Ray Harryhausen

Raymond Frederick Harryhausen was born on the 29th June 1920 in Los Angeles, California, USA, to parents Fred and Martha.

He had a passion, which has never abated, for dinosaurs and anything fantasy.

His parents both encouraged him to pursue what he wanted to, even if the chosen career wasn’t what they would have probably considered usual. Ray commented, ‘My obsession with fantasy has been lifelong, growing during my formative years and being taken to new heights by novels, paintings and of course films, and I was always encouraged by my parents. They nurtured this unusual passion in me by taking me to films and theatre, and later enthused about my experiments with marionettes, models and animation, eventually even helping me with productions. They never tried to discourage me in any way from my obsession, and could just as easily have said, ‘Get out there and be a doctor or a lawyer or follow some other profession that is going to bring you in money’. Fortunately, they didn’t’.

His favourite haunts as a child were museums, marionette shows, the ocean, local parks and movie houses.

It was whilst at Grammar school that he learnt how to make model miniature set pieces of Californian Missions. This took him to the next phase in which he began to make three dimensional figures and sets that of course led him to make his own versions of prehistoric creatures.

He discovered the LA County Museum where he marvelled at the murals of prehistoric creatures created by Charles R. Knight (1874-1953), particularly the one of the Le Brea Tar Pits which is still in situ.

Knight’s visualisation of what dinosaurs looked like became the vision that Ray used throughout his career.

When he was eighteen years old Ray entered a competition called The Junior Museum Hobby Show at the County Museum in March/April of 1938, submitting a diorama that included his stegosaurus (based on Knight’s paintings), which won first prize.

The Lost WorldThe Lost World (1925)

His parents took him to see The Lost World sometime in 1925, when he was barely five years old and there he witnessed what looked to be living dinosaurs. It was a revelation. His favourite scene was of an allosaurus fighting and then pushing a brontosaurus off the edge of the plateau where it lands in a lake of mud.

King Kong (1933)

Eight years later, in 1933, Ray would see another film that would not only inspire him but change his life. The film was King Kong.

Picture the scene of Ray, aged an impressionable thirteen year old, sitting in Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, with his aunt (who had acquired the precious tickets) and his mother.

When he left the cinema Ray talked about what he had seen all the way home. Questions came thick and fast, most of which his parents couldn’t answer so Ray had to look elsewhere for answers. He wanted to know about the creatures and how they had been brought to life. He knew they weren’t real but how were they able to move?

King Kong marionetteMarionettes

The young Ray began to recreate the images in Kong by using marionettes or string puppets.

His first were inevitably Kong, a tyrannosaurus rex, a stegosaurus, a brontosaurus and a pterodactyl, which all featured Kong. For a while he concentrated on designing and producing various marionette shows, including a short version of Kong but he knew that marionettes weren’t the answer. Again that question, ‘How were they able to move’ in the film?

Learning about animation

He searched around to try and find out how Kong seemed to be ‘alive’ and came across a few articles, some of which proved to be inaccurate and he somehow knew this straight away.

Eventually he did discover articles that included information about something called stop-motion animation.

Simultaneously he visited an exhibition at the LA County Museum on techniques used to make The Lost World and King Kong, which enabled him to piece everything together. Ray recalls, ‘As I continued to study and learn how the effects for Kong were achieved, I realised this was something I really wanted to try for myself and perhaps even be part of, so I began to construct my own miniature dioramas and crude models, which eventually led me to take the step in making larger moveable figures’.

Early Experiments

His first attempts were, of course, prehistoric and included a cave bear, a brontosaurus and a stegosaurus.

To begin with, he used wooden armatures but they didn’t really hold their pose.

Animating JupitarianNot daunted he borrowed a 16mm Victor camera and began shooting short experimental films using these wooden articulated models. The Victor camera didn’t have a one frame facility so he gently tapped the button to get a frame exposure. This didn’t always give him the one frame he wanted.

His first studio was his parent’s garden but he soon realised that although there was plenty of light, the light moved. When his test footage came back from the laboratory, Ray realised that the sun had moved and caused the shadows, during his careful animation, to also become animated. So he moved into his father’s garage. This was much more practical even though his father had to park their car on the driveway.

Collecting lights and purchasing a proper camera (a Kodak Cine II) that possessed a one-frame shaft, these enabled him to shoot smoother animation.

Ray then began shooting a series of experimental films that began to illustrate what he might be capable of as an animator.

Ray Bradbury and Forry Ackerman

Ray with Ray Bradbury and Forry AckermanIt was during this time that he met two people who would become close and lifelong friends. The first was Forrest J. Ackerman (1916-2008), or Forry to his friends, whom Ray met when he borrowed some stills from King Kong. Forry would go on to be a respected collector of movie memorabilia and publish Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. The other friend would become a world famous author and screenwriter, Ray Bradbury (1920 – ). ‘Ray and I soon discovered we had a lot in common, but it was our mutual tenacity in the pursuit of our chosen careers – he with his writing and my experiments in animation and photography – that would bind us together’.

Evolution of the World (1938-40)

In 1938, when Ray was just eighteen years old he began his most ambitious project called Evolution of the World, in which he planned to visualise the dawn of the planet to the end of the age of the dinosaurs.

He designed and built a number of models including a tyrannosaurus rex, a triceratops, a brontosaurus and pterodactyl and began experimenting with mattes (a process which enabled images whether live action or not, to be integrated with another image). In one sequence he had a brontosaurus emerging from water onto dry land that used a matte.

Sadly the project was way too ambitious and when Ray saw the ‘Rites of Spring’ sequence in Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, he knew that the project was doomed.

Willis O’Brien (1886 – 1962)

Willis OBrienIt was during Ray’s work on Evolution that he met Willis O’Brien, the man who had created the dinosaurs and animated them for The Lost World and King Kong.

He called O’Brien at the MGM Studios where the master animator was working on a project called War Eagles. Taking some of his own models, Ray made his way to the studio and once there was shown to the War Eagles production office. ‘I walked in and my jaw just dropped. The walls were completely covered with paintings and drawings for the project. They were magnificent. Some were by Obie (as Ray would come to know him), some by Byron Crabbe, Mario Larrinaga and Duncan Gleason. It was breathtaking’.

Eventually Ray plucked up the courage to show Obie some of his own creations that he had brought with him. Nervously he produced the stegosaurus, the one that had won first prize at the LA County Museum, and handed it to Obie. Ray takes up the story, ‘I held my breath. Obie looked at it for a few minutes and then said, ‘The legs look like wrinkled sausages. You’ve got to put more character into it and study anatomy to learn where the muscles connect to the bone’. I realised he was right’.

That day was a turning point in Ray’s design and execution of a model and led to still further fluid animation as when he did get creatures anatomically correct, moving them seemed more natural.

Art and Film Making

Rays Early ArtworkTaking Obie’s advise Ray enrolled in art and anatomy night classes at the Los Angeles City College (LACC).

He had discovered whilst visiting Obie at MGM that drawings helped visualise what was in the imagination. Without that visualisation people wouldn’t be able to understand what you were talking about. So Ray learned that this was just as important a part of the process of animation as animation itself.

Ray had been told by Obie that a huge influence on him had been the artist and illustrator Gustave Doré (1832-1883), and had used his style of light and dark areas in King Kong. Along with Knight, Doré would become a major influence in Ray’s work.

Ray at Night SchoolStill later Ray realised that he needed to know about techniques of filming so he decided to attend night classes at the University of Southern California where he studied a number of disciplines including art direction, editing and photography.

At the same time he was gradually learning how to move his models, how to instil what seemed like life into them by giving them character or a personality. It wasn’t enough that a creature simply stride into a scene, its build and makeup required that it reflect its body and character.

Over the next few years he would also make frequent trips to the zoo to study animals and see how they reacted.

George Pal and Puppetoons (1940-42)

PuppetoonsWhen he left high school Ray began to look around for work as an animator. Obie was between jobs so when Ray noticed an advert in the paper asking for technicians with film and animation techniques experience to work on short films, he rushed over to a studio on McCadden Place and Santa Monica Blvd in Hollywood. There he was interviewed by a Hungarian film producer who had escaped the Nazis and settled in Hollywood, his name was George Pal (1908-1980).

Pal was to produce a series of shorts to be called Madcap Models, which were later to become Puppetoons.

Ray was one of the first animators to join Pal.

Pal’s European styled models were made of wood and each movement necessitated a separate set of legs and heads called the replacement stystem although quite often the arms were armatured. This allowed the animator very little creativity, which didn’t really suit Ray.

As the production became more successful the staff increased and for a very short time, perhaps only ten days, Ray and Pal were joined by Obie. Like Ray, Obie disliked the process of animating pre-planned models so left.

After working on thirteen Puppetoons Ray also left. He was reluctant to do so because he liked Pal but he had the feeling that he could do better.

Army (1942-1945)

Ray still in the armyWhen war was declared Ray designed and photographed a short film called How to Bridge a Gorge (1941) to illustrate how stop-motion animation might be used in propaganda or orientation films.

When he enlisted in the Army in 1942 he was assigned to the Army Signal Corps and sent to Fort MacArthur for training. Prior to his entry into the Army, Ray had shown How to Bridge a Gorge to one of the teachers and he in turn had shown it to the film director’s Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak. They were both impressed and Ray was assigned to the Special Service Division, in charge of which was Frank Capra (1897-1991), who had been made a Colonel.

Whilst there, Ray worked on many famous US propaganda films including the Why We Fight series for the US War Office.

During this time he also made his second animated film called Guadalcanal but again nobody seemingly recognised the potential in animation.

Ray was honourably discharged at Fort Dix, New Jersey on the 7th February 1946. He left the Army as a Technician Third Class with an American Sv medal, Good Conduct medal, World War II Victory medal and a certificate as a sharp shooter (Ray had never handled a gun before his entry into the Army).

His discharge papers noted, ‘Served with the signal corps, in the capacity of a cameraman, making films for the Army Navy Screen Magazine and for orientation motion pictures. Did some work with 3 dimensional and animations used on maps in orientation films. Directed the activities of 4 assistants’.

Mother Goose Stories (1946)

Mother gooseRay decided he would make his own short films. Using some out of date 16mm colour Kodachrome stock he had acquired, and with the help of his father and mother, he shot a series of nursery rhymes that included Little Miss Muffet, Old Mother Hubbard, The Queen of Hearts and Humpty Dumpty.

He used armatured models. The ball and socket armatures were made by his father although based on Ray’s designs, and were clothed in tiny costumes made by his mother. Each had a series of replacement heads, with extreme expressions and he would dissolve from one head to another to simulate reactions.

When he had completed all of these stories he lumped them all together under the title The Mother Goose Stories (1946), which he distributed to schools with great success.

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

Joe YoungSoon after completing Mother Goose Stories Ray was contacted by Obie. Merian C. Cooper (1893-1973) was planning another giant ape movie to be called Mr Joseph Young of Africa and Obie wanted Ray to work on it with him. It was like a dream come true – literally. To work on another ape picture with the very same people who had made King Kong. What better opportunity for a budding young animator?

Ray worked with Obie on all the pre-production, helping with the presentation of Obie’s artwork to not only Cooper but also to the screenwriter Ruth Rose (1896-1978) and the director Ernest B. Schoedsack (1893-1979).

Whilst Obie busied himself with designs, planning and setups, Ray animated most of the scenes (around 90% of the entire picture) with fellow animator Pete Peterson (? – 1962) executing the remainder.

Obie did do some animation on the roping and cowboy sequence and the orphanage sequence but other than that it seemed to Ray that Obie had lost that passion for animation. He was content to let others do it and he saw Ray and indeed Pete, as worthy protégés.

Ray gave his animation model of Joe the name of Jennifer after seeing Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun (1946). ‘It was the hands’, said Ray.

Only one person congratulated him for his work on the picture and that was director John Ford. One day after seeing the rushes for the lion cage sequence near the beginning of the picture, Ford came up to Ray and shook his hand, saying that he thought the sequence was magnificent.

The film cost a total of $2,285,575.14. A phenomenal amount for the time because other overheads were added to the final budget.

For Mighty Joe Young Obie was the recipient, on behalf of the production, of the Best Special Effects award at the 1950 American Academy Awards ceremony and was proudly accompanied by Ray. That Oscar sat in Obie’s lounge until the day he died.

Valley of the Mist (1950)

This project was never realised even though Ray worked with Obie on the concept for some time.

Ray executed three large drawings of a pterodactyl being roped by natives, an allosaurus (the proposed star of the project) attacked by a triceratops and the same allosaurus killing the triceratops and being attacked by natives. Ray never showed these drawings to Obie for fear that he wouldn’t like them.

Valley of the mist 1 Valley of the mist 2 Valley of the mist 3

War of the Worlds.jpgWar of the Worlds (1949-50)

There were other failed projects with Obie before Ray sadly realised he had to go his own way. He wanted to make his own feature film.

First he designed a whole sequence of drawings and storyboards for an adaptation of H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds. He hawked them around to various Hollywood producers including George Pal, but nobody was interested. It was thought that science fiction was out of fashion.

He also executed one drawing for another Wells project, Food of the Gods but because nobody could see the value of a science fiction movie, he dropped the idea at the same time as War of the Worlds.

The Fairy Tales (1950-2002)

Fairy Tales – Little Red Riding HoodRay returned to shorts with an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood, which he called The Story of Little Red Riding Hood (1950). Using the same methods as he used with The Mother Goose Stories the film proved another success with schools and so Ray set out to make what has since become known as the Fairy Tale series, although in fact not all were fairy tales. The series included The Story of Hansel and Gretel (1951), The Story of Rapunzel (1952) and The Story of King Midas (1953), the last of which was completed after his first feature film project.

In 1952 he began but didn’t finish, an adaptation of The Tortoise and the Hare. Fifty years later it was eventually completed as The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare in 2001/2 with Ray being assisted by two animators – Mark Caballero and Shamus Walsh. As sections from ray’s 1952 animation was used, the film probably rates as having the longest production schedule in cinema history.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1952)

Beast from 20000 FathomsIn late 1951 Ray was offered his first feature production that was originally titled The Monster From Under the Sea but famously became The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

The production company was Mutual Films which was run by Jack Dietz, who to Ray looked like Edward G. Robinson even down to the fat cigar. Ray takes up the story, ‘Apparently, he was unsure of how to visualise the main element of the picture, the creature, and didn’t know whether it should be a man in a rubber suit or an alligator dressed up. I rang Dietz and he came over to my house the next day to look at my models and drawings, and view sections on Evolution and Mighty Joe Young. After he had seen what I had to offer, I then enthused about the advantages of dimensional animation, telling him that anything and everything he wanted could be done in the process. I held my breath’. Thankfully Dietz and the rest of the production team gave their approval for the use of stop-motion.

This was the first film that used a split screen technique to insert models into the live-action. Later the technique became known as Dynamation.

Because he wanted to work on the project so badly, Ray’s woefully low budget for the effects meant that he made little or no profit from his work on the picture.

The film was a landmark in cinema history and launched not only a series of similar monster-on-the-rampage movies but also the Godzilla series.

The Beast, or the rhedosaurus as it was called, was a fictional dinosaur and some say the first two letters – rh – denote a bow to the man who created him. Ray denies this.

Charles Schneer