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Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) was a prime exponent in the art of stop-motion animation, developing techniques that are still revered by today’s stop-motion and CGI animators.  He perfected the jointed or “armatured” models that were filmed one frame at a time to simulate movement, and combined this animation with live action.

Ray was born in Los Angeles, and was lucky enough to have parents who supported him in the pursuit of his unusual career choice. His father often helped him by making props and equipment including fly saucers.

Harryhausen Jnr had a life-long passion for fantasy and dinosaurs, and he was able to bring his creatures to life in a way that no one else could. It’s said that animators are shy actors, and use their characters to live out their fantasies. Certainly they are a breed apart, with infinite patience, extraordinary craft skills, and an ability to maintain their focus on tiny details.

Ray’s interest in animation began aged five when he was “stunned and haunted” by a film adaptation of Conan Doyle’s book The Lost World (1925). Watch the trailer here.

In this early silent film, dinosaurs were animated alongside live action by Willis O’Brien, who went on to animate ground-breaking adventure feature King Kong in 1933, another important film that inspired the 13-year old Ray.

He went home and started making his own marionettes, models and animated short films, eventually setting up a mini studio in his father’s garage using a Kodak Cine II with a single-frame shaft. He also met up with two people who became life-long collaborators – animator Forest J Ackerman “Forry”, and the novelist/scriptwriter Ray Bradbury.

When he was 18, he plucked up the courage and took his models and films to show Willis O’Brien. It was on the set of O’Brien’s latest film War Eagles, and entering the production office, Ray was amazed to see breath-taking paintings and drawings for the project plastering the walls. He’d never planned his films in this way, but always did thereafter.

O’Brien took the time to look at Ray’s materials, and suggested that they needed more character. He recommended that Ray should study art and anatomy so that the movements looked more realistic.  So Ray took evening classes in art and anatomy at the Los Angeles City College, followed by further courses on art direction, editing and photography at the University of Southern California.

king kong

This helped him learn how to move his models, how to give them life through character or personality. It also helped him to get his first job on an animated series called Puppetoons which used wooden models to create European folk stories. But they didn’t allow for much creativity and Ray soon moved on.

Ray spent World War 2 in the Army but still made films and 3D models of strategic objectives (he also became a notable sniper).  Returning to the film industry, his big break/dream job came when he animated 90% of Mighty Joe Young (1949) working alongside O’Brien.  It won the Special Effects Academy Award, and cost an incredible $2.2m. Nick Park claims Gromit’s expressive eye brows are inspired by this big monkey.

Suddenly Ray was in demand, and he was moved on to a series of films inspired by his favourite fantasy and sci-fi authors including Jules Verne and H G Wells as well as ancient Greek myths and Arabian tales.

The War of the Worlds (1949-50)

The Fairy Tales (1950-2002)

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1952)

It came from Beneath the Waves (1955) notable for its giant Octopus that attacks San Francisco and brings down the Golden Gate Bridge

The Animal World (1956)

Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) was his first colour film and this added to the technical complexities.  During this film, he developed his particular animation style “Dynamation” which used a split-screen technique to avoid the more expensive system of inserting miniatures or glass paintings or mattes when combining stop-motion with live action.


The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1959)

Mysterious Island (1960)

Jason & the Argonauts (1963) which is famous for its fighting skeletons and Telos, the bronze statue who comes to life. The skeleton sequence lasts just 4.37 minutes but took 184,000 movements. It became a pivotal film for a very young Nick Park.

First Men in the Moon (1964)

One Million Years BC (1966) for Hammer Films in the UK, featuring various dinosaurs and pre-historic humans including Raquel Welch.

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

The Clash of the Titans (1981) which included Maggie Smith, Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom as Greek gods, and featured Ray’s creations Kraken a sea monster, Pegasus and his favourite of all his creatures: the snake-haired Medusa.

This was his last major feature film although there were many that were developed and never realised, and he frequently consulted on films in retirement. The main problem with Ray’s films was that whilst his animated creatures were ground-breaking and have since gained cult status, the scripts and actors weren’t that great.

His contribution to the art of stop-motion animation was recognised with a special Academy Award in 1992, a special BAFTA in 2010 and a lifetime achievement award from the Visual Effects Society in 2011.

His work inspired many including Stephen Spielberg’s production of Jurassic Park. Nick Park said in a tribute published in The Guardian that Ray’s work was “way out of his league in terms of realism and naturalism, in terms of animal movement.”

Ray also influenced Tim Burton’s Nightmare before Christmas (1993), and he was delighted to be invited to the set of the more recent Corpse Bride in 2012 at the age of 92.

Additional info:

http://www.rayharryhausen.com/  The official site

http://www.harryhausen.com/ A tribute site

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9kmjW73-v4 The creature showreel

Books by Ray and Tony Harryhausen “An Animated Life”, “The Art of Ray Harryhausen”, “A century of model animation” and “Ray Harryhausen’s Fantasy Scrapbook”.

6 Responses to “Ray Harryhausen: The Father of Stop-Motion Animation”
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