Sunday 12 May 2013

[Feature] Ray Harryhausen - Effects Guru 1920 - 2013

Many of us will pay good money to see a film at the multiplex that feature our favourite actors, or helmed by renowned directors. Yet very few of the creative genius' behind some of the most eye popping visual effects had eager viewers flocking to the cinema except for special effects pioneer and innovator Ray Harryhausen. Whilst the likes of Rick Baker, Tom Savini, and Stan Lee had a strong following who would watch a film solely based on their work, none had the strength of following like Harryhausen whose body of work includes Jason and the Argonauts, and Clash of the Titans. He passed away on 7th May 2013 aged 92 at his home in London.

Rise of a Pioneer

Born in Los Angeles in 1920, young Harryhausen (whose parents were  of German descent hence the name) had always been fascinated with prehistoric creatures and would indulge his love of clay pottery to create some of his favourites from that era. When he was 13 years old Harryhausen went to see RKO's epic monster movie King Kong and was in awe of the stop motion special effects used to bring dinosaurs to life. Inspired by this a young Harryhausein using a borrowed non capture camera began experimenting with his own creatures. Through a family friend Harryhausen was introduced to Willis O'Brien, the man who created the creatures featured in King Kong. O'Brien offered some constructive advice to Harryhausen who enrolled at the Los Angeles City College to study graphic arts and sculpture.

Poster for RKO Pictures epic King Kong - Click here for rights details

Harryhausen's first commercial work was for producer George Pal's Puppetoons a series of animated short films alongside his hero Willis O'Brien. The two worked well together sharing a dislike for the unjointed wooden figures used in filming. World War II erupted and Harryhausen was assigned to the US army's Special Services division where he worked alongside renowned film maker Frank Capra who was serving as a Colonel at the time. Harryhausen gained extensive first hand knowledge and experience in film making working as a loader, clapper boy, and camera assistant. After the war Harryhausen was hired as an assistant animator for his first feature length motion picture Mighty Joe Young, reuniting him with his friend and mentor Willis O'Brien. Although not a commercial success the film garnered O'Brien an Oscar win. 

Dynamation and The Schneer/Harryhausen Team

Harryhausen worked on various animation projects both commercial and personal before going on to work on The Beast from 20,000 fathoms (1953), based on a novel by his long time friend Ray Bradbury whom he met at college. It was on this high budget feature length production that Harryhausen developed his revolutionary technique that would go on to change the face of visual effects.

Dynamation, as it was to later be named, enabled the combination of stop motion animation with live action footage using a split screen technique. The background and foreground of a pre-shot live action would be split into two separate images. The background was used as a miniature rear screen in front of which model would be animated using a special animation camera. All the elements would then be combined except for the foreground which would be blacked out. The film was then rewound and the foreground element re-filmed essentially sandwiching the models and live action shots. Harryhausen would carry out much of the work himself controlling the lighting both of the projector and on set using defused glass to soften the sharp lighting. This created a seamless blend of animation and live action shots that was to be the pinnacle of his most famous and cherished work to follow.

It Came From Beneath The Sea - Image Credit mononukleoza

It wasn't until the early 1950's  that Harryhausen met and befriended producer Charles H Schneer who was assigned to the B-picture unit of Columbia Pictures. They released their first picture, the classic It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955) which featured the infamous giant octopus destroying San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. The film was a commercial success primarily due to Harryhausen's high quality (for its time) visual effects and was repeated with Earth vs The Flying Saucers (1956) which inspired Tim Burton's 1997 hit Mars Attacks. Riding on the coattails from the success of these films Schneer and Harryhausen were about to embark on their most ambitious and revolutionary project, and the start of not only a fruitful partnership but also a lifelong friendship. 

Harryhausen did not share Schneer's enthusiasm for venturing into colour due to the challenges it posed to the Dynamation process. However after having developed systems to  achieve the necessary colour balances, Harryhausen changed his mind and began work on the highly successful 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). So groundbreaking were the effects that the fighting skeleton in the climactic battle was deemed to frightening for children.Nevertheless it was a box office and critical success. 

The Auteur's Finest

More work followed by way of a loose adaptation of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (the Three World of Gulliver - 1960) as well as Jules Verne's Mysterious Island (1961). His finest work however had to be the classic Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Jason was epic in every respect from the colossal statue of Talos the Titan to Poseidon holding back the clashing rocks to enable safe passage for the Argo. However by the far most famous scene, one that showcased Harryhausen's dynamation at its finest to date was the skeleton fight. It is still held with high regard and in 1993 Sam Raimi featured battling skeletons in Army of Darkness. Whilst all three were critically revered, although for the effects alone, sadly they performed disappointingly on their theatrical releases. The poor financial performance together with significant changes at Columbia Pictures resulted in Schneer and Harryhausen's contracts not being renewed. 

As a free agent Harryhausen was hired by Hammer Film Productions to produce the creature effects for the highly successful One Million Years BC (1966), and again with Schneer this time for Warner Brothers on The Valley of Gwangi (1969). Both were financial success but the demand for fantasy epics seemed to wane until the 1970's when Schneer approached Columbia Pictures with a proposal to revive the Sinbad films. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) followed by Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) re-established the duo's box office credentials.

Schneer and Harryhausen were given permission by MGM studios for a big budget monster epic with big name stars. Clash of the Titans (1981), which was to be the last feature film to showcase Harryhausen's talents, excelled in every respect, becoming a commercial success. Harryhausen's Medusa and Kraken drew much praise for the film setting the benchmark for visual effects so high that not even the 2010 remake was able to reach. Despite this however the rise of effects giants such as Industrial Light and Magic who pioneered digital effects, effectively killed the demand for this style of filming leaving both Schneer and Harryhausen to retire from film making. 


Given the expansive body of his work, Harryhausen was never nominated let alone awarded an Oscar unlike his mentor Willis O'Brien. This was possibly due to his decision in the 1960's to live and work in the UK. However after much campaigning by legions of next generation effects artists and film makers inspired by his work, the A.M.P.A.A.S in 1992 presented Harryhausen with the Gordon E Sawyer for technical contributions. Other accolades included a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame, induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and even Sony Digital Pictures naming their main screening theatre in his honour.

Ray Harryhausen (top left) 2006 at launch of Jules Verne Festival with organisers & some familiar faces

Harryhausen's work has influenced generations of film makers in the field of visual effects including Steven Spielberg, Nick Park, Tim Burton and James Cameron as well as Edgar Wright who described Harryhausen as the man "who made me believe in monsters". His numerous books on animation techniques and body of cinematic work, despite the advent of digital effects, are revered by the newest generation of pioneering effects creators. His passing is truly a loss to an industry that continues to bring fantasy worlds to breathtaking life.

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