On the occasion of his 90th birthday, we revisit this profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.
“When King Kong fell from the Empire State,” Ray Bradbury recalled in Ronald V. Borst’s Graven Images, “he killed two kids with one slam, me and my pal Ray Harryhausen. Kong changed our lives, only for the good, forever. Because of its fabulous monsters razoring the air with their electric cries, I stayed in touch with ancient beasts and wound up writing the screenplay of Moby Dick  for John Huston. Harryhausen got work with Willis O’Brien, Kong’s animator, on Mighty Joe Young .” Fittingly, Harryhausen’s first solo effort, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), was based on Bradbury’s story (aka “The Fog Horn”).
Born on June 29, 1920, in Los Angeles, Harryhausen supplemented his lifelong interest in dinosaurs and gorillas by studying sculpture and anatomy in high school and night film classes at USC. His first attempts at stop-motion animation, in which a detailed armature is moved incrementally and photographed frame by frame, then composited with live-action footage, were made in his garage. After working on George Pal’s Puppetoon shorts, Harryhausen joined the armed forces in the Signal Corps unit as an assistant cameraman and, on his own, produced the animated short How to Bridge a Gorge.
This was shown to Frank Capra, who had him transferred to his Special Service Division, where Harryhausen worked in various capacities. After the war, he was contacted by his idol, O’Brien (who had told him to study more anatomy when they met in 1939), and ended up doing most of the animation on Mighty Joe Young as his assistant. Retired since the original Clash of the Titans (1981), he is still recognized as the master of the technique, more recently used in Corpse Bride and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (both 2005).
Harryhausen is perhaps the only effects technician whose name commands greater recognition than those of his directors, including Eugène Lourié, Fred F. Sears, Nathan Juran, Don Chaffey, and Gordon Hessler. In an interview for Filmfax, he told this writer, “these type of pictures that we made were not director’s pictures, as they call them in the European sense of the word. The director sometimes comes in after the picture is all laid out and even started in production.”
A twenty-five-year collaboration with producer Charles H. Schneer and Columbia Pictures began with Robert Gordon’s It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), in which budget constraints forced him to animate a six-tentacled octopus attacking the Golden Gate Bridge. “We both had an intense interest in filmmaking, and Charles loved fantasy,” Harryhausen recalled. “We worked well together, although we had many opposing ideas.”
Harryhausen assisted O’Brien on the dinosaur sequences of Irwin Allen’s documentary The Animal World (1956)—which, like Lourié’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, was released by Warner Brothers—and animated machines rather than fauna for Sears that same year. “The challenge on Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, of course, was to see if you could make a mechanical-looking object have some sort of interest to the public for an hour and a half,” he said.
Creations like the Ymir, the alien in Juran’s Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), had more personality than rubber-suited monsters or computer-generated effects. “I don’t sit down and analyze it. I try to give it as much character as I can, little nuances and little gestures,” he said, noting that the gorilla in Mighty Joe Young “had an enormous amount of character, and that rubbed off a bit on the Ymir, too, I think, because he was a humanoid figure.”
Dynamation, Harryhausen’s technique of combining live action and animated figures without elaborate miniature sets and elaborate glass paintings, debuted in color in Juran’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958). It was the first of four consecutive films scored by Bernard Herrmann, who “seemed to fit our type of film so beautifully,” said Harryhausen. “Miklos Rozsa [who scored The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)] writes a different type of music. His is more romantic in style, and for certain subjects his would be much more preferable.”
Jack Sher’s The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Cy Endfield’s Mysterious Island (1961), from the novel by Jules Verne, both grew out of existing scripts, with Dynamation written in. Gulliver added only an animated alligator and squirrel, but Mysterious Island was extensively reworked to incorporate animated creatures.
Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963) is Harryhausen’s personal favorite, and the climactic battle with an army of skeletons—brilliantly scored with castanets by Herrmann—took four and a half months to animate. “There are bits and pieces in each film that you sort of fall in love with, or you wouldn’t make the film,” he said. “But I think Jason was the most overall complete film, although there are many scenes I would love to do over.”
It was back to classic SF literature with Juran’s First Men in the Moon (1964), adapted from H.G. Wells’s novel by Nigel Kneale and Jan Read (who co-wrote Jason with Beverley Cross). “We adhered very closely to H.G. Wells’s description of the space sphere, and we tried to stick to Wells as close as possible,” Harryhausen recalled. “I shuddered when I had to use children in Selenite suits—which I once vowed I would never do—but being practical I was forced to, otherwise I might still be animating the many lunarians up to the present day!”
Harryhausen worked with screenwriters “very closely, because they had no idea of what you could and could not do with Dynamation. I would make many sketches. For example, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad started out with eight big sketches and a twenty-page outline I made of how to put the thing together, and I took it around Hollywood, and nobody was interested. I even took it to Edward Small, who later saw the success of Seventh Voyage, and then he latched onto Jack the Giant Killer ,” which reassembled many Sinbad alumni, but not Harryhausen.
Reunited with Chaffey at England’s Hammer Films, Harryhausen remade One Million B.C. (1940) with stop-motion as One Million Years B.C. (1966), which combined live-action and effects footage spectacularly, also showcasing Raquel Welch in a fur bikini. “They wanted to remake King Kong, but King Kong was such a classic I hesitated to get involved with that. But One Million I felt we could do so much better than crocodiles with rubber fins glued on their backs. So I jumped at the chance,” Harryhausen recalled.
James O’Connolly’s The Valley of Gwangi (1969) was a project O’Brien had been forced to abandon. “I remembered Obie had given me a script of it way back in the ‘40s, which I had in my garage. I dug it out, and we thought we could finally put it on the screen…Unfortunately, Warner Brothers was purchased by a different company by the time we finished the film, and of course the new companies never care for what the old companies did. So they just dumped it on the market with no publicity,” Harryhausen said.
The Sinbad trilogy concluded with Hessler’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sam Wanamaker’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), which Harryhausen co-wrote with Brian Clemens and Cross, respectively; John Phillip Law and Patrick Wayne were the new Sinbads. “Kerwin [Mathews] naturally had aged a bit…but that wasn’t the main reason,” he noted. “We tried to have different approaches. Seventh Voyage had a very garish, storybook quality to it, a stylized type of film, where Golden Voyage had a different approach. We tried to keep the colors very subdued and we tried to make it more realistic, in a sense, than a stylized version such as Seventh Voyage, and then Eye of the Tiger was different again.”
Harryhausen always directed the effects sequences himself. “One has to guide the actors where to look and how to feel,” he noted, but Sinbad’s battle with the six-armed goddess Kali in Golden Voyage presented a unique challenge. “We had to have six arms, so that we could rehearse with the actors. So we strapped three stuntmen together, one behind the other, with a great big belt, which was rather grotesque looking on the set, but…that gave the position that the actors would have to know in order to have their swords in the right place at the right time.”
Cross and Harryhausen returned to Greek mythology with Clash of the Titans. “I had Jim Danforth and Steven Archer help finish the picture, because we had some technical problems that caused us to go way behind schedule.” Of his retirement, Harryhausen observes, “I wanted to get out of being in a dark room for a year after everybody else has gone home and made two or three other pictures…And then the front office seemed to think that you had to have an explosion every five minutes, and you just can’t develop mythology or Arabic things in that way…”
In 1992, Harryhausen received the Gordon E. Sawyer Academy Award for recognition of his technical contributions to the motion picture industry, and New York City’s Museum of Modern Art honored his contributions to fantasy and motion pictures with a 1981 exhibition of his work. He has also seen the palpable effects of his efforts on such fans and future filmmakers as Danforth, John Landis, Dave Allen, and Rick Baker, whose careers he has helped to inspire.