, in which the fantastic set pieces were brought to fruition and the tone and rhythm of the finished film were set. Each production must have placed enormous pressure on Harryhausen in the final months, as he labored to bring off his visions: stop-motion became in a sense the rate-determining step, the long, narrow end of the funnel that was the production process (in his marvelous memoir and technical journal, An Animated Life, Harryhausen reveals that for 7th Voyage principal photography took six weeks but the subsequent animation work took eleven months). Financially as well as creatively, Harryhausen must have been very often under the gun – yet somehow he and Schneer contrived ways to make these eminently impractical films do-able.

Schneer and Harryhausen in 1977 (from Sérgio Leeman's A Certain Cinema)

They did so on lean budgets: Harryhausen’s features were B-movies with A-list elements squeezed out through sheer doggedness and ingenuity. Though the films lacked high production values, they often managed to hide this fact, thanks to the collaborators’ resourcefulness and Harryhausen’s understanding that atmosphere and vividness of character could fill in the gaps. That a relatively low-budget film like 7th Voyage should contain both Harryhausen’s visuals and the world-class musical scoring of Bernard Herrmann is, in hindsight, a miracle in itself – one in a long line. Schneer and Harryhausen were thrifty, filming well away from Hollywood, making England their base, and often resorting to little-exploited continental locations that were not only attractive but also relatively affordable (Spain was a favorite destination, starting with 7th Voyage). Harryhausen’s soaring imagination, then, had to be matched by a certain hard-headed pragmatism, as well as, again, bottomless patience – a rare combination of qualities.

Harryhausen’s idol, Willis O’Brien, possessed these qualities in abundance, but did not have the sort of long-term partner Harryhausen had in Schneer. Without such a dependable, sympathetic and resourceful producer, O’Brien was not able to bring many of his splendid, eccentric visions to the screen. (Perhaps centralized studio production simply wasn’t amenable to stop-motion filmmaking?) Harryhausen’s entire approach to feature film production was stenciled from O’Brien’s, but, improbably, Harryhausen was able to go his mentor one further by creating a long string of features that, despite narrow financial straits, brought to the screen visions of rare individuality and quirkiness. Again, a miracle. Schneer (who died in 2009) was Harryhausen’s steadfast partner, and together they made a unique and very effective team.

Whatever it was that made the films technically possible, I cherish the charm, free invention, and sheer chutzpah of Ray’s finest work. Design, atmosphere, and feeling, qualities no easier to achieve with CGI than in the old days, saturate Ray’s films, giving them a vivid, dreamlike weirdness that will stay with me always. That’s the real miracle.

Thank you, Ray.

7 responses to “The Miracle of Ray Harryhausen

  1. Jim Gray

    Excellent article, with observations rarely expressed before, if ever.

  2. Modern day CGI is still very detectable in movies of today. If I had a preference to watch an old Harryhausen over one of today’s, it would be my choice to do so because Ray had an impact on most baby-boomers I think. And he was doing those fantastic movies at a time when “stop gap” or “stop motion” animation was very tedious and time consuming. It proves how much devotion he had for the craft and how perserverence paid off. He was way ahead of his time and an innovator. That plus the fact he was an excellent illustrator which is pretty damb cool!

    • charleshatfield

      Thanks, Dan. Agreed about Ray’s talent for illustration: those wonderfully evocative concept drawings really made his films, I’d say. And I don’t mind the fact that Ray’s stop motion critters don’t quite blend seamlessly with the live action footage; even as a kid I knew how the work was done, and loved it for that.

      I’d say the one area where CGI presents a real advantage, if what you’re interested in is FX for live action films (BTW, can we even say “live action” anymore, and know what we mean?), is digital compositing: i.e., the blending of FX and live stuff. Ray generally had to worked with fixed cameras for his animated scenes, which greatly constrained the interaction of live and animated characters. The sheer fluidity of camera movement in today’s fantasy films is something Ray could not have done under the technology limits of film (celluloid) and optical compositing. But, as for the charm of the creatures, no one has improved on Mr. Harryhausen.

  3. James Van Hise

    The importance of producer Charles Schneer to supporting Harryhausen’s ideas can’t be overestimated. Harryhausen and O’Brien worked for Irwin Allen on Animal World (1956) doing the stop motion dinosaur sequence. But their work took so long that Irwin Allen was horrified at the thought of using them on his 1960 film The Lost World and so used live painted up lizards instead. The dinosaur sequence from Animal World appears as a special feature on the cheap dvd of The Black Scorpion (1957).

  4. charleshatfield

    Thanks, Jim. I think it’s incredible that whole film productions were allowed to funnel through Ray’s workshop, so to speak; that so much was made to depend on Ray, in the end. Schneer must have had his back the whole time, to make that work!

  5. charleshatfield

    PS. I always felt sorry for those painted-up lizards in other dinosaur pictures. Can you say, “No monitors were harmed in the making of this film”?

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