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The Special Effects Legacy of Ray Harryhausen

By David Konow

A look back at the influence of Ray Harryhausen's work and why his craft still lives on in today's computer animated features.

Last month, we lost one of the most important figures in FX history, namely Ray Harryhausen. As any self-respecting film geek knows, Harryhausen is the godfather of stop-motion animation. He didn’t invent the technology, but he will always be synonymous with it, which has enjoyed a wonderful comeback as of late.

In fact, three stop motion movies were up for Academy Awards this year, including Frankenweenie and Paranorman. Not to mention Ted, which is certainly far removed from the family friendly adventures Harryhausen created, is the third biggest grossing film with an animated character in cinema history. While many would consider it a stretch to compare Ted to Jason and the Argonauts, the spirit of Harryhausen’s innovations indeed live on in many of today’s effects.

It wasn’t just hyperbole when Steven Spielberg told the press, “Without his work, there never would have been a Star Wars or a Jurassic Park.” Harryhausen’s work inspired so many fans to create their own stop motion animation at home, and become filmmakers one day themselves. For directors and FX people like Peter Jackson, Tim Burton, and Rick Baker, creating little movies by moving their toys one frame at a time was a rite of passage for many.

As Burton told Collider, stop motion is “a slightly lost art form, although there’s more being done now than there was in the past. Just to be able to touch and feel the puppets and move them…If you felt them and saw the intricacy of the movement, you’d see that it’s quite a beautiful artform.” And as ParaNorman producer Travis Knight said, “It’s a process that dates back to the dawn of cinema, with a charm and a warmth other forms of animation – wonderful as they are – do not have. Generations of aspiring animators have, and continue to, experiment with it in their parents’s basements or garages. It is a magical moment for you when something is brought to life.”

Harryhausen started moving his creations around when he was in his early teens, and considering there weren’t tons of FX magazines, or featurettes on YouTube back then, he learned by doing it one frame at a time. Eventually Harryhausen would meet and work with his idol, Willis O’Brien, the FX master who animated the original King Kong. Harryhausen saw Kong at the Grauman’s Chinese theater in Hollywood first run, and it was the primary influence that always drove his work.

The original King Kong was the state-of-the-art FX film for its time, and as Harryhausen recalled, “I was thrilled by the movie because other than seeing The Lost World when I was five, I had never seen anything like it on the screen. I was only 12 or 13 at the time, so I had no idea how the special effects were done, and very few reliable articles had been written about effects because it was considered a studio secret. I wanted to know more about it, and how it was done.”

Like O’Brien’s stop motion ape, the skeletons for Ray’s armatures had metal torsos, limbs with ball and socket joints, covered in a latex skin. Making the models was one thing, but Ray also had to learn how to create the miniature worlds his creations lived in by building sets, matte paintings, and more.

“I had to teach myself a huge variety of other trades that I needed to master if I wanted to be a model animator,” he told author Tony Dalton. “I had to learn to paint backgrounds, build miniature sets, make mattes, match foregrounds and color, and solve all those unexpected problems that would inevitably arise in front of the camera…”

Harryhausen would also do intensive research, like the time he learned fencing so his armatures could sword fight realistically in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. “I enrolled for a course at the Faulkner Fencing School,” Harryhausen revealed. “I enjoyed it, but I had to give it up when I threw my hip joint out. What we artists suffer for our art!”

Photo courtesy Watson-Guptill Publications

When asked what segment Harryhausen was most proud of, he said he was proud of all his work “but I suppose the skeleton segment in Jason and the Argonauts gives me the greatest satisfaction. It was certainly the most time-consuming and elaborate sequence I ever designed.”

Animation has certainly come a long ways since Harryhausen’s day, but as Harryhausen continued, “Nothing has changed in the last 70 years except the sophistication of the technology.” In fact, Harryhausen wasn’t anti-CGI, calling it “a very efficient tool,” but he added, “The big drawback is that people using it must work with many others, a situation I would not enjoy. It was something I was able to avoid completely for more than forty years.”

It’s remarkable to think that in Harryhausen’s films he was able to keep complete control over his work. As he explained to me in one interview, “I had control over my work because I almost invariably borught the ideas to the studio with my frequent collaborator Charles Schneer, and the studios understood that I, and only I, could see the projects through to their conclusion successfully. I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”

One of the most obvious differences between Harryhuasen’s time and today is the cost of special effects. Even though the costs of stop motion can add up because of the time it takes, Harryhausen’s FX budgets were nothing compared to today’s animated hits. Frankenweenie cost a reported $39 million, and ParaNorman cost a whopping $60 million. (It’s also remarkable to think it took two FX companies on opposite sides of the globe, Tippett Studios in San Francisco, and Illura in Australia, to bring the teddy bear Ted to life.)

Even with today’s technological FX advantages, many in the field today acknowledged that without the innovations of Harryhausen they wouldn’t be here today. As Scott Ross, the former CEO of Digital Domain, told the Hollywood Reporter, “In many ways Ray Harryhausen was the icon of an era where visual effects were done practically, painstakingly and perfectly. Before ones and zeroes, before motion control, before $100 million budgets there was Harryhausen.”

And as Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, said, “Today, it takes an army of CG artists to impress a movie audience in the same way but they’ll never match the humanity and soul Ray put into his work.”

As Harryhausen himself said several years before he passed on, “I’m very proud and happy that my work has had such a profound influence on such important filmmakers as Spielberg, Lucas and Jackson, not to mention the dozens of special effects and makeup artists who have told me that I was their inspiration. It’s very gratifying to know that one’s efforts have been appreciated. Most of all, of course, it was great fun.”