Wednesday 8 May 2013

Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013

A prehistoric animal being lassoed by cowboys alongside ruined temples in a barren landscape? Sounds like a Harryhausen movie. Oh wait: it kinda was.
There aren't many people in the public eye who I admire, but the pioneering stop-motion artist Ray Harryhausen was one of them. Harryhausen didn't kick start my interest in palaeontology in the first place, but his animated dinosaur sequences were certainly one of the highlights of my dinosaur obsessed childhood. I still watch his films today, both dinosaur-themed and otherwise. In fact, I watched two of them just this weekend. Turns out this was strangely timely: as we all know by now, it was announced that Harryhausen passed away yesterday (7/5/2013) at the age of 92.

I'm not alone among palaeontologists in revering Harryhausen's work. Few other special effects artists in the 20th century could make dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals come alive quite like Harryhausen, and it was perhaps only the sophisticated animatronics and CG effects in 1993's Jurassic Park which clearly superseded his work. Indeed, to appreciate Harryhausen's work fully you had to live in pre-JP times, where movie dinosaurs were generally pretty poorly executed. Before Jurassic Park, most movies dinosaurs were modern lizards and crocs dressed up with horns and sails, shonky animatronics and puppets, or else men in oversize reptile costumes. None of these approaches were terribly convincing. Harryhausen's stop motion models, by contrast, looked and acted like the real thing, battling with people and other creatures as if they were present on set. With very few exceptions, there was simply nothing closer to seeing actual dinosaurs than Harryhausen's animations until 1993. It's hard to chose a favourite scene from his dinosaur works, but in terms of overall execution, I think his Allosaurus attack in the 1966 film One Million Years BC may be among his best (below, borrowed from Apollomovieguy). As with all Harryhausen's creations, the animal in this scene is full of character thanks to subtle movements of its head and body. At times the allosaur comes across as a genuine actor in the production, and one who thinks that the movie is below him. Some of his lazier snaps and turns suggest it's just walking the part rather than playing the ferocious animal it could be. You can almost see it thinking 'well, at least I'll be able to pay the rent this month' as it snaps, idly, at the cavefolk. It's only when it's allowed to run across the set and savage people that it really seems to surrender to the role. I don't mean these a criticisms: Harryhausen's careful animation that gives the animal these little flourishes of character that make his films a joy to watch. There are numerous other examples we could cite of this sort of thing: Talos staggering a little when climbing from his plinth, and is preferentially uses his right hand, in Clash of the Titans (1981); Gwangi tugging at the lasso ropes around his neck with his little arms in Valley of Gwangi (1969) and so forth.

Although we may automatically think of dinosaurs when Harryhausen is mentioned, he actually only made three movies which contain 'proper' Mesozoic dinosaurs: The Best from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), One Million Years BC (1966) and Valley of Gwangi. Indeed, we're only including Beast on a technicality. The plot suggests that the 'Rhedosaurus' creature is a dinosaur, but it looks more like a giant lizard than a theropod. I get the impression that Harryhausen would have liked to have worked with dinosaurs more,  apparently trying to drum up interest for further other dinosaur movies or crowbar them into other productions (Sinbad was meant to meet a ceratopsian in a fourth film in that series). He certainly seems to frequently mention dinosaurs in a favourable light in interviews, and some of his first stop-motion models - made when he was a young teenager, were of famous dinosaur species. He did, of course, animate a short sequence of dinosaurs for the 1956 documentary Animal World, which was his only attempt to show dinosaurs in a natural time and setting*. A few other Harryhausen movies - Mysterious Island (1961) and Clash of the Titans - featured avian dinosaurs, but, in all, he actually made relatively few productions featuring the 'classic' dinosaurs. Much of his filmography is comprised of other fantasy or science fiction fare, so his dinosaur movies are, in fact, a minority of his work. Clearly, his dinosaur scenes were well executed enough to remain prominent in our memories even if, when put together, they only comprise a few minutes of footage.

*Unlike his other dinosaur scenes, the models for Animal World were made from injection foam, a cheaper but inferior material to his preferred medium of layered latex, and the sequence features closeups of awkward looking robotic miniatures. For this and other reasons, Harryhausen was never really happy with his work on Animal World and, although the stop-motion still stands up, it's easy to see why he did not consider it as highly as his other projects.

I find it interesting that palaeontologists are so fond of Harryhausen's work considering his sometimes flippant regard for scientific accuracy. Palaeontologists can be real sticklers for such issues, and Harryhausen had a pretty loose concept of what dinosaurs were like (which may explain his 'dinosaur' in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). He frequently over-scaled his animals to make them more formidable, or hybridised different species for dramatic effect. The theropod Gwangi is well known as being a hybrid of Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus, and he added bat-like wings and owl talons to pterosaurs (see his Pteranodon model, below, borrowed from my Pterosaur.Net post on this very topic). Harryhausen played loose with myths as well. His harpies, featured in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, have bat-like wings instead of the feathered wings described in folklore, and his Medusa, from Clash of the Titans, sports a rattlesnake abdomen not mentioned in any literature on this creature.

Despite his loose interpretation of source material, Harryhausen rarely invented completely novel anatomies for his creatures, even when working with entirely novel concepts. His anatomies always had a source in the real world, and it was his combination of animal components which resulted in different models. It's for this reason that Harryhausen's creations share the same appearance, as some of his anatomical 'building blocks' have a signature style. The Kraken from Clash of the Titan, for instance, has the body resembling his JatA Talos model (down to the navel and nipples, which are curious features on a titan), the head is rather like Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) and the arms are clearly borrowed from the octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). These characters all represent very different types of beast - mythological titans, aliens, and giant animals - but they all share Harryhausen's artistic DNA.

For all of his recycling of designs and body parts though, Harryhausen never tweaked his creations so far from their source material that they were unrecognisable. They were enhanced, sure, but never distorted. Palaeontologists watching his dinosaur flicks could feel satisfied that his animals more-or-less looked matched concepts of these animals fashionable in the 50s and 60s. Besides, his animations are too unapologetically focussed on entertainment to warrant harsh scrutiny. You can nitpick Gwangi's anatomy all you like, but you'll be missing the coolest dinosaur round up scene ever committed to film if you do. The plots of Harryhausen's films, which he was often a key producer of, are all about pulpy entertainment and nothing more. They appeal to the little boys and girls in all of us, and aren't asking for detailed critiques of their stories, scientific plausibility or even scripts and acting. Can anyone in touch with their inner child honestly say that they're not interested in watching cowboys round up a tyrannosaur, or a dinosaur destroying a lighthouse? Harryhausen's ideas are simply so charismatic that they're practically immune to scientific criticism.

Harryhausen's legacy is not just one a charismatic storyteller and skilled special effects artist, however. It's well known that Harryhausen was one of the signature stop-motion artists of the 20th century, but the fact that he saved stop-motion as an artform in the 1940s and 50s isn't common knowledge. Early stop-motion techniques pioneered in films like The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933) by Harryhausen's mentor, Willis O'Brian, were wonderfully executed but extremely time consuming and expensive, even by standards of stop-motion photography. O'Brian's techniques employed setting several painted landscapes on glass between his animated models and the camera, thus creating the impression that the creatures were set in middle distance. The process of painting these landscapes and compositing these shots, in addition to animating the models and other technical work, was so intensive that most studios were unwilling to invest the necessary time and money into stop motion work. Harryhausen's childhood interest in stop-motion animation, fired by multiple viewings of King Kong and some very supportive parents, allowed him to develop matting techniques which negated the need for painted glass landscapes, in which components of the filmed footage could be re-photographed on top of the animated scene. This cut the time and material costs of stop-motion processes drammatically, and he pioneered this technique, which he would eventually call 'dynamation', before he landed his first solo job on a motion picture. Dynamation was first put to the test on the low budget Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and Harryhausen delivered his work for a fraction of the cost of traditional stop motion. Without this revolution in stop-motion, the artform as we know it may never have happened. That may not seem like a big deal to us now in a time of CG effects, but bear in mind that Jurassic Park was greenlit with a sophisticated form of stop-motion in mind.

In his career, Harryhausen more-or-less single handedly lent his dynamation craft, and other special effects wizardry, to something like 16 motion pictures (see compilation, above, by Vidar Solaas). If the testimonies of the numerous fans and film makers are accurate, the movie world would be a very different place without them. There's so much more we could say about Harryhausen: his abilities as an artist and sculptor, the vast numbers of films he designed that were never made (War of the Worlds with Harryhausen tripods!), the many, many stories he has shared about making his films, but there's simply not enough time to relate even a fraction of them here. If you want to know this sort of stuff, though, I thoroughly recommend you track down either his richly illustrated autobiography and collected artworks, or the recent critically acclaimed documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan.

On that note, it's time to get on with other things. Thanks then for everything, Ray, you will be missed.


  1. Very sad & unexpected. Harryhausen's work was a significant part of my childhood. My favorite parts of his movies were (& still are) the fight scenes involving large theropods (especially the Ceratosaurus/Triceratops & Gwangi/Elephant fight scenes).

    1. With hand on heart honesty, I don't think Harryhausen's dinosaurs were his best work. Don't get me wrong: they're really great and, as indicated above, I'm a big fan, but their behaviours are too limited to become emotionally invested with. His dinosaurs appear, chase people and destroy things, and then they clear off or die. They never build up layered personalities in the same way as some of his other creations like Joe Young or Ymir. Even Gwangi and the Rhedosaurs never really deviate from menacing people. They're wonderful to watch (particularly the silhouetted scene where the Rhedosaurus demolishes a lighthouse), but not so easy to sympathise with. I guess it doesn't help that some of the plots and human characters do little to paint the dinosaurs in a sympathetic light, either.