Celebrating Ray Harryhausen’s centenary: 10 essential films from the stop-motion genius

A hundred years after he was born, we pay tribute to the stop-motion special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen and his fabulous creature creations.

28 June 2020

Harryhausen modelling Medusa for Clash of the Titans (1981)

“A triple-barrelled broadside dynamiting all past precedent,” read the ad for Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. “In booking this sensation of all sensations we have truly secured the ‘scoop of a life-time.’ A dynamic triumph staggering the imagination. Colossal in theme, colossal in production and with a colossal star.”

It was 1933 when a young Ray Harryhausen was gifted a cinema ticket by his aunt, carer for the mother of theatrical impresario Sid Grauman. “So at the impressionable age of 13,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I set off with my mother and aunt to see a movie about a gorilla…”

When King Kong made his entrance, Harryhausen’s fate was sealed. “When I look back,” he wrote, “I find it all rather difficult to believe that in one afternoon a film about a giant gorilla had the influence to alter the direction of my entire life.”

Born 100 years ago on 29 June 1920, Ray Harryhausen retains the distinction of being cinema’s sole visual effects auteur. Beyond some early shorts, he never directed or wrote a feature, but it was around his special effect designs that entire films were built. Not to undermine the contribution of his collaborators, but the movies below remain first and foremost Ray Harryhausen pictures in the public imagination.

Cyclops, Medusa, the skeletal Children of the Hydra’s Teeth – Harryhausen was responsible for some of the most iconic creatures in movie history (“Creatures, always creatures, never monsters,” he often said), brought to life through the same ‘dimensional animation’ techniques – capturing 24 micro-adjusted poses for every second of film to give the illusion of motion – that the great Willis O’Brien had pioneered on King Kong.

He was a technological innovator in the photochemical era, whose legacy is readily apparent in all the effects-driven spectacles that would follow. Yet, astonishingly, for the most part he was largely a one-man operation, beginning his experiments in stop-motion animation in his parents’ garage and barely scaling-up as the pictures and budgets grew in size and scope. From drawing conceptual sketches to creating and painstakingly animating his models, from designing and building the sets to painting the glass matte effects, Harryhausen did the lot with minimal outside help or interference.

“I would say that I’m a filmmaker rather than just an animator or special effects person,” he noted, an indisputable truth when faced with one of his set-pieces, constructed over weeks of patient concentration, one frame at a time.

Here are 10 of the best films from one of cinema’s true pioneers, alongside quotes from his autobiography.

Mother Goose Stories (1946)

Director Ray Harryhausen

Mother Goose Stories (1946)
It was much more financially rewarding to be a monster man than a fairy tale man.

Having been turned down for a job at Disney (“the best thing that could have happened to me”), Harryhausen got his first professional break working for George Pal on the Puppetoons series of stop-motion shorts he was making for Paramount. War put an end to that, but the fortuitous discovery of 1,000ft of outdated 16mm colour film stock in Navy stores inspired the creation of a short series of nursery rhyme adaptations he hoped to sell to television.

The four films were a family endeavour, made over some five months, with Harryhausen’s engineer father building the model armatures – as he would all the way up to First Men in the Moon (1964) – and his mother creating costumes for the characters. More fairytales, of increasing technical sophistication, would follow between jobs in the early 1950s, but these first films, cut together with a prologue to create a single 10-minute short, gave Harryhausen a charming, colourful and characterful calling card and his first taste of the autonomous working methods he’d retain throughout his career.

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

Director Ernest B. Shoedsack

Mighty Joe Young (1959), Harryhausen’s first hire as deputy to his mentor Willis O’Brien
I had one favourite model I nicknamed Jennifer… The name came about by accident when I saw some rushes from Duel in the Sun in which Jennifer Jones’ small hands appear from behind a rock. Those beautiful hands reminded me of Joe’s small delicate model hands and so Joe became Jennifer. I hope Jennifer Jones doesn’t mind.

Willis O’Brien had been Harryhausen’s hero ever since that first screening of King Kong. He’d telephoned the visual effects maestro at MGM studios, which led to an invitation to show off his early models. The pair stayed in touch and after the war, O’Brien hired Harryhausen for some preliminary sketch work on a new giant gorilla picture he was working on with the reunited King Kong dream team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack.

Soon enough, Harryhausen was making photographic tests and building the armatures for the film’s title star. He quickly graduated to animating the models, and by the time production was finished, he estimated that he was responsible for over 90 per cent of the film’s FX. Mighty Joe Young may want for the mythic grandeur of King Kong, but Harryhausen instils more personality into his ape than O’Brien had managed for Skull Island’s infamous émigré. The nightclub sequence alone, in which Joe tears around fighting a pack of lions, is a complex marvel of synchronised processes, including a jaw-dropping animated tracking shot. O’Brien won the Oscar for best visual effects, which he later passed on to Harryhausen.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

Director Eugène Lourié

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
The task of instilling pathos into a creature that was, after all, an innocent victim of circumstances was something I had set myself from the outset, although I was restrained by the script… The Beast is a poor lost soul brought back to life by man and then destroyed by man. If this sounds familiar, it is. King Kong was a huge influence, as he would be in all the other creatures I would be father to.

It was on this rampaging creature feature – the first of the 1950s cycle – that Harryhausen first created the process that would later come to be known as Dynamation. The model to be animated was sandwiched between a pair of plates onto which foreground and background images were projected frame by frame. “I split the screen in front of the 16mm camera by using a glass with blacked out portions where the model was standing,” Harryhausen explained, “After photographing one portion, I would rewind the exposed film, black out the already exposed half, and then photograph the blacked out portion of the projection plate. Theoretically, the whole thing would look like the model was part of the picture.”

The effect was sensational from the off – “gasp-inducing” said contemporary critics. In The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, it’s used in service of a ‘rhedosaurus’ awoken by atomic tests in the Arctic. His emergence to take down a lighthouse en route to New York – the first solo outing for the pioneering, inexpensive technique Harryhausen would refine throughout his career – remains a knockout.

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

Director Nathan Juran

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
This film brought to a close another chapter in my life. Not only was it to be the last black and white film I would make, but it was destined to be, with one later exception, the last ‘monster-on-the-rampage’ film. From now on, stop-motion animation would at last find another subject outlet to change how it was seen in the movie business. Hollywood would begin to sit up and take notice.

In 1953, Harryhausen met Columbia producer Charles H. Schneer, the man who would serve as his creative partner for the rest of his career. A giant octopus attacking San Francisco in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) became their first project, followed by proto-Independence Day alien invasion yarn Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1955). But it was their third collaboration that would show off the best of Harryhausen’s talents in this early period.

Originally conceived as a vehicle for Cyclops, 20 Million Miles to Earth soon morphed into the story of the Ymir, a tiny Venusian space monster that crashes off the coast of Sicily and quickly begins to grow. Harryhausen’s Dynamation process was also growing, the interaction between the animated models and their projected human counterparts becoming increasingly complex. A fight in a barn involving a dog and a pitchfork is a model of technical ingenuity, while the final set-piece between the creature and an elephant outside the Coliseum is testament to Harryhausen’s facility for action.

Best of all, though, is our first encounter with the Ymir as he hatches from his egg, granted life not just in movement, but through an immediately imbued force of distinctive personality.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Director Nathan Juran

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
I had originally designed the Cyclops with a more human appearance, but I changed it because we were afraid that audiences would think they were men in suits. To overcome this, I gave the Cyclops furry goat legs and cloven hooves, an idea lifted from my first concept of the Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth (I also used the same armature for both). I designed detailed muscles, warts, veins and cracked dry skin, which all gave him a more grotesque appearance.

It all started with a single key drawing of Sinbad fighting a skeleton atop a spiral staircase. At first, none of the studios were interested, especially after Howard Hughes’ 1955 flop The Son of Sinbad. “Costume pictures are dead,” Harryhausen was told. After a long period of script development, Charles Schneer got the project green-lit at Columbia, and one of Harryhausen’s most enduring classics was up and running.

Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad (1940) was the touchstone, and the move into fantasy represented a clear break with the Kong riffs of the filmmaker’s early years. It was to be his first picture in colour, which alone instigated a nightmarish series of tests for the Dynamation process to work as effectively as it had in black and white.

Problems overcome, Harryhausen began work on two of his most iconic creature designs. The Cyclops remains one of those most indelibly associated with its creator, but it was the human-vs-model skeleton fight that represented the biggest leap in technical cunning; three months of work for less than four minutes of screen action. Bernard Herrmann’s score, the first of four for Harryhausen, stands among his best work.

Mysterious Island (1961)

Director Cy Endfield

Mysterious Island (1961)
For the close-ups of the crab mandibles we used live crabs. I have to confess that after we had all the shots in the can, we did sit down and have the crustaceans for supper, conscious of the fact that we were eating the stars of the scene. This is, I can assure the reader, the one and only time that I have eaten the actors. Hitchcock would have approved.

Ray Harryhausen’s talents weren’t confined to the stop-motion techniques for which he’s best known, as demonstrated in the extended effects sequences that open and close this Jules Verne adaptation, an unofficial sequel to Disney’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954). The first sees a hot air balloon caught in a storm, transporting the protagonists to the island where a certain Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom, this time) is conducting Moreau-like experiments in gigantism on the local flora and fauna. It’s as impressive a set-piece as any Harryhausen put on film, a kinetic mixture of life-size live-action, miniatures and travelling matte shots.

Harryhausen understood well that no picture could stand on his effects alone, and the best of them effectively integrated his set-pieces into the fabric of the story. The four creatures here may not be among his most fantastic designs, but he continued to push at the limits of the Dynamation process, taking it underwater in one instance for an encounter with a nautiloid cephalopod. The first adversary, a giant crab, was real – “or at least he was when we bought him at Harrods Food Hall” – taken apart and reconstructed around the armature built by Harryhausen’s father.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Director Don Chaffey

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
The [skeleton fight] sequence is one of my favourites, although I would never want to do it again. It was painful to the extreme. Hours and hours of the same movements can wear a man down. But it was worth it. It is there on film for all to see, and no matter what technology is invented, it can never be reproduced. In stop-motion the whole scene has a supernatural quality that could only be achieved by dimensional animation.

The most beloved of Ray Harryhausen’s films, Jason and the Argonauts was his most expensive and intricately conceived production to date. Culled from Greek mythology, the hero’s quest for the Golden Fleece was episodic by nature, lending itself organically to the series of encounters through which Harryhausen’s effects work could shine.

The film’s larger-than-life creatures are unforgettable – from Talos, the bronze colossus with an achilles heel, via the screeching harpies tormenting the blind Phineas to the seven-headed Hydra, guardian of the Fleece and mother to the skeletal warriors who would battle their way through the greatest set-piece Harryhausen ever committed to celluloid.

Shot twice, first with the three actors fighting seven stuntmen to serve as an action guide print, then again with the stuntmen removed, the rear-projection for the skeleton fight was a feat of precisely orchestrated rehearsal. Then the Dynamation, moving the five appendages of each of the seven skeletons for every frame of film. “This meant at least 35 animation movements,” recalled Harryhausen, “each synchronised to the actors’ movements. Some days I was producing just 13 or 14 frames a day, or to put it another way, less than one second of screen time per day, and in the end the whole sequence took a record four and a half months to capture on film.”

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Director James O’Connolly

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
What became The Valley of Gwangi was not only a film about dinosaurs, it was also a tribute to my mentor, the late Willis O’Brien. Really it was his imaginative genius that brought it to the screen.

Back in the early 1940s, Willis O’Brien had spent nearly a year in pre-production on his Gwangi project – named from the Native American word for lizard – at RKO before being shut down as costs spiralled and war loomed. Another riff on King Kong, the film was to see rodeo cowboys battling dinosaurs, substituting Skull Island for a lost prehistoric valley in the badlands south of the Rio Grande. When O’Brien told Harryhausen of his plans, one sequence in particular, of men on horseback roping a tyrannosaur, grabbed his attention, and when the project proved a bust, he worked a variation of it into the capturing of Mighty Joe Young.

Resurrecting the project two decades later, Harryhausen was able to put the roping sequence up on screen just as his mentor had intended, leading to “One of my favourite sequences in this or any other movie I have made.” It makes for a breathtakingly complex set-piece, the seams between the various processes Harryhausen employed – including jeeps, ropes, sticks, animated models, split screens, rear projection – largely invisible to this day. Sadly, the charmingly weird and exciting mash-up of western and sci-fi creature feature didn’t draw in the crowds.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

Director Gordon Hessler

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)
How much was I involved in the directing of our films? Well, as I designed the effects sequences it follows that I had to direct them because I was the only one who knew what they were about… Occasionally I entertained thoughts of directing an entire feature, but in the end I knew it would have been far too strenuous to have coped with both the live action and effects. Besides, my ‘performers’ always do exactly as they are told with no backlash of temperament – which is more than can be said for some actors.

Following Gwangi’s less than stellar reception, Harryhausen and Schneer retreated into familiar territory, resurrecting the stories of the Arabian Nights for the second of their three Sinbad pictures (Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger would follow in 1977). It’s one of the best looking films in the Harryhausen canon; a dusty Indian epic, lensed by regular James Bond DP Ted Moore. A new Sinbad was procured in John Phillip Law, while Miklós Rózsa took over from Bernard Herrmann on music duties. Soon-to-be-Doctor-Who Tom Baker played the villain modelled on Conrad Veidt.

It’s a mystical romp of a swashbuckler that saw Harryhausen take on a larger role in drawing the story together. He wrote an outline that linked his initial key illustrations into some semblance of a narrative whole. Never one to make things easy on himself, Harryhausen’s most impressive set-piece sees a six-armed statue of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, take on the heroes in a sword fight. Three stuntmen, bound together with a giant belt, doubled for the six-bladed goddess in rehearsal. Then the actors shadow-boxed to create the rear projection for Harryhausen to effect his Dynamation (though, by this point, via various publicity departments, the technique’s name had changed to Dynarama, following earlier outings as SuperDynamation and, inexplicably, Dynamation 90).

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Director Desmond Davis

Clash of the Titans (1981)
I remembered an old film I saw when I was very young that Tod Browning made called Freaks. They had some people without legs who could drag themselves along, and that went through my mind when I made the entrance [for Medusa]. I kept the snake quality in her by having her pull herself along by her arms… I wanted to make her a rattlesnake so the sound department could make her presence known just by the rattle. You have to think about these things.

“Release the Kraken!” Harryhausen’s final picture would see a return to the mythological arena of Jason and the Argonauts, funded by MGM to the tune of $16m, a budget larger than the combined total of every other Schneer and Harryhausen collaboration. Further Dynamation adventures were planned following its release, but there were no takers for Harryhausen’s brand of fantasy in the age of Conan the Barbarian (1982). “The industry was on the threshold of revolutionary changes,” he wrote, “All of which I would have been unhappy with. CGI is a wonderful tool that continues to fascinate me, but I know, deep down, it would never have suited me.”

The film would prove a suitably titanic endeavour, ultimately requiring assistant animators, a notion that didn’t sit well with Harryhausen’s solitary working methods. Yet the pay-off is up there on the screen. Pegasus, the half-man half-beast Calibos, the two-headed dog Dioskilos, Bubo the mechanical owl, vultures, giant scorpions, the Kraken – they all made for Harryhausen’s richest feast of creature designs to make it into a single picture.

Then, of course, there’s Medusa, the model with which Harryhausen will forever be synonymous, “A sequence as near perfect as I was ever able to achieve.” The stuff of childhood nightmares – “Lit with what I call Joan Crawford lighting” – Medusa stands as an iconic testament to Harryhausen’s technical innovations.

“My time had passed,” he later said, reflecting on the period following the film’s release. “There would be no room for a maverick who worked on his own in a small back room, making it up as he went along.”