Ecologist - Writer - Photographer

Ray Harryhausen Tribute Blog

Talos bronze, from Jason and the Argonauts
Ray Harryhausen Tribute Blog

Ray Harryhausen with ceratosaur dinosaur

Ray Harryhausen with ceratosaur dinosaur, from The Animal World (1956).

Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema

29th June 2020 marks the centenary (100th anniversary) of the birth of Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013), storyteller and bringer of life to myths, legends and tales of fantasy and science fiction. A legendary filmmaker, Harryhausen was a genius, a pioneer, and influencer. He was rightly proud of his movies, of the creatures he animated and the stories they told. Here, I present a personal tribute to the life and work of the late great Ray Harryhausen.

There is an immortality that can come with creative productivity. Artists, authors, filmmakers and others have the ability to stoke emotional fires, to burn artistic or metaphorical visions into memories and, for the more influential, produce output that remains in the public conscience across generations through their work. Good and influential art, music, books, and film continue to attract, inform and inspire today, and into the future, no matter how long ago they were created, or how long since the creation of the art or passing of their creator. Ray Harryhausen is one of the immortals. A true titan of cinema.

As Ray was inspired and influenced by his predecessor, Willis O’Brien (the man behind the original King Kong), so has Ray left his mark on a plethora of the next generation of movie directors, Steven Spielberg (the Indiana Jones series, and Jurassic Park), Peter Jackson (the Lord of the Rings trilogy), and George Lucas (Star Wars series) to name but three.

Ray Harryhausen is best known as a movie animator, a creator of visual effects for films. By his own admission, the films that he worked on were B-movies, but as Ray himself said “so they were considered B-pictures ... And, now here we are, and they've outlasted many so-called A-pictures.” Ray’s work persists in popular culture today.

Indeed, there was, and is, something magical and memorable about the pictures that Ray Harryhausen worked on. And his input to the movies went beyond the special effects. Many times, Ray brought in the stories, and storytelling was at the heart of what Ray did. “The whole point of making a film is to tell a story”. And Ray was clearly irked by some subsequent films apparently missing the point of special effects – which is to support the story rather than impress, and dominate, in isolation.

The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation Collections Manager, Connor Heaney, illustrates the stop motion technique (special effects) pioneered by Ray Harryhausen

The Ray and Diana Foundation Collections Manager, Connor Heaney, explaining the stop-motion special effects technique pioneered by Ray Harryhausen.

March of the Skeletons

Ray Harryhausen with skeleton - stop-motion

Ray Harryhausen animating a skeleton from Jason and the Argonauts (1963) for old times sake.

Perhaps the most famous stop-motion movie scene ever committed to celluloid is the skeleton army sequence in Jason and the Argonauts. King Aeetes scatters the teeth of the slain Hydra and the skeleton army ('the Children of the Hydra's Teeth') sprout from the Earth to wreak terror and death upon the Argonauts. The scene presents an incredible feat of animation and choreography.

The skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts builds on a mind-boggling fight-scene from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. This movie features a sword-fight to the death (if a skeleton can be killed…) between Sinbad (played by a swashbuckling Kerwin Mathews) and a skeleton. This scene was originally cut from the version shown in movie theatres and cinemas upon release as it was deemed too scary...

In Jason and the Argonauts, Ray choreographed multiple skeletons and human actors simultaneously. Ray always worked on the animations alone (“I preferred to work alone because then I'm not deterred by somebody asking me if I want coffee, or the phone ringing or something”) and it took him four and a half months to put together this animation sequence.

Even here, as was often the case, the original vision was not perfectly realised. Ray’s original idea was for the scene to be filmed at twilight. On this occasion, the storyboard was adapted to avoid falling foul of fearful censors.

Skeleton, Ages of Wonder, at Dunoon Burgh Hall

On a visit to the Dunoon Film Festival to attend a 60th Anniversary Celebration screening of The 7th Voyage of Screening, next door I discovered the final resting place of one of Ray Harryhausen's skeletons... Masquerading as a prop in retirement at the art exhibition of human anatomy: Age of Wonder.


Ray Harryhausen with triceratops dinosaur

Ray Harryhausen with triceratops dinosaur, from The Animal World (1956).

So, over a 49 year, 16 movie career, Harryhausen lent his hand to animating a diversity of creatures: extinct (dinosaurs), extant (living, e.g. the elephant of 20 Million Miles to Earth), mythical (cyclops, medusa, roc), and imagined (the Ymir), and many others, as well as animating flying saucers in early sci-fi classic, Earth v’s Flying Saucers (if only Ray had been allowed to animate the aliens in that movie…).

I am a bit of a dinosaur and palaeontology fan. Whilst I have not seen them in many many years, I remember watching Ray Harryhausen’s two genre-defining dinosaur films, One Million Years BC, and The Valley of Gwangi, on the telly as a kid and being suitably blown-away. The pterodactyl carrying away the flailing Raquel Welch is an iconic cinema moment. The scene where allosaurus Gwangi is lasso’d has remained indelibly burnt into my memory cells. You may expect me to have dreamt of being a caveman or a cowboy to complement the dinosaurs in those movies. However, I have to admit that I didn’t feel totally comfortable with the juxtaposition of humans and dinosaurs, i.e. cavemen and cavewomen in One Million Years BC, and cowboys in The Valley of Gwangi. Similary, I am not in any way drawn to Jurassic Park or its many highly-successful sequels… But then I do love The Land That Time Forgot… Maybe I need to give the Harryhausen dinosaur movies another chance?

Whilst Ray only made two dinosaur movies, with dinosaurs making guest appearances and dino-esque creatures featuring in numerous other Harryhausen movies, it is notable that his first serious film project, developed in the garage of his family home, Evolution of the World (1938), was heavily dino-tastic. Ray built model brontosaurus, stegosaurus, triceratops, and (a clear Harryhausen favourite) allosaurus, as well as other extinct vertebrates including sabre-toothed tiger and mammoth. Ray shot over 20 minutes of test footage, and packed some of his models in a suitcase to show to his hero Willis O'Brien. The latter was unimpressed and advised Ray that "the legs of his stegasaurus looked like sausages." Nevertheless, the young Harryhausen clearly impressed O'Brien, who subsequently hired Ray to animate the gorilla in Mighty Joe Young (1949).

Regardless of the scientific accuracy of Ray Harryhausen’s dinosaurs, there are a bunch of palaeontologists/zoologists interested in anatomy and biomechanics out there who are into Ray Harryhausen. Alongside palaeoartist and pterosaur king Mark Witton, who I interviewed to commemorate the Ray Harryhausen centenary (listen here), there are Tyrannosaur expert Dave Hone, and biomechanics messiah John Hutchinson, to name a few. In addition, science celebrities Dallas Campbell and Chris Packham have also fully signed-up to the Ray Harryhausen fan club. That such a collection of science-y folk worship at the altar of Ray Harryhausen is testament to the power of his work. All of the aforementioned have, to some extent, been influenced by the imagination of, and re-imagining of creatures non-existent, extant, and extinct by, Ray Harryhausen.

Cinema shows… and the lost Hydra

As far as I can remember, I only saw one Harryhausen movie in a proper cinema, on its release. That was his last movie, 1981’s Clash of the Titans. I went to see it with my family and my imagination was fired by the creatures that the movie brought to life: Pegasus the flying horse, and Bubo the mechanical owl, in particular. I also vaguely remember seeing Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger at a caravan park ‘cinema’ on a family holiday in England at some point in the late 70’s/early 80’s… and being genuinely scared by the big… big-er… giant, GIGANTIC hornet.

Nevertheless, whilst I didn’t get to see Jason and the Argonauts at the cinema upon its release in 1963 (before I was born), it was an utterly unforgettable movie of my childhood. A graphic storybook of Jason and the Golden Fleece was a gift received at an early age, and with the hero of the story sharing the same name as myself, it fired my imagination. So, when I saw Jason and the Argonauts on the TV it absolutely blew me away!

Wasp, Vespula sp., Kirkliston, Scotland

A Kirkliston wasp. Bringing back memories of the scene in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). I hope to be able to post a picture of my Hydra here come winter...

At one stage in my youth I owned a Hydra (ok, a bendy plastic toy hydra). The necks (all 7 of them) and tail of this multi-headed beast were malleable and, whether or not I was consciously aware of the painstaking effort that Ray Harryhausen put in to animating his creatures, I at least enjoyed going through the motions of my own live-action stop-motion scenes. I might have that toy hydra in storage, and with the Ray Harryhausen centenary fast approaching, I felt emboldened to make my own dangerous journey to far away lands. I climbed the ladders into the dark and dusty realms of my mum’s attic… I peered around at boxes that had lain unopened for many a year. What godly treasures lay within these caskets of mystery from my youth? I excitedly ripped off the wrapping-tape from a particularly large (and accessible) box, and reached inside (there was not space to look in the box). My hand felt around. In my mind, I was seeking what would feel like a multi-headed bendy toy… My hand grasped a more solid object and, as I extracted it from its dusty tomb, I had a flashback to the scene in Jason and the Argonauts where Hercules and Hylas plundered the tomb of Talos and things started to go bad for them… Anyway, out popped a Star Wars figure (Han Solo if you are interested…) instead. That was exciting enough but it was at that point that I realised that there was an active wasp’s nest in the attic with me, and (with visions of the giant hornet from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (which scared the willies out of me as a child), I retreated from this dangerous place. OK, I rescued the Star Wars figures (I could not leave without some prize to show for my escapade), but I am not venturing back in a quest to reclaim the hydra until winter (when the wasps, and any flashbacks to the giant hornet will be safely hibernating).

Much later, in 2008, not too many years before Ray’s passing, I attended a screening of Jason and the Argonauts at The Cameo Picture House cinema in Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh Film Festival, and Ray Harryhausen was present and did a Q & A session after the screening. You can view a snippet of Ray talking about the origin and evolution of ‘Dynamation’ at the event here.

In recent years, my passion and interest for Ray Harryhausen movies has been re-stoked in no small part due to discovery of The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. In 2018, I attended two anniversary screenings – a 55th anniversary showing of Jason and the Argonauts (I don’t know how many times I have seen this movie now… but I never get tired of it) at the Dunfermline Filmhouse – where I got to meet Talos (a bronze model of) and John Cairney (the actor who played Hylas…), and a 60th anniversary screening of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (which is a wonderfully simple old-fashioned romantic tale) at the Dunoon Town Hall.

Jason and the Argonauts 55th Anniversary Celebration

55th Anniversary Celebration screening of Jason and the Argonauts (original movie release 1963).

Hylas reunion with Talos... Jason and the Argonauts

John Cairney (Hylas, in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) reunited with Talos. They didn't exactly get on well in the movie, and they didn't exactly make up at the 55th Anniversary Celebration screening...)

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad: 60th Anniversary Celebration screening

60th Anniversary Celebration screening of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (original movie release 1958).

With my re-invigorated interest in Ray Harryhausen I have savoured two recently published books that showcase artwork related to the movies of Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen: The Movie Posters (by Richard Holliss, Titan Books) does what it says on the tin, with reproduction of period movie poster art from across the world. A good movie poster captures the iconic characters and events in a movie, and Ray Harryhausen’s creatures always feature prominently in the posters, alongside the movie stars.

Harryhausen: The Movie Posters by Richard Holliss (Titan Books)

Harryhausen: The Movie Posters, by Richard Holliss, published by Titan Books.

Harryhausen: The Lost Movies (by John Walsh, Titan Books) presents artwork, storyboards and insights from the Ray Harryhausen archive. The Lost Movies has a much wider reach than ‘only’ highlighting unrealised movie projects. These include HG Wells War of the Worlds, and the intriguingly titled Sinbad Goes to Mars, as well as movie projects that Ray declined to contribute to but were filmed. If you have ever wondered what The Land That Time Forgot, Dune, or the The Giant Claw would have looked like had Ray Harryhausen been involved… One of Ray's early unused ideas, evidenced only by a single page of handwritten draft storyline was Dinosaur Graveyard. Penned in 1942, this was well before One Million Years BC, and it would have been interesting to have seen another dinosaur movie added to the Ray Harryhausen canon.

Harryhausen: The Lost Movies, by John Walsh (Titan Books)

Harryhausen: The Lost Movies, by John Walsh, published by Titan Books.

Harryhausen: The Lost Movies also provides unrealised visions (unfilmed sequences) from movies that were filmed. So, if you want to know what scenes Ray envisaged that didn’t make it onto celluloid, this book is a must-see. For me, the original Ray Harryhausen artwork (inspired by Gustave Dore') in this book is a revelation. Harryhausen was a wonderful artist in the 2-D (as well as 3-D sense). Check out some of Ray's dinosaur artwork sketches produced for One Million Years BC here. This book also highlights that in many cases Ray was integral to the storytelling “I brought in the stories many times, I don’t just do the animation”.

Whilst I would heartily recommend catching an opportunity to view a Ray Harryhausen film on the big screen, those opportunities are sadly limited these days, and all of Harryhausen’s movies are available out there somewhere on DVD, and some are still regularly or irregularly (depending on the movie) shown on TV today. It may be that Ray Harryhausen’s centenary audience is a more mature demographic seeking to relive childhood TV experiences, but I hope that the kids and youth of today are similarly whisked away to a world of make-believe in the same way that many of my generation were back in the 70’s and 80’s.

Ray Harryhausen: The Future

Ray Harryhausen with skeleton

Ray Harryhausen with skeleton (from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 1958).

Ray’s legacy, through his movies, and with the increasing library of documentaries, articles and books dedicated to his work, stands proud. But there is more to come.

Force of the Trojans is a project that aims to bring Ray Harryhausen-inspired story and creatures to the big screen again. Based on materials from the archives of the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation the intention is to unleash Force of the Trojans on cinema-goers in the not-so-distant future.

Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema, the most comprehensive exhibition of Ray Harryhausen artefacts, is due to open in Edinburgh at the National Galleries of Scotland. The exhibition is accompanied by a book of the same name, in which Ray’s daughter, Vanessa Harryhausen, examines 100 objects picked from the archive. To preview the exhibition, have a look at the BBC documentary, part of the Culture in Quarantine series, here.

The Ray Harryhausen Centenary Podcast

Mark Witton tribute art to Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen tribute artwork by Mark Witton. The Valley of Gwangi (1969) featured cowboys, dinosaurs, and yes, pterosaurs.

And, if you haven’t already, go and listen to my first ever (and currently only!) podcast – in interview with palaeontologist and palaeoartist Mark Witton, where we have a good fanboy natter in tribute to Ray Harryhausen: The Ray Harryhausen Centenary Podcast.

The Ray Harryhausen Centenary Photo Quiz

To test your knowledge of Ray Harryhausen movies, visit The Ray Harryhausen Centenary Photo Quiz.


Ray Harryhausen, Harryhausen, #Harryhausen100, Ray Harryhausen centenary, Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema, stop-motion, dynamation, special effects, science fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, monster movies, art, movies

Key References

Ray Harryhausen @ IMDb
The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation
Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema
Ray Harryhausen quotes i
Ray Harryhausen quotes ii
Rare first glimpse at restored creatures created by stop motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen
Culture in Quarantine - Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema - The Exhibition