Ray Harryhausen: ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ & ‘One Million Years B.C.’ visual-effects artist has died
Long before the computer-generated imagery of Jurassic Park, Avatar, The Avengers, and Iron Man 3, there were special-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen’s painstakingly created stop-motion models, which graced dozens of movies from the late 1940s to the early 1980s. Earlier today, Ray Harryhausen died at age 92 in London, where he had been living since the early 1960s. Among his movie credits are Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years BC, and the original Clash of the Titans.
Born in Los Angeles on June 29, 1920, Harryhausen became interested in cinema’s visual effects after watching Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 blockbuster King Kong, featuring stop-motion effects by Willis H. O’Brien. “I came out of the theater awestruck,” Harryhausen would reminisce to the Chicago Tribune in 1999. “It was such a totally different, unusual film. The storyline led you from the mundane world into the most outrageous fantasy that’s ever been put on the screen.”
Of note: eight years before King Kong held Fay Wray hostage at the top of the Empire State Building, O’Brien had already used stop-motion models – or “model animation” – in the similarly themed The Lost World, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel and featuring a brontosaurus let loose in London.
Ray Harryhausen and Willis H. O’Brien
While in high school in the mid-1930s, Ray Harryhausen met his icon Willis H. O’Brien, who later acted as a sort of mentor for the fast-evolving visual-effects artist.
In 1940, Harryhausen landed his first professional gig, working for George Pal’s series of Paramount shorts known as “Puppetoons.” (Pal is the director of the 1960 classic The Time Machine, winner of that year’s Best Special Effects Academy Award.) Two years after joining Pal’s staff, Harryhausen became a member of the U.S. Army’s Special Service Division, where he collaborated on the Why We Fight documentaries made under the supervision of former Columbia director Frank Capra.
Mighty Joe Young and special-effects ‘stardom’
Following the armistice, Harryhausen resumed his non-professional stop-motion animation work while earning a living by working on TV commercials.
He got his first big break after Willis H. O’Brien hired him to help create the stop-motion visual effects for the RKO feature Mighty Joe Young (1949), directed by King Kong‘s Ernest B. Schoedsack, and starring Terry Moore and an overgrown ape obviously inspired by Kong. As the head of the film’s special-effects department, O’Brien won an Oscar for his efforts, though Harryhausen would later claim he created 90 percent of the animated work in the film.
In 1953, the year after King Kong‘s American rerelease, Harryhausen worked on his first solo effort: the low-budget horror thriller The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, based on a story by his friend Ray Bradbury, and sharing several elements in common with both King Kong and The Lost World – a dinosaur runs amok in New York City. (Harryhausen had reportedly set his sights on adapting H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but Byron Haskin directed the 1953 movie, which won a special Academy Award for Best Special Effects.)
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), in which the Golden Gate Bridge is destroyed by a giant octopus, marked the beginning of Harryhausen’s long-lasting collaboration with producer Charles H. Schneer. Their movie credits, mostly B and “A-” sci-fiers and adventure tales, include Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), in which aliens from outer space (unfortunately) fail to destroy humankind; 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), featuring a nasty, graphic battle between an outer-space monster and an elephant; and the more upscale The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Harryhausen’s first color movie, starring hunk Kerwin Mathews.
Kerwin Mathews would be back for The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960), which Harryhausen followed with Mysterious Island (1961), starring Michael Craig and Joan Greenwood. Next in line was Jason and the Argonauts (1963), featuring the classic skeleton-fighting sequence, and the old-fashioned sci-fier First Men in the Moon (1964), shot in CinemaScope.
Although involved in his films throughout the production process, Harryhausen never received credit as a director – or even co-director – of his features. The credited directors, who usually handled actors and dialogue, were invariably minor (and likely pliable) names, e.g., Cy Endfield, Nathan Juran, Jack Sher, Robert Gordon.
Raquel Welch wigs vs. Ray Harryhausen monsters: One Million Years B.C.
Without Charles H. Schneer as producer, Ray Harryhausen created the visual effects for the 1966 camp classic One Million Years B.C. – though, admittedly, his work in that movie played second fiddle to Raquel Welch’s physical effects as a blonde-bewigged (?) cavewoman parading around Earth’s pre-history in a cleavage-enhancing fur bikini. Whereas in producer Hal Roach’s 1940 effort One Million B.C., lizards made up as dinosaurs made life difficult for Victor Mature and Carole Landis, in the creationist-style pre-history of the 1966 (sort-of) remake, Raquel Welch and fellow caveman John Richardson had to square off against Harryhausen’s stop-motion models of giant reptiles. (Image: Raquel Welch One Million Years B.C.) [Scroll down to check out TCM’s Ray Harryhausen tribute.]
Starring James Franciscus and featuring Earth vs. the Flying Saucers’ Richard Carlson, The Valley of Gwangi (1969) was Harryhausen’s next-to-last mid-level effort.
Both The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), with John Phillip Law, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), with John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne and Tyrone Power’s daughter Taryn Power, were for all purposes minor B-movie fare.
Ray Harryhausen and Charles H. Schneer returned to more upscale filmmaking one last time with the bigger-budgeted ($15 million, or approximately $38 million today), MGM-distributed, Desmond Davis-directed Clash of the Titans, starring Harry Hamlin as Perseus, Judi Bowker as Andromeda, and about a dozen big-name (mostly British) performers in supporting roles (Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Flora Robson, Freda Jackson, Sian Phillips, Donald Houston, Ursula Andress, Burgess Meredith).
Yet, despite its prestige cast and much publicity surrounding Harryhausen’s work on the film, Clash of the Titans turned out to be a mild box office disappointment in relation to the studio’s expectations. With a domestic cume of $41.09 million, approx. $117 million today, the summer-season release trailed competitors Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, Arthur, The Cannonball Run, Stripes, For Your Eyes Only, and even Alan Alda’s adult-oriented comedy-drama The Four Seasons.
And in the aftermath of Stars Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Empire Strikes Back, at least some critics remained unimpressed with Harryhausen’s efforts. Variety, for one, complained about Clash of the Titans’ “flat, outdated special effects that are [along with its “corny” dialogue] a throwback to a bad 1950’s [sic] picture.”
Clash of the Titans was Ray Harryhausen’s last movie as a visual-effects artist.
About a decade later, Steven Spielberg initially considered using stop-motion animation to create the dinosaurs found in Jurassic Park (1993), but the director ultimately opted for the infinitely more realistic computer-animated imagery. Yet, if some critics (and modern audiences) were turned off by model animation in live action films, Harryhausen himself was no fan of cgi, telling the New York Times in 1998, “I don’t think you want to make it quite real. Stop motion, to me, gives that added value of a dream world.”
Ray Harryhausen’s legacy
In 1992, Tom Hanks handed Ray Harryhausen the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Gordon E. Sawyer Award for technical achievement. Curiously, no Harryhausen movies was ever nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Special Effects category.
Recent big-screen Ray Harryhausen homages include a Monsters, Inc. restaurant named after him, and shots copied from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones. Additionally, Harryhausen was featured in a handful of cameos in the last three decades, including bits in Ron Underwood’s 1998 Mighty Joe Young remake starring Charlize Theron and Bill Paxton, and most recently in John Landis’ Burke and Hare.
The coffee-table book Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, co-written by Harryhausen and film historian Tony Dalton, came out in 2004.
Ray Harryhausen’s influence
According to various reports, the list of filmmakers “influenced” by Ray Harryhausen’s work (Willis H. O’Brien’s original “influence” apparently forgotten) include just about every director of the last three or four decades who has dabbled in movies using large-scale visual effects: Tim Burton, James Cameron, Joe Dante, Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Joe Johnston, John Landis, John Lasseter, George Lucas, Nick Park, Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg, and Henry Selick.
“Some people think it’s childish to do what I’ve done for a living,” Harryhausen told the Toronto Sun a few years ago. “But I think it’s wrong when you grow to be an adult to discard your sense of wonder.”
Raquel Welch One Million Years B.C. image: Hammer Films.