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Ray Harryhausen: Magic, Monsters & Mythology Part 1
A RAY OF LIGHT "I
often have to act the role of a dinosaur, or an ape, or even a flying
saucer to feel how to move the models in portraying a certain kind of
scene." -- Ray Harryhausen, Famous Monsters pp24, March 1967. For
those who grew up before computer generated imagery took over the
special effects world, the magic of stop-motion animation will no doubt
have been a part of your movie-viewing childhood. While Willis O'Brien
will always be closely associated with the technique for his work on
such notable movies as THE LOST WORLD (1925) and KING KONG (1933), the
name Ray Harryhausen is synonymous with this nearly extinct art. Not only was Ray the leading stop-motion animator for some three decades,
but he also inspired a legion of filmmakers that went on to successful
careers of their own. Some of these include fellow animators Jim
Danforth and David Allen. Others include special effects artists Dennis
Muren and Phil Tippett. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Joe Dante and
Peter Jackson are directors of note who were inspired in some way or
other by Harryhausen's ingenious creations.
Frederick Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles on June 29th, 1920. He
displayed a predilection for creating things at an early age, and his
parents encouraged him in what was soon to become his chosen field. His
father being a machinist, this helped him in later years in building
armatures and inner workings of the models that would make up Ray's
marvelously imaginative creations.
Possessing a fascination for dinosaurs (also shared by his lifelong friend Ray Bradbury),
Harryhausen was dutifully inspired after witnessing the monstrous
grandeur of the original 1933 KING KONG on the big screen. While Ray's
parents had taken him to see THE LOST WORLD in 1925, it wasn't till
seeing the King of Skull Island thrash dinosaurs and carry off Fay Wray
that he knew what he wanted to do with his life. A chance to meet his idol came while Ray was in High School, and O'Brien's
advice to the young animator in training led to art and anatomy classes
to further hone his skills. Harryhausen eventually got a job on George
Pal's PUPPETOONS series of animated shorts in 1938. The enterprising
artist also counted WW2 shorts for Frank Capra as resume enhancers.
Having kept in touch with Willis O'Brien (affectionately referred to by his friends as Obie)
during this time, the KONG animator asked his young apprentice to
assist him on the troubled production of MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949) in
1945. The bloated 2 million picture (by comparison BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS only cost $200,000) didn't perform well, but it left Harryhausen undaunted. While, O'Brien's career would slowly dissipate, Ray's was rapidly ascending. The student was soon to surpass the teacher.
After failing to animate
the aliens in both THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) and WAR OF THE
WORLDS (1953), Harryhausen instead pursued another opportunity to design
the creature for a potential movie that was then called 'The Monster From Beneath the Sea'. After purchasing the story, 'The Fog Horn' from his friend Ray Bradbury(and also the title 'The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms' since the Fog Horn title was changed by the Saturday Evening Post),
Harryhausen embarked on his first solo creature feature. With
the massive success of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), more
opportunities for Harryhausen to indulge his passion for stop-motion
animation were on the fast track to becoming a reality.
MONSTER MOVIE MEMORIES OF RAY HARRYHAUSEN #1
this monster movie fan, my first exposure to Ray Harryhausen was via
his B/W science fiction movies. It wasn't till much later that I
discovered the wonders of Dynamation. Prior to that, I was both shocked
and amazed by what I saw transpiring on television. Now, former
favorites like The Wolf Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon --
and even Godzilla -- had some new competition. There were new monsters
on the block. My first exposure to Ray's wonders was with 20 MILLION
MILES TO EARTH (1957). This movie quickly became a huge favorite of
mine, and the Ymir was arguably my favorite domestic monster growing up. I
remember cutting out pictures of it in a book once along with other
creatures to make my own adolescent version of Famous Monsters of
Filmland Magazine -- which became my favorite periodical from the time I
was three in 1978.
Harryhausen, I had a passion for prehistoric monsters. I loved
dinosaurs, and anything about them I had to get my hands on. The
creations of Harryhausen were among my fondest childhood memories
watching monster movies as a kid, and also reading about them in various
books and magazines including Famous Monsters of Filmland. This early
exposure to his B/W threats from outer and inner space fueled my own
passions for drawing my own monsters. While I remained content watching,
and drawing them, Ray Harryhausen continued creating them for
moviegoers like myself to enjoy.
THE BEST OF RAY'S BEASTS #1
The scene above from THE BEAST
FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) was the genesis of the production. Ray
Bradbury's short story, 'The Fog Horn' was about a sea beast summoned from
the briny deep by the sound of a lighthouse foghorn believing it to be
another dinosaur. This haunting sequence also reinforced my childhood
fears of something big watching from outside a window, and also for
whatever enormous mysteries that lay beneath the surface of the ocean.
BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) shocked many upon its release when it
reportedly made 5 million during its original theatrical run. Ray's
work, and the film itself inspired a slew of like-minded movies for the
remainder of the decade. One major success that owes its origin to THE BEAST is Japan's own GODZILLA (1954). If not for the success of Warner Brothers 'monster from the sea' movie, we might not have ever gotten a Godzilla, or not in the form in which the titanic creature is popularly known.
himself also did effects for a couple movies that mined similar
territory to Ray's rampaging Rhedosaur with THE BLACK SCORPION (1957)
and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959); the latter of which had BEASTs director,
Eugene Lourie; himself an accomplished art director and special effects artist (he was nominated for Best Visual Effects for 1969s KRAKATOA: EAST OF JAVA and also assisted on the effects for BEAST).
With a few projects failing to get off the ground (The Elementals -- see image above; The Flying Cyclops -- this eventually became 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH), or an inability to secure Ray's involvement (Columbia's The Flying Claw, which later became THE GIANT CLAW), the success of BEAST ultimately led to a partnership that would last nearly three decades.
THE BEST OF RAY'S BEASTS #2
destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge and portions of San Francisco by
the massive cephalopod of IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955) are the
major highlights of this film. That Harryhausen was able to conceal the
fact that his octopus was in actuality a sextopus is a testament to his
ability to create believable illusions. It's also easily the best movie
about a gigantic killer octopus. Charles
H. Schneer was -- like Tomoyuki Tanaka envisioning Godzilla -- inspired
to make his own monster movie, but about a creature that exists in the
real world. After a few title changes, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA
(1955), a SciFi monster movie about a rampaging octopus, went into
production in 1954. With a budget of only $150,000, and pressure to keep
costs down, Harryhausen used his ingenuity to devise cost-effective
means to accomplish his visual artistry. Harryhausen later revealed that he saved time by only animating six tentacles instead of eight.
filming was over, the octopus creation would also serve its purpose in a
variety of ways by having its parts used to formulate monsters in later
famed Japanese SPX artist Eiji Tsuburaya was fascinated with octopi, as
well as stop-motion animation. He experimented with the art, and also a
giant octopus of his own in 1962s KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. While Willis
O'Brien is Kong's creator, the success Ray Harryhausen was enjoying for
his technical prowess no doubt left an imprint on Japan's effects
IT bringing in big box office, it was only natural that more monsters
were in Ray's future. But before he and Schneer co-opted to create
aliens attacking the Earth, the stop-motion master accepted an offer
from future disaster movie mogul Irwin Allen. This
particular production was a documentary entitled THE ANIMAL WORLD
(1956). The film was a reunion of sorts for Harryhausen and his teacher,
Willis O'Brien. Both men worked together for the last time in designing
the dinosaur portions of this ambitious documentary. The dedication of both men is indicative in a brontosaurus birthing scene wherein some 200 eggs were used before a satisfactory shot was accomplished. That's a lot of protein!
THE BEST OF RAY'S BEASTS #3
The destruction of famous United States landmarks were undoubtedly the major selling point for EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) in addition to showcasing some staggeringly impressive effects magic(some of which is merged with real shots of planes blowing up) The movie is possibly the best such film post WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) to feature the Earth invaded by warring aliens from outer space.
After completing his stint working with Irwin Allen (who clumsily remade THE LOST WORLD in 1960 without the use of stop-motion effects),
Harryhausen went back to Columbia to create a startling array of flying
saucers destroying famous landmarks, and being destroyed by human
ingenuity. Directed by 'B' movie maven Fred F. Sears (THE GIANT CLAW, THE WEREWOLF), the name of this new picture was EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956).
is another movie I remember vividly from childhood. My young eyes were
stunned in amazement at the sight of UFOs and their alien inhabitants
marching on mankind before their defeat prompting some spectacular scenes of calamity.
What's particularly notable about this movie is that, not only are the
UFOs animated, but the buildings that are destroyed are animated as
well. The saucers are suspended by wires, but considering Harryhausen
painted them out frame by frame, you never see them. When one puts his
painstaking, and meticulous work into perspective, a viewer can
appreciate his craftsmanship even more; especially when comparing them
to SciFi and Fantasy pictures of a similar nature from the same time
period. Destruction footage seen in the film made its way into the giant turkey, THE GIANT CLAW -- also directed by Sears.
Despite being a favorite of many (the demise of the aliens was seemingly recycled for Toho's INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER from 1965), EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS was the animators least favorite of his works.
THE BEST OF RAY'S BEASTS #4
Ymir is a special creation for many, including its creator. Instead of
being an antagonist, the Venusian is depicted as a pitiable creature who
is taken from its natural habitat and essentially
oppressed till its own actions result in its inevitable destruction.
There are many memorable moments in 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957),
but one that stands out is the finale atop the Roman Coliseum. This sequence mirrored the finale of KING KONG (1933) set atop the Empire State Building. The
next Ray-Schneer collaboration went through a few title changes before
settling on 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957). It's also ironic that it
was envisioned by Schneer as a color production (it was released colorized on DVD a few years ago),
but Harryhausen talked him into staying within the monochromatic realm
one more time. The European locale was different, as was the creature.
Harryhausen wanted to instill a humanistic quality in the Ymir monster
in the hopes of eliciting an emotional response from the audience. Ray's
intention was successful, at least to me it was. I do remember crying
when the Venusian monstrosity was killed at the end.
Ymir was originally designed to be a cyclops with cloven hooves, but
this was scrapped. Of course, the cyclops idea would later surface in
1958s THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD.The Ymir would serve another purpose 25 years later
becoming part of the Kraken seen in CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981).
Possibly the most memorable sequence in the film is the battle with the (rather large)
elephant. Harryhausen would recapture this battle in color when
bringing Willis O'Brien's failed 1942 project, THE VALLEY OF GWANGI, to
the screen in 1969.
Columbia promoted the films spectacular stop-motion effects as 'Electrolitic Dynamation', which was a new christening which Harryhausen hadn't heard of (although the term Dynamation would cement itself in 1958, and morph over the years).
The film was very successful, and maintains its stance as a fondly
remembered monster movie. It was among the last such pictures of the
1950s, and also Ray's final film in glorious B/W. The animation
entrepreneur was soon to set a precedent for not only himself, but also
for the now vibrant art form known as stop-motion animation -- an
effects technique that Harryhausen was now the leading authority.
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I've been a huge movie buff since childhood catching old horror and monster flicks on Shock Theater and kung fu movies at the drive-in during the late 70's and early 80's. I've had a long time fascination with, and appreciate all genres of fantastic cinema, good and bad. One fans cheese is another fans juicy steak. I like both equally and seldom find a film I truly dislike as I will find something of interest in just about anything. The bulk of the films or tv series' seen here are mostly from my childhood, or films I own in what has become an Amazing Colossal DVD collection.