Ray Harryhausen: Master of Marvels

8 May

Ray Harryhausen accepting the Gordon Sawyer award at the 1991/92 Academy Awards.

Well, I’m sorry to report that Ray Harryhausen, the legendary maestro of movie special effects, has passed away at the age of 92.  In his lengthy career, Harryhausen racked up several dozen credits as an effects artist, a director,  a producer,  a cinematographer, and even an animator and a sometime actor. He combined a razor sharp intellect with finely-tuned skill and artistic vision to create a very specific kind of cinematic magic–often employing miniatures and stop-motion animation–that captured the imaginations of generations of moviegoers and secured his place in the pantheon of film world giants.  His style was instantly recognizable and often imitated.

One of his first breaks as a feature film “technician” was on 1949’s Oscar winning Mighty Joe Young, about a giant ape. Even though Harryhausen was a member of the recognized team, he did not earn a trophy; during those days, the Oscars in some of the craft categories were not actually awarded to individuals. Instead, they often went to department and/or studio heads.  Harryhausen’s last major credit was 1981’s Clash of the Titans, but by that point, audiences were used to being dazzled by the splashier effects featured in the films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg; don’t forget, 1981 was was dominated by the blockbuster crowd pleaser Raiders of the Lost Ark, which Lucas co-wrote and co-produced, and Spielberg directed. That noted, I detect Harryhausen’s influence on the thrilling effect of the Stained Glass Knight in 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes, which Spielberg produced. Of course, Harryhausen’s work impacted leagues of film geeks.

Movie fans of my generation, and even generations both before and after mine, no doubt have their favorite Harryhausen moments and memories.  For some, that might be One Million Years B.C.;  for others, it might be The 3 Worlds of Gulliver. I actually saw both in theaters as a child.  Of course, the three Sinbad movies have their followers as well; however, of all Harryhausen’s films, nothing compares to Jason and the Argonauts from 1963, loosely based on the tale of the golden fleece from Greek mythology. I saw this movie multiple times as a child. My guess is that it was frequently re-released for Saturday kiddie matinees, etc. On a side note, I do miss the days when popular movies were often re-released or “brought back” as I often heard the practice called.


The classic creatures from Ray Harryhausen’s masterpiece, Jason and the Argonauts (clockwise from left): Talos, the battling skeltons, the hydra, and a harpie.

Of course, children are blessed with the ability to accept actors’ performances without a lot of fuss. There is little or no distinction between performer and character.  What this means is that as a child, I was spared any awareness that much of the acting in Jason and the Argonauts is pretty awful. Who knows why, but Todd Armstrong, who plays Jason, was actually dubbed.  The dubbing isn’t badly executed, but it is a bit distracting at times.  Was Steve Reeves busy that year, I wonder? Still, the spectacular set pieces are the draw in what Harryhausen reportedly considered his finest effort.  To clarify, Harryhausen did not direct the film (that credit goes to Don Chaffey); instead, he co-produced and essentially designed it though, as pointed out by John Landis on the DVD featurette, Harryhausen is very much considered the auteur, the author, of the piece.

So, what’s your favorite sequence in Jason and the Argonauts? I know you must have one, or you would still not be reading. Michael’s fave is the one with the giant statue of Talos.  I know some people marvel at the hydra or the harpies. As a youngster, I was most fascinated by the appearance of Triton as he emerged from the sea in all his  larger than life mer-man glory. I accepted this bit of tomfoolery at absolute face value.  Of course, composite effects shots with scale and/or forced perspective almost always play better on big movie screens in darkened auditoriums than they do at home on noticeably smaller screens, so this one has lost a little of its charm.

The sequence that has not lost a whit of its charm is, of course, the attack of the skeletons and their swords, which is arguably the most celebrated feat in the movie. I love that my 1998 model DVD features an interview with Harryhausen in which he explains some of the logistics of building, animating, and filming the stop-motion miniature skeletons.  He was likely in his late 70s at the time, but even 30+ years after completing Jason, he still vividly recalls all kinds of details. Fascinating stuff.  Here’s a quote I found online from Harryhausen’s book, co-written with Tony Dalton,  An Animated Life.

  • Each of the model skeletons was about eight to 10 inches high, and six of the seven were made for the sequence. The remaining one was a veteran from [The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad], slightly repainted to match the new members of the family. When all the skeletons have manifested themselves to Jason and his men, they are commanded by Acetes to “Kill, kill, kill them all”, and we hear an unearthly scream. What follows is a sequence of which I am very proud. I had three men fighting seven skeletons, and each skeleton had five appendages to move in each separate frame of film. This meant at least 35 animation movements, each synchronised to the actors’ movements. Some days I was producing less than one second of screen time; in the end the whole sequence took a record four and a half months.

As incredible as this sounds, Harryhausen is actually being a bit modest,  skipping over some of the laborious effort that went into both filming the miniatures in stop motion and then combining that footage with the intricately choreographed live-action footage with actors. I think this many years later it’s still breathtaking. Oh sure, visual effects have made huge technological advances, but are they necessarily better on a visceral level? Do they necessarily inspire that sense of  “How did they do that” awe? These days, most often we know how they did it: digitally with a green screen.  I was suitably impressed with some of Life of Pi‘s ravishing, and Oscar winning, visuals, but I was not left with a sense of wonder, yet I can watch Jason fight those skeletons for days.

Some final thoughts. Despite some obviously mis-matched shots, Jason and the Argonauts, lensed in Italy (as any number of gladiator pics  of the era were), is often flat-out gorgeous. Excellent eye candy and not a whole lot more.  Plus, no less than frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann composed the score, which is an automatic plus for any film. The cast also includes quintessential 1960s sexy screen sirens, Bond girl Honor Blackman (as Herra) and stunning Nancy Kovack, who frequently made the rounds of TV sitcoms back in the day (often cast as exotic types) as a less than Medea-esque Medea. She looks great and has a whole lot less baggage than previous incarnations.


No, Ray Harryhausen had nothing to do with Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder; however, influential opening credit and poster designer Saul Bass is being celebrated as today’s Google Doodle, so that’s cool. Bass was born on May 8, 1920; he died in 1996. I’m a huge fan of his work which also includes designs for such Hitchcock classics as Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest as well as Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm and Exodus, and a host of other biggies, including West Side Story, Spartacus, and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, among many many many many others. Bass’s bold graphics are as easily recognizable as Harryhausen’s signature stop-motion creatures, and both men were more or less working at their peaks during the same era. The Google short film is a hoot, and I’d rather save time and stay current by squeezing in a mention here. (Scroll down to the end of this  page for a peek.)

Though there were no “Special Visual Effects”  Oscars for Jason and the Argonauts–not in the same year that gave moviegoers The Birds and Cleopatra, which actually won the trophy (also filmed in Italy), Harryhausen was recognized by the Academy later  in life with the Gordon Sawyer Award honoring individuals “in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.” Again, by the time he was finally lauded by his peers in the Academy, Harryhausen’s best work was long behind him. It seems absurd that someone of his stature had to wait so long for recognition (almost 30 years after Jason, say).  Oh sure, I guess better late than never and all that,  and he was honored more than once at the Saturn awards (besides having a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame), but there’s another point worth making in that awards are not the end all-be all because what matters most of all is the work, its lasting value, and the joy it brings.

Thanks, Ray…

Official Ray Harryhausen website:


Harryhausen book excerpt: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/dec/20/featuresreviews.guardianreview16

Gordon Sawyer award at Oscars.org: http://www.oscars.org/awards/academyawards/about/awards/sawyer.html

Harryhausen at the Internet Movie Databse:


Saul Bass at the IMDb:http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000866/?ref_=sr_1

(Check out today’s Saul Bass inspired Google Doodle here.)


2 Responses to “Ray Harryhausen: Master of Marvels”

  1. Dale 08 May 2013 at 11:16 am #

    I First Heard This News Here! Scoop!
    Met Harryhausen in the 1970’s. Genteel. Humble but bemused.
    The skeletons are the best. Pegasus. The Tyrannosaur cowboy-roping in Gwangi. The moody and difficult lighting in Beast 20,000 Fathoms. Octopus on Golden Gate. Everything about the Ymir. Bad: the Orangutan in Sinbad 3.
    Technical and Design Mastery Aside, the lasting gift to cinema (building on Willis O’Brien) was the building of human drama into these effects.

  2. listen2uraunt 08 May 2013 at 11:36 am #

    Dale, Thanks for sharing. It’s cool that you actually met the man. I’d love to know more details about that. Thanks for reading.

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