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Thanks for the magic, Mr. Harryhausen

Mr. Ray Harryhausen, legend.

Mr. Ray Harryhausen, legend.

by Peter Nielsen

I seem to remember that the first glimpse I got into the world of Ray Harryhausen was a short scene from The Beast From 20.000 Fathoms (1953). It was the scene where the rhedosaurus grabs and eats the policeman… I was just a little kid and that both scared and fascinated me at the same time. I had yet to see King Kong so this was my first look at stop-motion animation and I’ve been fascinated ever since, and still is to this day.

King Kong from 1933 is one of my all-time favorite movies and one I would have loved to watch on the big screen. Mr. Harryhausen did however see it on the big screen, at the age of 13, and it made quite an impression on him. Sure, he’d been fascinated with dinosaurs and fantasy from a very early age, but King Kong changed his life. He was determined to learn how it was made, so he too could make fantasy come alive.

The effects in King Kong were, of course, done by Willis O’Brien, whom he would later meet and also work with on Mighty Joe Young (1949), for instance. Following Mr. O’Briens’ advice, he enrolled in classes that taught art and anatomy to make his creatures seem more real and believable. He also took classes in different film techniques and editing, which would become useful throughout his career.

The first “Harryhausen-movie” I watched in its entirety was Jason and the Argonauts from 1963 and that was it… I was hooked… and I’ve been a fan of Mr. Harryhausen ever since. And who wouldn’t be? I mean, have you seen the infamous fight-scene with the skeletons? It is absolutely amazing and as far as I know it’s never been equaled.

An infamous scene from Jason and the Argonauts.

An infamous scene from Jason and the Argonauts.

It took four and a half months to complete and only ran for a little over four and a half minute in the finished movie. That wasn’t the first time he had included a fight with skeletons though. The first time was in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad from 1958 and took place partly on top of a spiral staircase. That one is also a memorable scene, but it only features one skeleton, whereas in Jason and the Argonauts there are seven of them.

His first feature film was the abovementioned The Beast From 20.000 Fathoms and because of its low budget he couldn’t use the techniques that Willis O’Brien, for instance, used for King Kong. Even though it looked great, it was too costly! So Mr. Harryhausen devised a kind of split-screen technique to combine live-action actors with animated creatures and miniature backgrounds, using rear-projection, split-screen mattes and counter mattes.

There is, of course, more to it than that, but I’m not going to get technical here and if you want to know more about it, you can always read up on the subject elsewhere. I will say that the finished composite would look great though, and this technique would later become known as “Dynamation”, a name coined by Charles H. Schneer, a producer whom Mr. Harryhausen had a work-relationship with for more than 25 years.

The Beast From 20.000 Fathoms.

The Beast From 20.000 Fathoms.

Throughout his long career he continuously developed new techniques and improved on old ones, to somehow make the live-action and animated elements look as if they were filmed together. You know, to make it look as if the two interacted seamlessly together. Not an easy task back in those days and he always had a problem with film-grain when using rear projection, especially when they started using color film.

He also found new and innovative ways to improve upon the puppets he used. In Mysterious Island (1961) for instance, he used a real crab’s shell for his giant crab. He cleaned it out and put the armatures inside it and just like that he had a very realistic-looking creature. In an interview I watched, he also said the crabs made for a delicious meal!

One other thing he tried to do was to give his creations a little bit of character, some sort of manneurism that made them more believable, if you know what I mean. Next time you watch a Harryhausen-film, try looking for one of his signature stances… Most of his creatures have their arms pulled slightly back which gives them kind of a menacing look. He also made their movements match their physique, which is just as important today when using CGI. Without a sense of weight you lose believability.

Scene from Mysterious Island.

Scene from Mysterious Island.

Mr. Harryhausen and that wonderful mind of his, has inspired many artists, writers, would-be film-makers and effects-wizards to follow their dreams. I suppose he even had a little hand in us making small clay-figures and stop-motion movies. The clay-figures never amounted to anything. They looked good, but weren’t very practical in terms of movement so I guess they were more like little sculptures instead. I think I still have a few photographs of them somewhere.

What we did do was to make little men out of those bendy white pipe cleaners and use them for our small projects. One of my life-long friends, Patrik Thelander, and I made a couple of stop-motion shorts on super 8. One was a violent karate tournament movie and the other was a James Bond kind of action “epic”, where we used a combination of stop-motion animation and live-action. That was quite an ambitious project and we worked our asses off on it. For one sequence we shot a plane from above and we made large landscape paintings it could fly over.

We made clouds out of cotton so it could fly both over and under, while shooting from above, to give it a bit of depth, you know. We even had the plane shoot missiles and blow up a model-helicopter. Holy Crap… thinking back on it now, makes me realize the effort and time we put into it. Unfortunately the film we used was damaged, so only the ending survived. Talk about a downer!! It was hard to put words to the disappointment we felt.

Behind the scenes on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Behind the scenes on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

The short martial-arts one was alright though, and we had a great time both making and watching it. Later on we also started making one with Patrik being chased by lots of shoes, but I’m not sure he ever finished it, because I’ve never seen the footage. Nowadays Patrik lives in Los Angeles with his wife and kids and is working in the movie and TV industry. You can look him up on Imdb or on his official site, if you want to check out some of his work. I also participated in, and helped with another short he made as a finishing project for film-school here in Sweden, but the three abovementioned were the only stop-motion stuff we made.

I still make those little figures with pipe cleaners though, and I’ve also taught my kids how to make them.

They have, of course, been introduced to the wondrous world of Ray Harryhausen and I now get to re-live the magic together with them. It warms my heart to see the amazement in their eyes whenever they watch Clash of the Titans (1981) or one of the Sinbad-movies, for instance. I love the fact that, even though they watch a lot of heavily CGI-laden films, they’re still completely lost in the images of a giant bronze statue chasing terror-stricken sailors, a cyclops battling a dragon or Jason fighting skeletons. It’s a testament to his brilliance that I can hardly pry them away from the screen or even get their attention.

He was a pioneer and an innovator and his work will hopefully continue with every young budding special-effects wannabe, now and in the future. His legacy will most assuredly live on in the heart of every awe-stricken kid seeing his wonders for the first time. As I sat here at the computer, writing and looking at photos of the different creatures in Mysterious Island, one of my young daughters came up to me and said: “Ooh, I’ve seen that one, dad! It’s a good one!” See what I mean! They have the same thoughts as I had as a kid!

I tip my hat at you Mr. Harryhausen and thank you for bringing movie-magic into my life and for letting me pass it on to my own kids.

Raymond Frederick Harryhausen:  June 29, 1920 – May 7, 2013

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About Peter Nielsen

Peter was born in Denmark in 1968, but moved to Sweden at the age of six, (not by himself of course), and has lived there ever since. He’s married and has five children, so spare time is somewhat of a luxury. His main interests in life, apart from his family, are long walks, books and movies. Any movie! He has preferences, but he’s not particular as long as it's good or... so bad it's good... he just LOVES MOVIES!

3 comments for “Thanks for the magic, Mr. Harryhausen

  1. Jay
    May 13, 2013 at 5:46 am

    great article peter. Loved his work when i was small. The skeletons in jason and the argonauts were outstanding stuff for their time. I always found his medusa in clash of the titans unsettling as a youngster. It had such a nasty look to it.

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